Gabriel was born enslaved in 1776 — a year synonymous with freedom — on a plantation north of Richmond owned by Thomas Prosser. (Gabriel is sometimes referred to using “Prosser” as his surname, but historians say this is inaccurate.) The identity of his parents is lost to history, but he was known to have two older brothers.
The plantation he grew up on was “typical” of the day, according to historian Douglas R. Egerton in the book “Gabriel’s Rebellion,” but his upbringing was anything but. Only about 5 percent of enslaved people at that time could read. Gabriel was one of them. Most plantation slaves were unskilled laborers. Gabriel was taught to be a blacksmith. This probably meant he was able to dress better than other enslaved people.
Newspaper accounts later described him as “six feet two or three inches high” with a “bony face, well made” and “two or three scars on his head.” He was “a fellow of courage and intellect above his rank in life.”
In 1798, Prosser died, leaving the plantation and its inhabitants to a son the same age as Gabriel. In a letter, a friend of Thomas Jefferson’s wrote to say the younger Prosser “behaved with great barbarity to his slaves.”
By this time, tobacco was drying up as a cash crop. Some plantation owners found themselves with more enslaved labor than they needed, so they would “lease out” some of them for extra income. Gabriel was among them and spent several days each month working in downtown Richmond, where he was allowed to keep a small share of his wages.
“Though no less a slave in the eyes of the law, Gabriel therefore enjoyed a rough form of freedom,” Egerton wrote. “Indeed, his ties to his owner became so tenuous that numerous historians have identified him as a free man.”
In Richmond, he worked alongside working-class white and free black artisans, plus other leased slaves with some degree of autonomy. He was exposed to rhetoric and news of liberty — not only of Jefferson’s dictum that “all men are created equal” but also of the successful slave revolt in Saint-Domingue — what is now Haiti.
In September 1799, Gabriel stole a pig from a plantation owner — a relatively common act among poorly fed enslaved people, Egerton wrote. He was caught by a white overseer, and a struggle ensued, during which Gabriel bit off part of the man’s ear.
The sentence for the crime of a slave attacking a white man was death, but perhaps because of his value to Prosser, he was let off with a brand burned into his hand, a bond paid by his owner and a promise that Gabriel would behave.
Spoiler alert: He didn’t.
The next spring, Gabriel began to plot and enlist co-conspirators.
This was the plan: On the night of Saturday, Aug. 30, 1800, he and his fellow rebels would take up arms and kill Prosser first. Then they would kill the man who got Gabriel branded. The army of rebels would grow as they moved toward Richmond. Gabriel guessed it could be 1,000 strong by the time they arrived.
Once there, they would break up into columns, move through the city, burning bridges, raiding the treasury and taking the governor hostage — at the time, that was future president James Monroe — until they could convince him that all the enslaved people in Virginia should be set free.
If that last part sounds far-fetched, it’s important to understand the political environment of the day. Growing tensions between the first two U.S. political parties — the Federalists and the Democratic-Republicans — led many to worry this young country was headed toward civil war.
And there was a presidential election coming in the fall of 1800. Would Democratic-Republican candidate Thomas Jefferson unseat Federalist incumbent John Adams? If so, would Adams accept the loss and step down?
No one knew, but Gabriel surmised he could use this split among white elites to his advantage. He had come to see merchants, who were mostly Federalists and cheated leased slaves with impunity, as his primary enemy. He thought that if enslaved people rebelled, they would be joined by freed blacks, working-class whites, abolitionists, Quakers and Methodists.
Plus, Federalists were spreading rumors that if Jefferson won, he was going to liberate all enslaved people. Gabriel may have believed that.
Although Jefferson owned slaves throughout his life, his views on the institution underwent several evolutions. In 1783, he submitted a bill to Congress that would free all slaves by 1800, which the Library of Congress marks as the “high point” of his opposition to it. But Jefferson freed only a handful of people upon his death in 1826. The rest, at least 130 people, were sold to pay debts.
Throughout the summer, Gabriel recruited his army until it spread across 11 Virginia counties. They met in slave cabins, blacksmith shops, at a bridge where enslaved people gathered on their day off. They gathered muskets, powder, knives and split harvesting scythes into weapons resembling machetes.
“Most of his contemporaries, white as well as black, believed that his plan stood a good chance of succeeding. Had it done so, it might have changed not only the course of American race relations but also the course of American political history,” Egerton wrote.
But on the day of the revolt, disaster struck. A large summer thunderstorm moved in and drenched the region. A prisoner later said it was the worst he had ever witnessed in the state. It took out bridges, cut off communication and made it impossible for the revolt to begin. Gabriel tried to get word out that they would postpone until the following night.
In the meantime, he was betrayed. Two enslaved men at a neighboring plantation lost their nerve and confessed to the owner.
The storm had cleared by the next morning, and roving white patrols picked up and detained dozens of conspirators. By the time they came for Gabriel, he was gone.
Over the next few weeks, at least 10 conspirators were tried and hanged, including Gabriel’s two older brothers. In the end, 26 were sentenced to death.
Gov. Monroe wrote to Jefferson that dozens more could meet the “hand of the Executioner.” On Sept. 22, 1800, Jefferson responded, advising that “there is strong sentiment that there has been hanging enough.”
The next day, Gabriel was again betrayed by another slave, who told authorities that the man they wanted was on a ship on the James River. Gabriel was arrested in Norfolk — just across the water from where Africans were first enslaved by English colonists 181 years earlier at what is now Fort Monroe.
Gabriel was hanged on Oct. 10, 1800, at the age of 24. Recent scholarship disputes the exact location of his execution, but it is likely he was buried in a slave cemetery at 15th and Broad streets in Richmond, said Ryan K. Smith of Virginia Commonwealth University.
The site of the burial ground later became a white school, then a jail, and then part of it was destroyed by the construction of Interstate 95, according to the Richmond Cemeteries website that Smith maintains. What remains is the African Burial Ground, which is marked with a few plaques and makeshift altars.
A community of activists are rallying for an expansive memorial park that would include the burial ground and other slave sites nearby, Smith said. It’s unclear what the city will ultimately decide, but every year for the past five or six years, local activists have met there on Aug. 30 to remember Gabriel and what he tried to do.
Correction: A previous version of this story misstated the year of Thomas Jefferson's death. It was 1826.