know your black history: slave revolts, part 3 – “death, any time, in preference to slavery!”— slave revolts by land””

November 3, 2015
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In the American history that is often told, the same slave revolts are highlighted: the Nat Turner Rebellion and John Brown’s Rebellion. Yet in these two rebellions absolutely no slaves were freed. In fact Nat Turner’s Rebellion set off a series of reprisals by angry whites and white militias against free people of color and slaves that may have caused up to 200 innocent people to be killed.

By Nick Douglas, AFROPUNK Contributor


(Pictured: Dangerfield Newby, first member of John Brown’s party killed.)


It is hard to say a slave revolt was successful unless it freed slaves or prevented people from being enslaved. This series of articles highlights a different slave narrative, a history of revolts that actually obtained freedom for slaves. There were thousands of conspiracies and revolts waged by slaves themselves where slaves did obtain their freedom. I will also highlight some of the white people who risked and sacrificed their lives to successfully obtain freedom for slaves.

Much has been written about the New York Slave Conspiracy, and about the Denmark Vessey Conspiracy. They are held up as American history’s most important slave conspiracies. Yet these conspiracies were exposed before any slaves were freed and in the aftermath numerous people were falsely accused, tried and executed.

Thousands of slaves and many white people were hung, imprisoned, banished and literally burned at the stake in this country for supposed conspiracies. This shows just how fearful slaveholders were about potential revolts. It shows that the U.S. was a place where daily battles were waged against slavery, by slaves themselves and by free people of goodwill.

One of the many places that a pitched battle against slavery was waged was the state of Kentucky. By 1830 it was a slavery battleground.  Many slaves escaped to freedom from Kentucky, and it was the site of many slave revolts. Pro- and anti-slavery factions waged a war over slavery in and around Kentucky. Kentucky bordered four free states (Iowa, Illinois, Indiana and Ohio) and three slave states (Missouri, Tennessee and Virginia). Runaway slaves regularly escaped across the Ohio River from Kentucky. Slave catchers (men who hunted down and returned run-away slaves for bounty) and slaveholders prowled both sides of the Ohio River in Kentucky and the free states of Indiana and Ohio. They tried to catch escaping slaves or recover slaves that they knew would cross from Kentucky to freedom. Abolitionists and anti-slavery sympathizers also traversed the river, inciting slaves to revolt and helping runaway slaves escape to freedom. Underground Railroad stations were established in Indiana and Ohio towns across the Ohio River from Kentucky to help slaves escape to freedom. During the Civil War 75% of Kentucky’s slaves escaped behind Union Army lines.

Kentucky was a border slave state. In 1824 Kentucky instituted one of the toughest fugitive slave laws in the country. In 1833 Kentucky’s Nonimportation Act banned importation of slaves into the state for commercial or personal purposes. But Kentucky did not outlaw slavery until the passage of the 13th Amendment in 1865.  In the mid-1800s as the demand for slaves was fueled by increased cotton production. This selling of slaves and forced movement of slaves from the Upper South to the Deep South is sometimes referred to as the “Black Trail of Tears.”Kentucky slaveholders, who grew less labor-intensive crops, cashed in on this demand and sold a fifth of all their slaves to deep South states.  

Here are just a few of the stories about successful slave revolts in the state of Kentucky. States like Louisiana and South Carolina with much larger slave populations were the sites of many more slave conspiracies and revolts.

Kentucky slaveholder Edward Stone was known to keep his slaves shackled under his house. In September 1826 Stone and his nephew Howard Stone along with three other white men hired by Stone were transporting 77 slaves by flatboat to slave markets in Mississippi.  But the slaves had conspired to revolt against Stone, and they succeeded in killing him and the other white men.


(Pictured: Only surviving member of John Brown’s Revolt Osborne Perry Anderson)


Twenty slaves escaped and 56 were captured. One slave who tried to help Stone, and as a result was severely beaten during the revolt, was rewarded with freedom. The captured slaves were tried and most were sold back into slavery. Five were hanged, listed in the newspaper as Jo, Duke, Resin, Stephen and Wesley. It is believed that the slaves had planned their revolt to take place near an Underground Railroad station in Indiana. It is safe to assume that the slaves needed to know how to read, write, and read a map to know when and where to revolt.

Slave literacy was greatly feared. It was not then widely reported that the Great Dismal Swamp (located in southeastern Virginia and northeastern North Carolina) was home to as many as 11,000 escaped slaves. Or that in 1846 in Alabama maroon communities were such a problem the state legislature had to fund patrols to capture these escaped slaves. Or that in some areas of Civil War Georgia, slaves outnumbered white men 700 to 1.Had these facts been circulated more broadly, better informed slaves would have been inclined to revolt and enticed to escape with even greater frequency and success. And better informed slaveholding communities—already on edge—would have been in a full-scale panic.


