Two photographs of Richmond in the Feb. 6 Style section were incorrectly credited. The photographer was Jay Paul. (Published 02/16/2000)
The place where he was born was parceled long ago into a suburban patchwork. The spot where he died has been obliterated, turned into a parking lot off the downtown Interstate 95 exit ramp.
This native insurrectionist who dared attempt a revolt for freedom has not acquired the monumental legacy that Richmond has bestowed on other men of action who embraced a lost cause. His story is often overlooked because he was a slave who threatened the ruling class of the young American republic.
He was both a master and victim of timing: Of all the scattered slave rebellions in the United States, his most directly confronted the Founders with the chasm between the ideal of liberty and their messy accommodations to slavery. But because of the vagaries of weather on a sultry summer weekend in Richmond 200 years ago, his plan collapsed.
Now, some of his clearest traces are found in carefully labeled and numbered cardboard boxes at the sleekly modern Library of Virginia, across from Richmond's Capitol Square on Broad Street. Inside the boxes are fragile pieces of paper filled with writing in the formal cursive hand of a court clerk, the black ink faded to the color of tea. In recent years, scholars repeatedly have combed through these records and newspapers of the era to resurrect this would-be revolutionary.
His name was Gabriel, and like the biblical archangel, he bore a powerful message.
A Natural Leader
It was 1776, the year of Revolution, when two male babies were born on Brookfield Plantation, about six miles north of Richmond. One was white and lived in a large, two-story frame house that overlooked one of Henrico County's biggest tobacco plantations. The other baby was black and grew up amid a cluster of rough-hewn cabins among the plantation's barns and woodsheds.
As children, the two boys likely would have been playmates, though one was destined to become master, the other slave.
Thomas Henry Prosser was groomed for prominence. At the age of 22, after his father's death, Thomas Henry became master of Brookfield. It was rumored among whites that Prosser was a barbarous master, forcing his slaves to work long hours in the fields or wielding the whip too often. Still, Prosser possessed a high social standing, marrying into a wealthy mercantile family when he was 25.
Gabriel was trained early to become a valuable property. As an artisan skilled in smithing and carpentry, he stood at the apex of the slave hierarchy. Someone at Brookfield taught him to read and write, endowing him with literacy skills that only 5 percent of Revolutionary-era slaves possessed. Gabriel was allowed to hire himself out under an illegal but popular practice that rewarded his owner with a percentage of his wages and left a few coins in Gabriel's pocket as well, gaining him precisely the sense of self-sufficiency that Virginia elites had feared.
No likeness of Gabriel has survived, but contemporary newspapers described him as an arresting and physically imposing young man. His years at the forge made him muscular, and he stood about 6 feet 3 inches tall, with a "long and bony face, well made," and dark, knotty hair cut short. He was missing his two front teeth and his head bore several scars, according to descriptions of him in circulars seeking his capture.
A writer in the Richmond Virginia Argus said he looked to be "a fellow of courage and intellect above his rank in life." He also was an angry young man. In 1799, when he was 23, Gabriel and two other slaves were caught stealing a hog from a farm rented by a newly arrived white man. Gabriel struggled with the man, a former slave overseer named Absalom Johnson, and bit off a sizable chunk of Johnson's ear. It was almost unheard of for a slave to attack a white man, and the incident showed Gabriel's impulse to "to consciously challenge the system of slave control," wrote Richmond history professor and slave law expert Philip J. Schwarz.
Though the law imposed death for such offenses, Gabriel was treated leniently, according to Schwarz's review of the case. The five white justices who tried and convicted Gabriel recognized his high economic worth. The record is unclear as to whether they branded him on the hand--a common alternate punishment--but he was released from jail after his owner posted a $1,000 bond promising Gabriel's good behavior for a year.
The promise was broken dramatically, and within a year, Gabriel was back in the courtroom, the central character in one of the country's most extensive slave conspiracies.
"He was physically big, he was literate, he's a fighter, he's a skilled artisan," said historian Douglas R. Egerton, whose 1993 book, "Gabriel's Rebellion," retells the dramatic narrative. "For all these reasons, he was a natural leader."
On a Sunday in July 1800, Gabriel approached a group of black men, most of them slave field hands, who were gathered at a bridge over a brook north of Richmond. At this popular spot, slaves congregated on their day off from labor to hear outdoor preaching, hold barbecues, fish, gamble and drink. It was a casual outing that would be recounted months later in compelling detail to attentive white justices.
Gabriel turned the slave gathering to serious business, revealing a scheme he had pursued since the spring. He had a plan for their liberty, he told the slaves, and he asked those who would join him to stand.
Gabriel's recruiters moved among the enlistees, helping them make their marks on a sheet of paper. Gabriel's plan already extended far beyond this spot into 11 Virginia counties, reaching far north of Richmond, south to Norfolk and west to Charlottesville. Estimates by those in Gabriel's inner circle put the conspiracy's strength at several hundred slaves. His plan was violent and audacious, a vengeful grab for freedom.
