Natchez, Mississippi street scene in the 19th Century.
From Mississippi Now, "Slave Resistance in Natchez, Mississippi (1719-1861)," by Jaime Boler, published on February 2006 -- From the time of their first arrival in Natchez, slaves resisted bondage. Slavery existed in Natchez beginning in 1719 and continued through French, British, Spanish, and finally American rule. Then, in 1863 in the midst of the War Between the States, U.S. President Abraham Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation which freed all slaves in the South.
Slaves often rebelled against the cruelty of their white masters, cruelties such as branding, cutting off ears, whipping, and torture. The urge for freedom, and the desire to escape inhumane treatment, were the motives for slaves to rebel against their slaveholders. Signs of this resistance caused slave owners to fear insurrection, especially when slaves outnumbered whites. The rumor of a slave uprising was just as alarming to planters as an actual rebellion. Real and rumored slave rebellions always caused apprehension throughout Natchez.
Natchez Indian revolt
One of the earliest recorded incidents of a slave uprising in the area was the Natchez Indian Revolt of 1729 against the French colonists. The French traded in slaves and brought the first African slaves to Natchez to cultivate tobacco. The slaves came with a militant spirit. Their aggression initially took the form of resistance on slave ships, as illustrated in the 1997 film Amistad. Their arrival in Natchez did not quell this militancy. If anything, it sparked aggression. The Natchez Indians fanned this spark.
The French soon recognized the inevitable contact and interaction between the slaves and the Natchez Indians and eventually extended their cruelty to the Indians. The Natchez Indians became aware that the French began to whip young Indian boys just as they did their African slaves. This cruelty, along with pro-British leanings of some tribal leaders and the recent land grab by the French commander at Fort Rosalie, moved the proud Natchez nobles to act.
To protest the cruelty of the French, Natchez Indians recruited several slaves, promising them freedom, and staged a revolt against the French in 1729, wherein approximately 230 people were killed. The French retaliated, using their allies from other Indian tribes to punish the Natchez, and recovered many slaves. The Natchez Indians ultimately lost the war. Many were sold into slavery in the Caribbean while others joined other tribes.
The flames of violence were fanned again in 1731. A number of African slaves who had participated in the Natchez Indian Revolt were involved in a conspiracy to kill all the French and take over the colony. The governor of Louisiana heard rumors of the uprising but dismissed them, even after a female slave supposedly hinted of the rebellion to a French soldier. A Swiss citizen who had lived in Natchez, Antoine Le Page du Pratz, investigated the incident and would later describe it in his history of Louisiana. He learned that his trusted first officer and interpreter, a slave named Samba Bambara, was the mastermind. Samba had been involved in a rebellion back in his homeland and was sentenced to a life in bondage for his resistance. He had also tried to instigate a revolt on the slave ship on which he traveled from Africa. As punishment for his role in the would-be mutiny, Samba was placed in irons. Because of Le Page du Pratz’s efforts, French authorities tortured and killed the conspirators, even breaking the female slave on the wheel.
For a time, Natchez slaves were quiet. The French ruled the Natchez area until 1763, when the area was surrendered to the British and became part of British West Florida.
The relative calm of Natchez slaves ended with the American Revolution. Slaves knew that here was an opportunity to seize their freedom. The best example of slave resistance in Natchez during the American Revolution (1776-1783) occurred in July 1776. According to the diary of plantation owner William Dunbar, a slave had approached his master with the stunning revelation that Natchez slaves were plotting a rebellion and that the uprising had been planned at Dunbar’s plantation. To prevent this insurrection from happening, Dunbar and his fellow slave owners rounded up their slaves, questioned and tortured them, forcing them to confess. One of Dunbar's slaves was in a boat when he was questioned by the slave owners and instead of confessing as the other slaves had done, jumped overboard and drowned himself in the river. Other would-be rebels were put on trial, found guilty of conspiracy, and executed.
During the American Revolution, the British surrendered the Natchez District to Spain.
Slaves “steal” themselves
After the Revolution, the most common form of slave resistance was running away. Runaway slaves saw their action as liberation from slavery; the slave owner saw it as stealing. Slave owners considered slaves as property and when a slave ran away, he “stole” himself. Slaves ran away for a number of reasons. Although many fled to find freedom in the northern parts of the country, most runaways escaped to be with family members at nearby plantations. Flight was dangerous, and male slaves were more likely to flee than female slaves. Runaway slaves encountered slave patrols, slave catchers, dogs, wild animals, and unfamiliar surroundings. Desperation, starvation, and fear led many runaways to return to their masters.
Slaves favored weekends and holidays, particularly Christmas, to take flight. They tended to run away when corn rows were high in the fields to hide their escape. Slaves used some inventive methods to liberate themselves. Some mailed themselves to relatives in the North. Others were stowaways on riverboats. Many forged passes that gave the slave permission to travel, and a number of slaves, sired by white slave owners, passed themselves for white.
There is evidence that Natchez slaves also engaged in work slowdowns or other labor tactics to resist their bondage. Slaves either pretended to be ill, slowed down their pace, or simply stopped working. Work slowdown sometimes involved acts of sabotage, as was the case on Monmouth Plantation in Natchez, owned by a former governor of Mississippi and Mexican War hero John A. Quitman. A slave named Samuel broke a new plow, according to the journal of overseer Robert Love. One slave injured several members of the Quitman family by his sabotage. On the way to a wedding in 1856, the slave deliberately drove a carriage down an embankment and injured the passengers.
