Failed rebellion had wide-reaching effect
By Patty Kruszewski, Citizen Managing Editor 08/11/11
Tucked into the woods just off Lakeside Avenue, a tiny award-winning park is a popular draw for strollers, picnickers, history buffs and neighbors seeking a shady respite near a tumbling brook.
Although the mineral spring that gave the park its name dried up long ago, visitors to Spring Park can still view the site of a 19th-century granite spring house and walk in the footsteps of Samuel Williamson, who owned the 400-acre tract in 1796.
Other than an informational marker beside the parking lot, however, there's little sign that a violent slave uprising was plotted near this peaceful park more than 200 years ago.
Compared to the more famous Nat Turner Rebellion in Southampton County, Gabriel's Rebellion gets barely a nod in the history books. But 31 years before the Southampton event, a slave known as Prosser's Gabriel (commonly but incorrectly called Gabriel Prosser) masterminded the most extensive U.S. slave revolt ever planned – a revolt that would have brought to Richmond 1,000 or more slaves from as far away as Petersburg, Norfolk, North Carolina and at least 10 other localities.
Although the rebellion was quelled before it began, the event plotted at Young's Spring (now Spring Park) had a far-reaching impact, and two centuries later Gabriel is viewed as an icon of the Civil Rights struggle for African Americans and other freedom fighters.
For this reason, Gabriel's Rebellion ranks No. 10 on the Henrico Citizen's list of the most significant events in Henrico history.
Primed for rebellion
Born in 1776 on Thomas Prosser's tobacco plantation, "Brookfield," Gabriel likely was the son of a blacksmith. In Virginia slave families, skills were typically passed from generation to generation, and Gabriel and his brother Solomon began training in the blacksmith trade at a young age. Gabriel was also taught to read and write as a child – possibly by the plantation mistress, Ann Prosser.
In addition to possessing remarkable intelligence, Gabriel was unusually large in size. By the time he reached the age of 20 he stood six feet, two or three inches tall, and was powerfully built from his years of smithing. Described as having a long and "bony face, well made . . . [and] two or three scars on his head," the imposing young man was regarded as "a fellow of great courage and intellect above his rank in life," and even the older slaves looked up to him for leadership.
Being a skilled artisan, Gabriel enjoyed many advantages over field-working slaves, even before Prosser died in 1798. But when Prosser's ambitious young son Thomas Henry became the new master of Brookfield Plantation, he began hiring out Gabriel to work as a blacksmith in Richmond-area foundries – thus earning Gabriel even more autonomy and mobility.
Through his blacksmithing, Gabriel interacted with fellow hired slaves, free blacks, and white laborers of European, African and mixed descent. Historian and professor Douglas R. Egerton, who authored a book about Gabriel’s Rebellion, believes Gabriel was stimulated and challenged by his co-workers' stories and experiences, as well as by the revolutionary rhetoric of the 1790s.
Some slaveholders of that era, for instance -- inspired by the ideals of the American Revolution and encouraged by the Methodists and Quakers -- had been moved to free their slaves. In 1791, the French Revolution helped trigger the great slave revolt in Haiti. The following year, France granted social equality to free people of color, and in 1794 the French abolished slavery in their Caribbean colonies.
In 1799, Gabriel, his brother Solomon, and another slave stole a pig; when they were caught by the white overseer, Gabriel wrestled the man to the ground and bit off most of his ear. Although a court found him guilty of maiming a white man, a capital offense, Gabriel escaped execution through a loophole called "benefit of clergy." If he could recite a verse from the Bible, he could elect to be punished by public branding.
Gabriel recited his verse, and was branded in his left hand. Coupled with the month he spent in jail and an already troublesome relationship with his master, the branding was the final insult in a chain of events that helped propel him toward rebellion.
Throughout the spring and summer of 1800, Gabriel and a small group of artisan leaders met at Young's Spring on Upham Brook, a popular weekend gathering place for slaves. Using the communication network fostered by those same social and religious gatherings, Gabriel and his conspirators began recruiting slaves from across Henrico, Albemarle, Caroline and Louisa counties. In addition to the 1,000 slaves they expected to follow, Gabriel and his supporters also hoped "poor white people" would join the cause, and targeted Quakers, Methodists and Frenchmen as the whites most "friendly to liberty." Two of the Frenchmen that Gabriel met with in secret may even have promised him international assistance.