"It is unquestionably the most serious and formidable conspiracy we have ever known of the kind," Gov. James Monroe wrote soon after the arrests to Thomas Jefferson, his mentor and the nation's vice president at the time.
The white elite had long feared that blacks would embrace the message of the Revolution. In this era, "Americans talked incessantly about liberty and natural rights," Egerton said. "You couldn't escape this kind of talk."
Gabriel and his cohorts knew that the slaves on the Caribbean island of St. Domingue, now Haiti, had overthrown their French masters in the 1790s. The uprising was widely reported with horrified fascination in America, and many French planters fled the island with their slaves to resettle in Virginia. Gabriel and his recruiters also paid attention to the pervasive, hyperbolic political debates between the Federalist bankers and merchants and Jefferson's agrarian Republicans that were played out even in Richmond's working-class taverns.
Richmond, which had grown from tiny tobacco village to state capital and trade center for expanding western settlement, had a population of 5,700 in 1800, 40 percent of which consisted of slaves. Slaves provided the muscle behind the town's building boom and helped shape a new urban culture that had slaves and free blacks working alongside poor whites.
Skilled slaves who frequented Richmond came to identify with this new working class in a way that drew the gentry's ire. During the 1790s, wrote historian James Sidbury, grand juries repeatedly complained to the courts and constables that some Richmond businesses permitted "disorderly Company of all complexions" to come together "fiddling, dancing, cursing, swearing, quarrelling and fighting both night and day."
State politics on slavery also were in disarray. Virginia was the bastion of American slavery, then home to 35 percent of the total slave population, but pangs of guilt among some gentry had resulted in eased restrictions against freeing slaves and lax enforcement of laws designed to keep slaves on plantations. There even were calls for gradual abolition.
These social crosscurrents could move an illiterate ditch-digger like Jack Bowler, one of Gabriel's key recruits and who, at 6 feet 5 inches, was reputed to be the strongest man in the state.
"We have as much right to fight for our liberty as any men," Bowler told another slave, who later testified against Bowler at his trial.
Plowshares Into Swords
As the old hierarchy eroded at the edges, Gabriel wanted to overturn it. If the small liberties he was granted whetted his appetite for more, the hog-stealing episode in 1799 and his imprisonment were likely harsh reminders of his status and an impetus for rebellion.
Gabriel's plan, as it matured in the spring and summer of 1800, called for slaves from several surrounding counties to gather late one night at the brook bridge near Prosser's plantation. They would walk to Richmond four miles south and split into three groups. One would set fire to the riverfront warehouse district known as Rockett's and hold the city's lone bridge over the James. While whites were drawn out of their homes to battle the blazes, two other groups of slaves, armed with cutlasses, clubs and whatever weapons they could find, would seize control of the state penitentiary and Capitol Square, raid the state's store of arms there and kidnap the governor.
Meanwhile, coordinated slave uprisings were to occur in Petersburg and Norfolk.
At first, Gabriel and his confidants spread word of the euphemistically termed "business" among other skilled male slaves who could travel. They bought their listeners drinks, appealed to their masculinity and employed the natural-rights rhetoric of the day.
"Here are our hands and hearts," two early recruits promised Gabriel and his men, little knowing that those words later would be recited to seal their fate at trial. "We will wade to our knees in blood sooner than fail in the attempt."
Gabriel planned to buy a piece of silk for a flag on which he would write "Death or Liberty," a menacing version of Patrick Henry's famous declaration. Demonstrating an appreciation for the class-conscious politics of his day, Gabriel told his recruits that some--anti-slavery Quakers, Methodists, French nationals, poor whites--would be spared. He believed that some would join his fight.
He also wanted revenge against the whites who had a personal hand in his oppression; he said the first to die would be his master, Prosser, and Johnson, the farmer whom he had fought. Gabriel allowed himself to fantasize about success, telling his recruits, "If the white people agreed to their freedom, they would then hoist a white flag, and [Gabriel] would dine and drink with the merchants of the city."
Though modern hindsight makes this scenario appear foolhardy, Egerton pointed out that Gabriel's time presented him with a different view.
"This is the Revolutionary generation," Egerton said. "Both white and black have been taught that how you solve conflict is to pick up a gun."
Through the summer, Gabriel and his inner circle made numerous trips to Richmond, taking their message to dock workers, patrons of back-alley taverns and the boatmen who poled flat-bottomed bateaux around the James's rocky falls. Another task that Gabriel and his men pursued was to coax the keys to the Capitol from the doorkeeper, an old man of mixed parentage who remained noncommittal as to whether he would aid their fight.
