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Whispers of Rebellion

Narrating Gabriel's Conspiracy

Michael L. Nicholls

Publication Year: 2012

An ambitious if ultimately unrealized plan to revolt that ended in the conviction and hanging of over two dozen men, Gabriel’s Conspiracy of 1800 sought nothing less than to capture the capital city of Richmond and end slavery in Virginia. Whispers of Rebellion draws on recent scholarship and extensive archival material to provide the clearest view yet of this fascinating chapter in the history of slavery--and to question much about the case that has been accepted as fact.

In his examination of the slave Gabriel and his group of insurgents, Michael Nicholls focuses on the neighborhood of the Brook, north of Richmond, as the plot’s locus, revealing the area’s economic and familial ties, the geographic proximity of the key conspirators, and how their contacts allowed their plan to spread across three counties and into the cities of Richmond and Petersburg.

Nicholls explores underdocumented aspects of the conspiracy, such as the participants’ recruitment and motives, showing them to be less ideologically driven than previously supposed. The author also looks at the state’s swift and brutal response, and argues persuasively that, rather than the coalition between blacks and whites that has been described in other accounts, the participants were all slaves or free blacks, suffering under an oppressive white population and willing to die for their freedom.

Published by: University of Virginia Press

Series: Carter G. Woodson Institute Series

Title Page, Copyright Page

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pp. ix-x

History is built primarily from the archives, and historians rely heavily on archivists and librarians. At the Library of Virginia, Brent Tarter kindly chased down documents and sent copies to me in Utah as my research progressed. I enjoyed and benefi ted from our conversations during the lunch hours we shared at the library in Richmond. Minor...

Abbreviations and Short Titles

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p. xi

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pp. 1-12

On Saturday morning, 30 August 1800, two slaves revealed the existence of a scheme to seize Richmond, Virginia, that very night and destroy slavery. They identified one “Gabriel,” a slave blacksmith, as its leader. But the uprising never occurred. That evening, a tremendous “gust,” marked by a massive downpour, flooded roads and bridges...

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1. The Brook and the Road

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pp. 13-29

Two geographical features dominate Gabriel’s Conspiracy. One is a waterway known as the Brook. The other is the stage road that crossed it, called Brook Road. In 1800, Brook Road headed north out of Richmond and in about fi ve or six miles reached the Brook, which rose northwest of the capital city of Virginia. Once called variations of Ufnam...

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2. Are You a True Man?

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pp. 30-51

For three or four months, the cell of conspirators built and spread their plot around the Brook and up and down the Road. They gathered recruits; pilfered tools to be reshaped into weapons; pooled their monies, probably gathered from tips, market sales, and found and stolen coins; and purchased liquor for recruiting and powder for guns. And...

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3. The Deluge

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pp. 52-70

The plotters recruited an unknown number of men, perhaps hundreds, approaching them individually or grouped at barbecues, fi sh fries, and church or religious assemblies, in dram shops and plantation quarters, around blacksmith forges, and along the road. They also gathered in the shade of bridges and adjacent to springs, where rum and sugar...

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4. Revenge or Justice?

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pp. 71-92

When the captured men arrived at the penitentiary, they were examined by Gervas Storrs and Joseph Selden and if thought complicit in the plot were transferred to the jail to await trial. From there, they stepped the short distance to the Henrico County courthouse to stand individually before the bar as both person and property. As they did so,...

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5. Putting a Period

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pp. 93-116

With Gabriel in custody, a new phase in the public’s response to the intended insurrection emerged. As the editor of the Argus expressed it from his vantage point in Richmond, “A period is put to the anxiety and perturbation which for several weeks past has convulsed the public mind by the capture and safe commitment...

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6. Politics and Policies

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pp. 117-140

Between 11 September 1800, when Solomon stood before the Henrico Court, and 1 December, when Watt appeared, the Commonwealth of Virginia had prosecuted seventy- two men for conspiracy and insurrection. The overwhelming number came from the neighborhood of the Brook and through the personal ties of the men residing there. Deputy...

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pp. 141-150

The suppression of the conspiracy disrupted and devastated lives along the Brook. For about five weeks, patrols regularly stalked the area. By mid- October, twenty- two men from the neighborhood had been executed; four of them, plus Michael from Chesterfield, were hanged near Prosser’s Tavern to terrorize the inhabitants. The state kept records only...

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Appendix A. The Geography of Conspiracy

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pp. 151-155

Gabriel’s Conspiracy was both more and less than a Henrico County plot. Measured by who was accused or prosecuted, there is little evidence that its organization had spread much beyond the capital into the eastern or lower half of the county, though accusations do not encompass all who were party to the plot. It seeped into northern Chesterfield, partly though connections with the Brook, and...

Appendix B. Men Tried for Conspiracy and Insurrection

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pp. 156-159

Appendix C. Alleged Participants Not Prosecuted

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pp. 160-167

Appendix D. Slave Witnesses at Trials

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pp. 168-170


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pp. 171-230


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pp. 231-248

E-ISBN-13: 9780813932064
E-ISBN-10: 0813932068
Print-ISBN-13: 9780813931937
Print-ISBN-10: 0813931932

Page Count: 264
Illustrations: 2 maps
Publication Year: 2012

Series Title: Carter G. Woodson Institute Series
Series Editor Byline: Deborah E. McDowell See more Books in this Series

OCLC Number: 797815182
MUSE Marc Record: Download for Whispers of Rebellion

Research Areas


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Subject Headings

  • Slave insurrections -- Virginia -- Richmond Region -- History.
  • Slavery -- Virginia -- History.
  • Prosser, Gabriel, ca. 1775-1800.
  • Conspiracy -- Virginia -- Richmond Region -- History.
  • Trials (Conspiracy) -- Virginia -- Richmond -- History -- 19th century.
  • Richmond (Va.) -- Trials, litigation, etc. -- History -- 19th century.
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