Natchez became part of the United States in 1817 when Mississippi entered the Union as a state. Despite new American rule, slave owners still feared the possibility of slave uprisings. Troubles were sometimes blamed on the slaves even when their involvement was suspect at best.
A series of fires rocked Natchez in 1836, at a time when Mississippi was cracking down on gambling. John A. Murrell, a white man who was a land pirate and kidnapper of slaves, was said to have proposed a slave rebellion the previous summer. On July 4, 1835, whites, thought to be agents of abolition, and slaves, intent on obtaining their freedom, had planned a revolt. There was to be a general uprising of slaves and some whites as far away as Maryland. The insurrectionists hoped to capture towns from Natchez to New Orleans, to kill as many whites as they could, and to burn and pillage plantations.
The bulk of Murrell’s supporters were said to be gamblers, which brought them in direct conflict with the citizens of Natchez who were intent on cracking down on gambling. When fires broke out in January 1836, Natchez residents attributed the arsons to Murrell’s gang of gamblers and the rumored rebellion the previous summer. The fires both outraged and horrified the residents, especially since more than thirty houses in Natchez caught fire. Natchez resident Eliza Breeden wrote her mother in 1836 that whites were still edgy from the insurrection scare. Damage was so severe that, at one point, Breeden described the whole town as “in danger of being burnt.”
The people were divided over who they thought had started the fires. Some Natchez citizens believed that gamblers were the arsonists. Some citizens pointed instead to Natchez slaves. Authorities increased area slave patrols and instituted a sundown curfew for slaves. Some slaves were arrested, but were later acquitted and discharged.
The identity of the real arsonists remained a mystery. The community’s reaction to the Natchez fires in 1836, however, showed that even if the slaves were not involved, they were readily put under suspicion when any trouble or disturbance occurred.
Slaves strike back
Slaves did sometimes act violently against whites, assaulting and even killing masters and overseers. Murdering a master was the ultimate act of individual rebellion. In 1832, planter and slaveholder Joel Cameron of Warren County, sixty miles upriver from Natchez, suddenly disappeared. Search parties formed and they discovered Cameron’s bruised and beaten body a few miles from Vicksburg. Evidence suggested Cameron was murdered. The main suspects in the slaying were his slaves and a free black man. A jury found four of Cameron’s slaves guilty and sentenced them to death. Three of the accused slaves were hanged. The free black man was also put to death.
The most famous case in which Natchez slaves murdered their overseer occurred in 1857. Duncan Skinner, a cruel white overseer of Clarissa Sharpe’s Cedar Grove Plantation southeast of Natchez, was found dead in the woods. Some thought Skinner had fallen from his horse, but Skinner’s brother, Jesse, did not believe that was possible and asked for an inquiry. A group of planters investigated Skinner’s death. The planters tortured Cedar Groves slaves and forced them not only to confess to the murder, but to also falsely implicate a white carpenter, John McCallin, as instigator of the killing. Local planters resented McCallin’s designs on the widow and used the implications of murder to run him out of town. McCallin claimed he was innocent; that he had nothing to do with the murder. Even though a jury consisting of these same planters found McCallin guilty of lying and complicity, he was not sentenced. There was no evidence; there was only the forced confession of the slaves, who could not testify against a white man in court. The planters instead issued a public warning against him. McCallin was innocent and the planters knew it.
The planters knew what had really happened: they knew that Cedar Groves slaves had killed Skinner because he was a cruel overseer. After less than five minutes of deliberations, a jury found three Cedar Groves slaves guilty of Skinner’s murder. They were publicly changed in December 1857.
The Civil War
The American Civil War period also saw many slave uprisings. The timing was no coincidence. Slaves were aware of events outside of Natchez. The slave underground spread news from plantation to plantation, and the news spread rapidly. Information was spread through other means as well. Slaveholders discussed politics in front of the house slaves, who spread the word to the slave quarters.
Slaveholders uncovered a conspiracy among their slaves to rebel in the Second Creek area south of Natchez shortly after the outbreak of the Civil War in 1861. Diary entries and letters by Natchez whites reveal that slaves planned to murder all the white males in Natchez and spare the white women, whom the slaves would marry. After the insurrection, the slaves would march to meet President Lincoln. A committee of slaveholders questioned the slaves and hanged as many as forty rebels.
Natchez newspapers remained silent about the slaves conspiracy and printed nothing. Editors feared that news of a planned insurrection in Mississippi would undermine the Confederate war effort and bolster Union morale. If not for private correspondence between whites, there would have been no records of slaves revolting. The silence of Natchez newspapers suggests that news of other slave conspiracies were also suppressed.
Spirit of resistance
Despite the horrors of slavery, the spirit of resistance among the slaves never wavered. Their acts of resistance gave birth to the blues when they sang about their thirst for freedom, and paved the way for the modern Civil Rights Movement in mid-twentieth century.
The slaves, under French, British, Spanish, and then American rule, always pursued their liberation. (source: Mississippi Now)