Meanwhile, at Brookfield Plantation, field slaves brought their wheat-harvesting scythes to the Prosser blacksmith shop, where Gabriel and his older brother Solomon cut the long, curved blades in half and sharpened and fitted each piece with a handle to produce short, heavy swords.
Then, on Sunday, Aug. 10, a funeral for a slave child pushed the conspiracy forward. After services, Gabriel invited the gathering down to a nearby spring, where he and his men promoted the uprising. Fellow recruit Jack Bowler challenged Gabriel's leadership, asking the men for their vote as general. But, as one slave later testified at Bowler's trial, "upon the votes being taken, Gabriel had by far the greater number."
Talk turned to a date for the uprising as the slaves compared their plight to that of the captive Israelites of the Old Testament. Gabriel's other older brother, Martin, invoked Scripture to bolster the slaves: "I read in my Bible," he said, his sermonizing later recounted to white officials, "where God says, if we will worship him . . . five of you shall conquer a hundred and a hundred, a thousand of our enemies."
Saturday, Aug. 30, was selected since white patrols were scarce and the weather was still warm. Recruiters were dispatched throughout the region to spread the word, and the scythe swords were distributed for "the business" to begin.
Thwarted by Storms
On the evening of Aug. 30, James Thomson Callender, a controversial political writer and scandalmonger, looked out the window of his Richmond jail cell, where he was serving time for violating a sedition law with a published diatribe against President John Adams and the Federalist Party.
"There came on the most terrible thunder, accompanied with an enormous rain, that I ever witnessed in this state," he wrote later.
This was not the lightning strike Gabriel had planned. But more than the weather was conspiring against his rebellion. That day, two slaves at Meadow Farm, near Prosser's Brookfield Plantation, told their master what they'd been hearing of the insurrection, apparently out of fear of what would happen if whites and blacks clashed. The planter raced out into the storm to alert white neighbors to patrol the countryside on horseback.
The riders found nothing except violent weather, with bridges and roads washed out by torrential rains. Gabriel, deterred by the weather, postponed his attack and sent word to his followers to meet the next night on Prosser's property.
They would never get the chance. After receiving repeated reports from alarmed whites outside Richmond, Gov. Monroe abandoned his initial skepticism that slaves would take up arms and began alerting units of the state militia to protect Richmond and the main state arsenal upstream on the James River. Meanwhile, white patrols began rounding up suspected conspirators.
As word of the rebellion's failure spread through the black community, Gabriel and the strapping ditch-digger Bowler were nowhere to be found.
Even as he tried to uncover the scope of the conspiracy in the following days, Monroe "staged a theater of public power" that included parades of militia units in Richmond's public squares, recounted Sidbury in his 1997 book, "Ploughshares Into Swords."
Monroe told the General Assembly months later that his show of force "inspired the Citizens with confidence" and "depressed the spirits of the slaves."
By Sept. 9, about 30 slaves were imprisoned in Henrico County. Two magistrates interviewed one of Gabriel's first recruits, an 18-year-old named Ben from Brookfield Plantation, and promised he could save himself if he testified for the state. After Ben's confession, one magistrate wrote Monroe, "We do not hesitate to say that Gabriel was clearly proved to be the mainspring and chief mover." The governor promptly offered $300 rewards for the capture of Gabriel and Bowler.
The first six slaves were tried Sept. 11 on charges of conspiracy and insurrection, then executed the following day on the Richmond gallows. On Sept. 15, Monroe wrote to Jefferson that 10 slaves, including Gabriel's two older brothers, had been hanged. Dozens were awaiting trial, he said, and more were being arrested. Another of Gabriel's top men, Ben Woolfolk of Caroline County, had agreed to testify for the state in exchange for his life.
As the details emerged--the large number of recruits, the manufacture and stockpiling of weapons, the elaborate plan of attack--whites discovered that their worst nightmare had been playing out beneath their noses. (In a report to Virginia lawmakers in December 1800, Monroe would acknowledge the breadth of Gabriel's conspiracy but insist that white military superiority would have stopped slaves from "sustaining themselves for [more than] a moment in rebellion.")
But while some responded with horror, other whites reacted with an uncomfortable awareness of their own hypocrisy. The testimony drew a vivid picture of a harshly oppressed people rising against tyranny in the name of freedom, spurred by sentiments identical to those of the American Revolution.
This was not lost on Monroe, whose ambivalence about the prospect of mass hangings is keenly apparent in this terse inquiry sent to Jefferson: "When to arrest the hand of the Executioner is a question of great importance."
Jefferson responded: "There is a strong sentiment that there has been hanging enough. The other states and the world at large will forever condemn us if we indulge a principle of revenge."
Jefferson, engaged in a vitriolic presidential campaign, had to deflect Federalist tirades against his liberalism, like that printed in the Oct. 23 Boston Gazette: "If Mr. Jefferson . . . so great an advocate for liberty and equality, be elected president, it is probable that the unhappy negroes may again be deluded . . . to make a general rising."
