From the time of their first arrival in Natchez, enslaved people 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 Civil War, U. S. President Abraham Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation, and in 1865 the Thirteenth Amendment abolished slavery.
Enslaved people often rebelled against the cruelty of their masters, cruelties such as branding, cutting off ears, whipping, and torture. The urge for freedom and the desire to escape inhumane treatment were motivating factors for rebellion against slaveholders. Signs of this resistance caused slave owners to fear insurrection, especially when the enslaved population outnumbered White people. The rumor of a slave uprising was just as alarming to planters as an actual rebellion. Real and rumored rebellions always caused apprehension among slaveholders in Natchez.
Natchez Indian revolt
One of the earliest recorded incidents of an uprising in the area was the Natchez Indian Revolt of 1729 against the French colonists. The French brought the first African slaves to Natchez to cultivate tobacco. Understandably, these Africans were resistant to forced migration and forced labor. 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 desire for freedom. If anything, it sparked resistance. The Natchez Indians fanned this spark.
The French soon recognized the inevitable contact and interaction between the enslaved and the Natchez Indians and eventually extended their cruelty to the Native Americans. The Natchez Indians became aware that the French began to whip their young boys just as they did their enslaved Africans. 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 enslaved individuals, 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 tribes to punish the Natchez. 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 enslaved Africans 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 an enslaved woman 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, an enslaved man 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 enslaved woman on the wheel.
For a time, those enslaved in Natchez 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 in Natchez ended with the American Revolution. Enslaved people knew that here was an opportunity to seize their freedom. The best example of resistance in Natchez during the American Revolution (1776-1783) occurred in July 1776. According to the diary of plantation owner William Dunbar, an enslaved individual 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 enslaved people, questioned and tortured them, forcing them to confess. An enslaved man who worked for Dunbar was in a boat when he was questioned and instead of confessing as others 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.
Enslaved individuals “steal” themselves
After the Revolution, the most common form of resistance by the enslaved was running away. Runaways saw their action as liberation from slavery; the slave owner saw it as stealing. Owners considered enslaved people property and when an enslaved man ran away, he “stole” himself. Enslaved people 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 were more likely to flee than females. Runaways encountered slave patrols, slave catchers, dogs, wild animals, and unfamiliar surroundings. Desperation, starvation, and fear led many runaways to return to their masters.
The enslaved 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. They 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 permission to travel, and a number of enslaved people, sired by White slave owners, passed themselves for White.
There is evidence that those enslaved in Natchez also engaged in work slowdowns or other labor tactics to resist their bondage. They 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. An enslaved man named Samuel broke a new plow, according to the journal of overseer Robert Love. One enslaved man injured several members of the Quitman family by his sabotage. On the way to a wedding in 1856, he 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 American rule, slave owners still feared the possibility of slave uprisings. Troubles were sometimes blamed on the enslaved 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 the enslaved, 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 White people as they could, and to burn and pillage plantations.
Slaveholders, however, uncovered the plot when an enslaved individual confessed to his master. No revolt occurred, however, but owners all over the state were apprehensive. Research today suggests that this entire would-be revolt was exaggerated or even false. Murrell was in jail at the time and was in no position to incite rebellion. Nonetheless, the people of Natchez, who feared even the rumor of an uprising, were on alert.
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 enslaved community. Authorities increased area slave patrols and instituted a sundown curfew for slaves. Some enslaved people 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 enslaved individuals were not involved, they were readily put under suspicion when any trouble or disturbance occurred.
Enslaved people strike back
Enslaved people understandably did sometimes act violently against their owners, 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 enslaved people who worked for Cameron guilty and sentenced them to death. Three of the accused were hanged. The free Black man was also put to death.
The most famous case in which Natchez enslaved people 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 some enslaved people at Cedar Groves 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 enslaved, 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 some enslaved people at Cedar Groves had killed Skinner because he was a cruel overseer. After less than five minutes of deliberations, a jury found three Cedar Groves enslaved men guilty of Skinner’s murder. They were publicly changed in December 1857.
The Civil War
The American Civil War period also saw many uprisings by enslaved people. The timing was no coincidence. The enslaved were aware of events outside of Natchez. Underground channels 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 enslaved quarters.
Slaveholders uncovered a supposed conspiracy among the enslaved 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 some enslaved individuals planned to murder all the White males in Natchez and spare the White women, whom the enslaved men would marry. After the insurrection, the enslaved people would march to meet President Lincoln. Unfortunately, a committee of slaveholders questioned some enslaved people and hanged as many as forty rebels.
Natchez newspapers remained silent about the supposed 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 White people, there would have been no records of revolting by those enslaved. The silence of Natchez newspapers suggests that news of other conspiracies were also suppressed.
Spirit of resistance
Despite the horrors of slavery, the spirit of resistance among enslaved people 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.
Jaime Boler received her doctorate in history from the University of Southern Mississippi in December 2005.
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