The plan called for hundreds of followers from across Virginia to gather for a march on Richmond after slaying their masters. A contact at the Capitol would let one band of insurgents into the state magazine to seize arms and ammunitions; another band would secure Mayo’s Bridge and set fire to the warehouse district at Rocketts Landing as a diversion. Kidnapping Governor James Monroe, the conspirators would then negotiate the release of slaves all over Virginia.
By Aug. 30, 1800 – the night of the planned rendezvous just north of Brook Bridge on Brook Road – Gabriel and his army had collected 12 dozen swords hammered out of scythes and worn out three pair of bullet molds. One slave recruit who was told of the plot was quoted as responding, "I was never so glad to hear anything in my life. I am ready to join them at any moment. I could slay the white people like sheep."
Gabriel's intricate plans and well-coordinated attack may well have succeeded if not for the vagaries of weather. On the designated night, a sudden severe torrential downpour struck, making roads and bridges to the city impassable. One person called it "the most terrible thunder Storm . . . that I ever witnessed in this State."
Although rebel leaders rescheduled the uprising for the next evening, the delay unnerved slaves Tom and Pharaoh of Meadow Farm. The scheme collapsed when they cracked under the pressure and informed their owner, Mosby Sheppard, of the plot. Sheppard alerted Governor Monroe, who called out the militia to protect the capital.
Gabriel managed to escape down the Chickahominy River and got as far as Norfolk, after swimming to a schooner on the James River. The ship was captained by a former overseer named Richardson Taylor, a recently converted Methodist who'd had a change of heart about slavery and attempted to help Gabriel win his freedom. But Taylor's former slave Isham and a slave named Billy alerted white authorities to Gabriel's presence when the ship docked in Norfolk. Billy, who had hoped to use the advertised $300 reward to purchase his own freedom, was paid only $50.
Gabriel went on trial Oct. 6 in Richmond and was found guilty of "conspiracy and insurrection." He was sentenced to be hanged the next day but asked that his sentence be carried out Oct. 10 so that he could be executed with six other slaves. The court agreed, but on Oct. 10 the slaves were hanged in three different locations; Gabriel was hanged alone on the town gallows. At least 26 other co-conspirators – including both his brothers – also were hanged.
While outwardly the rebellion was thwarted, it had a profound impact. The event served as a catalyst for additional black resistance, such as the 1802 "Easter Plot," organized by one of Gabriel's followers among enslaved boatmen along the Appomattox and Roanoke Rivers.
The event also served, however, as the impetus for a number of new restrictions on the comings and goings of both slaves and free blacks. White Virginians – in a panic at the thought of how close the danger had come – realized that Gabriel had been able to plan the rebellion because of relatively lax rules regarding movement between plantations and the city. As a result, some of the advantages that slaves like Gabriel had enjoyed were made illegal, including literacy and allowing slaves to "hire out." After the Easter Plot, the Virginia legislature also attempted to prevent enslaved people from piloting boats.
Even today, in the 21st century, the rebellion still inspires passionate rhetoric and debate. Since Gabriel was plotting with 1,000 or more slaves in North Carolina and Virginia to kill white plantation owners and hold the governor hostage, many Virginians today consider him no better than a murderer. In 2000, bicentennial celebrations stirred fresh controversy: the Caroline County Board of Supervisors rejected a petition from Gabriel's supporters to honor him on a courthouse monument, stating that any memorialization would glorify violence. Fans of Gabriel, who regard him as a hero and martyr who fought to overthrow the institution of slavery with the only means at his disposal, countered by pointing to Confederate monuments that they believe equally glorify violence.
Henrico County commemorated the spot where the slaves conspired by constructing Spring Park Historic Site, which in 1998 won the Virginia Recreation and Park Society's "Best New Facility" for a locality of its size. And in 2002, the City of Richmond adopted a resolution to commemorate the 202nd anniversary "of the execution of patriot and freedom fighter, Gabriel, whose death stands as a symbol for the determination and struggle of slaves to obtain freedom, justice and equality as promised by the fundamental principles of democratic governments of the Commonwealth of Virginia and the United States of America."
Four years later, the Virginia State Conference of NAACP requested that Governor Tim Kaine pardon Gabriel in light of his contributions to the civil rights struggle of African Americans. Kaine complied by issuing an informal, posthumous pardon for Gabriel and his co-conspirators, saying that Prosser was motivated by "his devotion to the ideals of the American revolution: it was worth risking death to secure liberty."
Kaine also noted that "Gabriel's cause – the end of slavery and the furtherance of equality of all people – has prevailed in the light of history.
"It is important," wrote Kaine, "to acknowledge that history favorably regards Gabriel's cause while consigning legions who sought to keep him and others in chains to be forgotten."
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