Slave revolts were characterized as murders or assassinations, or heinous crimes. Disinformation, underreporting, omission and suppression of facts were tools used to influence public opinion and maintain the status quo. Just as today, when many of these facts of American history remain obscured.

In 1847 Kentuckians caught up to six runaway slaves in Marshall, Michigan. When they attempted to lead the slaves to the local magistrate, a mob of 200 to 300 white men, free black men and runaway slaves confronted the slave catchers with guns, clubs and other weapons. The mob told the Kentuckians that the slaves wouldn’t be taken by any type of “moral, physical or legal force.” The mob held an impromptu hearing and ratified its decision to release the captured runaways. They gave the Kentuckians two hours to leave town.  Then the magistrate arrested the slave catchers, found them guilty of trespass and fined them $100. One of them was made to appear in court the next day for drawing a gun during the dispute. Leaders of the mob told the Kentuckians that this “was just such treatment as the Kentuckian deserved when attempting to recapture a slave and that they intended to make an example of him, that others might take warning.”

Two abolitionists who entered Kentucky with the goal of freeing slaves were Miss Delia A. Webster of Vermont and her accomplice Reverend Calvin Fairbanks. In 1845 they were apprehended as they were attempting to lead slaves out of the state.  Miss Webster was sentenced to two years in the penitentiary but “on account of her sex” the jury recommended a pardon, which the governor granted. Mr. Fairbanks was sentenced to 15 years in the state penitentiary..

(Pictured: Delia Webster, front left, and her sisters.)

(Pictured: Reverend Calvin Fairbanks)


In 1854 authorities discovered that Miss Webster was again attempting to help slaves to freedom. She first settled in Madison, Indiana across the river from Kentucky, where she assisted escaping slaves.  Later she moved to the Kentucky side of the Ohio to help slaves escape. It wasn’t until angry citizens in the surrounding counties forced Miss Webster to leave Kentucky that her operations there stopped.  

Patrick Doyle was a white man who helped slaves revolt and escape to Ohio. Doyle was a college student in 1848 when he organized and helped arm 75 slaves. He marched with them to Bracken County, Kentucky where they were confronted by 100 white men led by retired General Lucius Desha. After an exchange of gunfire many of the slaves escaped. Some slaves were captured and Patrick Doyle was sentenced to 20 years of hard labor in the Kentucky state penitentiary.  

Abolitionists and slaves continued to use Kentucky as a conduit to obtain freedom.  On just one day in 1852 more than 55 slaves used Kentucky to cross the Ohio River to freedom.  The Greenup Slave Revolt that occurred near Portsmouth, Kentucky would inspire Boston’s leading abolitionist David Walker, who recounted it in his electrifying anti-slavery pamphlet the Appeal.

A slave driver (a person hired to force slaves to work) named Gordon and three helpers had purchased 60 slaves in August 1829. They were transporting them to slave markets in Mississippi. Early in the morning on the road near Greenup, Kentucky the male slaves managed to free themselves. The three helpers attempted to resist but each was killed with a club. The slaves held Gordon and attempted to shoot him in the head. The bullets only grazed him but the slaves then beat Gordon with a club, leaving him for dead. The slaves pillaged the wagon that they had been traveling with and 16 slaves escaped into the woods.

Gordon had not been killed and, helped by a female slave, mounted a horse and fled. One of the freed slaves chased him on horseback with a loaded pistol. Gordon was able to get to a nearby plantation and ask for help. When the slave that had been chasing Gordon saw him arrive at the plantation he returned to the site of the revolt.

The community was alerted and eventually about 40 of the slaves were recaptured. Eight men and one woman were tried for murdering Gordon’s three helpers, but only four were hanged. When a crowd gathered in Greenup to see them hanged, the slaves shouted that they were completely justified in killing men who were depriving them of their freedom. Julius Bingham of the Western Times reported that they told the crowd “they had done no more than their judges and executioners would have done under similar circumstances; and that too, with solemn appeal to the Judge of heaven and earth, for the integrity of their motives, and the justice of their cause.”

David Walker was so inspired by the Greenup Revolt that he recounted it in his anti-slavery pamphlet the Appeal. Walker unlike better known abolitionists like William Lloyd Garrison and Frederick Douglass, advocated slaves rise up violently against slaveholders when they had an opportunity to free themselves.

On the cart as they were about to be hanged, one of the four exclaimed to the crowd:  “’Death!  Death, any time, in preference to slavery!’”

* Nick Douglas is the author of Finding Octave: The Untold Story of Two Creole Families and Slavery in Louisiana. The book is available on amazon.com and those wishing to contact the author can contact him at www.findingoctave.tumblr.com


Much of the information for this article came from The history of Kentucky : from its earliest discovery and settlement, to the present date … its military events and achievements, and biographic mention of its historic characters / by Hon. Z. F. Smith.

Information about David Walker can be found on AFROPUNK at: https://testafropunk.com/profiles/blogs/feature-know-your-black-history-abolitionist-david-walker

Or www.davidwalkermemorial.org..