Back in Chains
Gabriel escaped capture for nearly a month. But even while in hiding, he was not entirely silent. On Sept. 20, one of his recruiters composed a note, later recovered by white officials, that seemed to promise a communique. It read in part, "i is afraide so all you in gloster [County] must keep still yet brother X will come and prech a sermont to you soon, and then you may no more about the bissiness."
Three days later, the schooner Mary sailed down the mouth of the James River and tied up at the Norfolk wharves. A black crewman disembarked and told white officials that the schooner's captain, a white man and anti-slavery convert to Methodism, had taken a large black man on board his ship nine days earlier. The sheriff and constable raced for the ship, where Gabriel was found below deck and was arrested.
He was sent back upriver to Richmond on Sept. 24, in chains and under guard.
'A Lost Opportunity'
Far from demonizing him, as the curtain dropped on his misadventure, some whites acknowledged Gabriel's appeal. During his arrest, he "manifested the greatest of firmness of composure, shewing not the least disposition to equivocate or screan himself from justice," reported the Norfolk Herald. "This slave was brought to my house yesterday about 4 o'clock in the afternoon," Monroe wrote in a letter to his executive council on Sept. 28. There was "a great crowd of blacks as well as whites, gathering round him."
Gabriel was held in isolation under heavy guard until his trial on Oct. 6. Though he said during his arrest that he would confess to no one but Monroe, there is no record that the two men ever talked.
Both of Gabriel's recruits-turned-state's-witnesses, Ben from Brookfield and Ben Woolfolk from Caroline County, testified against their former leader at his trial. After the justices unanimously found him guilty and sentenced him to hanging, Gabriel asked that his execution be delayed three days so he might hang on the same morning as several of his co-conspirators. His request was granted.
Two days after Gabriel's trial, Bowler, the other fugitive, left the home of a free black where he had been hiding, and turned himself in to Richmond authorities. His delay may have saved his life: By the time he faced trial, the appetite for hanging had been exhausted, and Bowler was ordered shipped out of state, presumably to be sold somewhere in the expanding slave territories along the Mississippi. No record of his fate remains.
On Oct. 10, a cart carried Gabriel to the gallows at 15th and Broad, then a low spot in the center of Richmond surrounded by pines and shrubby undergrowth. He stood alone on the wooden scaffold while his comrades were carried to trees outside of town and hanged. Gabriel was the last to die.
The conspiracy's toll: approximately 70 men tried, 44 convicted and 26 of those hanged, with the rest pardoned or transported out of state. Reverberations from the conspiracy continued for years in both the black and white communities, with sporadic insurrection scares and futile schemes by white leaders to resettle blacks outside the United States.
Scholars continue to debate whether Southern history would be vastly different if it hadn't stormed on that summer night 200 years ago and Gabriel had spilled blood for freedom. Some argue that the white monopoly on power was too strong to be shaken loose by a slave uprising, but Egerton called the episode "a lost opportunity."
Yes, it's likely that if the insurrection had occurred, Gabriel and his friends would have died, along with many whites, Egerton said. But such a bloody toll may have fueled a greater push to eliminate slavery in Virginia.
"Our history is not a long, steady march to progress," said Egerton, who has just published a new book on an 1822 slave rebellion led by Denmark Vesey. "Sometimes it's one step forward and two steps back."
Gabriel became a myth, embodied in antebellum folk tunes sung by blacks about the "Nigger Gin'ral,/ Who almost ruined old Virginny!" Later in the 19th century, abolitionists revived his tale to promote their cause.
In recent years, Gabriel's exploits have acquired a higher profile in Henrico County. County parks officials dedicated a small park and erected two historical markers near the sites where slaves gathered at the Brook Bridge and where Gabriel was chosen leader of the insurrection. Exhibits at Meadow Farm, a former plantation and a county park since 1981, also discuss the insurrection.
Gabriel's rebellion still stirs passions. When the county's Gabriel exhibits were erected in 1997-98, Henrico parks curator Kim Sicola recalled that briefly there were people angry that "this person was planning murder and he was being deified."
Egerton, who was invited to speak at the monument dedication, saw a different side of it: After his speech, a very elderly black man approached him and said he was a Henrico County native who had taught high school during the days of segregation. He said two of his students were known to be Gabriel's descendants. Egerton didn't get the man's name, doesn't know the high school, but he said this about the occasion: "In Richmond's black community, Gabriel was always known and remembered."
The Library of Virginia (800 E. Broad St. in Richmond) is exhibiting in its main-floor lobby a selection of rare manuscripts from Gabriel's Conspiracy. The exhibit is open from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday through Saturday. The library's Web address is www.lva.lib.va.us.