Gabriel Prosser and his brother, Solomon, were preparing for the farthest reaching rebellion in United States History. Inspired by the egalitarian philosophy that inspired the Haitian Revolution, the Prossers galvanized enslaved and freed African-Americans, poor whites and Native Americans to rebel against wealthy whites. But a combination of inclement weather conditions and fear on the part of a few enslaved African-American men halted the rebellion from ever taking place.
Who is Gabriel Prosser?
Prosser was born in 1776 on a tobacco plantation in Henrico County, Va. At an early age, Prosser and his brother, Solomon, were trained to work as a blacksmiths. He was also taught to read and write. By the age of twenty, Prosser was considered a leader amongst slaves–he was literate, intelligent, strong and was over six feet tall.
In 1798, Prosser’s owner died and his son, Thomas Henry Prosser became his new master. Considered an ambitious master who wanted to expand his wealth, Thomas Henry hired Prosser and Solomon out to work with merchants and artisans. Prosser’s ability to work in Richmond and its surrounding areas allowed him the freedom to discover the area, extra money and the ability to work with freed African-American laborers.
Gabriel Prosser’s Great Plan
In 1799, Prosser, Solomon and another slave named Jupiter stole a pig. When the three were caught by an overseer, Gabriel fought him and bit off the overseer’s ear. Shortly after, he was found guilty of maiming a white man. Although this was a capital offense, Prosser was able to choose public branding over being hung if he could recite a verse from the Bible. Prosser was branded on his left hand and spent a month in jail.
This punishment, the freedom Prosser experienced as a hired-out blacksmith as well as the symbolism of the American and Haitian Revolutions that prompted the organization of the Prosser Rebellion.
Inspired primarily by the Haitian Revolution, Prosser believed that oppressed people in society should work together to change. Prosser planned to include not only enslaved and freed African-Americans, but also poor whites, Native Americans and French troops stationed in the area to participate in the rebellion. Prosser’s plan was to take possession of Capitol Square in Richmond. Holding Governor James Monroe as a hostage, Prosser believed he could bargain with authorities.
After telling Solomon and another slave named Ben of his plans, the trio began recruiting revolters. Women were not included in Prosser’s militia but free blacks and whites became dedicated to the cause of insurrection.
Pretty soon, the men were recruiting throughout Richmond, Petersburg, Norfolk, Albermarle and the counties of Henrico, Caroline and Louisa. Prosser used his skills as a blacksmith to create swords and molding bullets. Others collected weapons. The motto of the rebellion would be the same as the Haitian Revolution–”Death or Liberty.” Although rumors of the upcoming rebellion was reported to Governor Monroe, it was ignored.
Prosser planned the revolt for August 30, 1800 but could not take place because of a severe thunderstorm that made it impossible to travel across road and bridges. The plot was supposed to take place the following day on Sunday August 31 but several enslaved African-Americans told their masters of the plot. Landowners set up white patrols, and alerted Monroe who organized the state militia to search for rebels. Within two weeks, almost 30 enslaved African-Americans were in jail waiting to be seen in the Oyer and Terminir , a court in which people are tried without a jury but can provide testimony.
The trail lasted two months and an estimated 65 enslaved men were tried. Almost thirty of these enslaved men were executed while others were sold to owners in other states. Some were found not guilty and others were pardoned.
The trials began on September 11. Officials offered full pardons to enslaved men who gave testimony against other members of the conspiracy. Ben, who had helped Solomon and Prosser organize the rebellion offered testimony. Another man named Ben Woolfolk offered the same. Ben offered testimony that led to the execution of several other enslaved men including Prosser’s brothers Solomon and Martin. Ben Woolfolk provided information on enslaved participants from other areas of Virginia.
Before Solomon’s death, he provided the following testimony:
“My brother Gabriel was the person who influenced me to join him and others in order that (as he said) we might conquer the white people and possess ourselves of their property.” Another enslaved man, King, said, “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.”
Although most recruits were tried and convicted in Richmond, others in outlying counties received the same fate. In places like Norfolk County, however, enslaved African-Americans and working class whites were questioned in an attempt to find witnesses. However, no one would provide testimony and enslaved men in Norfolk County were released. And in Petersburg, four free African-Americans were arrested but could not be convicted because the testimony of an enslaved person against a freed person was not permitted in the courts of Virginia.
On September 14, Prosser was identified to authorities. On October 6, he was put on trail. Although several people testified against Prosser, he refused to make a statement in court. On October 10, he was hung in the town gallows.
According to state law, the state of Virginia had to reimburse slaveholders for their lost property. In total, Virginia paid more than $8900 to slaveholders for enslaved men who were hung.
Between 1801 and 1805, the Virgina Assembly debated on the idea of gradual emancipation of enslaved African-Americans. However, the state legislature decided instead to control enslaved African-Americans by outlawing literacy and placed restrictions on “hiring out.”
Although Prosser’s rebellion did not come to fruition, it inspired others. In 1802, the “Easter Plot” took place. And thirty years later, Nat Turner’s Rebellion took place in Southampton County.