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The enslaved revolutionary known only as Gabriel was born near Richmond, Virginia, at Brookfield, the Henrico County plantation of Thomas Prosser. By Virginia standards, Brookfield was a large plantation, with a population of approximately fifty enslaved laborers. Unfortunately, the identity of Gabriel’s parents is lost to history, but he had two older brothers, Martin and Solomon. Most likely, Gabriel’s father was a blacksmith, the occupation chosen for Gabriel and Solomon; in Virginia, the offspring of skilled bondpersons frequently inherited their parent’s profession.
Status as a craft artisan provided the young blacksmith with considerable standing in the slave community, as did his ability to read and write. In the 1780s, it was not yet illegal to teach Virginia slaves to be literate, and effective artisans needed the rudiments of literacy. According to tradition, his teacher was plantation mistress Ann Prosser. As Gabriel grew to be an unusually tall young man, even older slaves looked to him for leadership, a habit uncommon in African culture. By the mid-1790s, as he approached the age of twenty, Gabriel stood “six feet two or three inches high,” and the muscles in his arms and chest betrayed nearly a decade in Brookfield’s forge. A long and “bony face, well made,” was marred by the loss of two front teeth and “two or three scars on his head” (Egerton 1993, p. 22). In later years, a racist legend arose which held that Gabriel wore his hair long in naïve imitation of Samson, in hopes that his locks would give him extraordinary strength. But contemporary descriptions say only that his hair was cut short and was as dark as his complexion. According to journalist James T. Callender, blacks and whites alike regarded him as “a fellow of courage and intellect above his rank in life” (p. 22).
During his years as an apprentice blacksmith, Gabriel married a young slave named Nanny. Little is known about her, including the identity of her owner. She does not appear in the few extant Brookfield records; most likely she lived on a nearby farm or tobacco plantation. But well into the twentieth century, area blacks believed that Nanny bore him children, who much later went under the surname of Randolph.
In the fall of 1798 Gabriel’s old master died, and ownership of Brookfield passed to twenty-two-year-old Thomas Henry Prosser. An ambitious young man with a townhouse in Richmond and a lucrative auction business, Prosser maximized his profits by hiring out his surplus slaves. Even the most efficient planters could not find tasks enough to keep their enslaved artisans occupied year around, and many masters routinely hired out their craftsmen to neighboring farms and urban businesses. Despite all of the work to be done at Brookfield, Gabriel spent a considerable part of each month smithing in Richmond for artisans long on orders and short on labor. Although still a slave under Virginia law, Gabriel enjoyed a rough form of freedom. Indeed, his ties to the plantation became so tenuous that several historians have identified him as a free man.
Emboldened by this quasi liberty, in September 1799 Gabriel moved toward overt rebellion. Caught in the act of stealing a pig, a delicacy slaves used to supply their families with protein, Gabriel refused to endure the verbal abuse of its owner, a white neighbor. Instead, he wrestled his tormentor to the ground and bit off the better “part of his left Ear” (Egerton, p. 31). Under Virginia law, slaves were not tried as whites. They were prosecuted under a colonial statute of 1692 that created special segregated tribunals known as courts of oyer and terminer, composed of five justices of the peace. On October 7 Gabriel was formally charged with attacking a white man, a capital crime. Although found guilty, Gabriel escaped the gallows through an antiquated clause that since the Revolution had been denied to white defendants. Slaves yet possessed the right to “benefit of clergy” (p. 31), which allowed them to avoid hanging in exchange for being branded on the thumb with a small cross if they were able to recite a verse from the Bible.
Gabriel’s branding and incarceration served as a brutal reminder that despite his literacy and special status, he remained a slave. By the early spring of 1800, his fury began to turn into a carefully considered plan to bring about his freedom, as well as the end of slavery in Virginia. As a literate man who moved among urban artisans, Gabriel surely knew that several states to the north had recently passed laws for gradual emancipation, and that New York had finally approved such a statute in 1799. As he explained it to his brothers Solomon and Martin, slaves and free blacks from Henrico County would gather at Brookfield on the evening of August 30 to march on Richmond. If Governor James Monroe and the town leaders agreed to Gabriel’s demands for black liberty and an equitable distribution of the property, the slave general intended to “hoist a white flag” and drink a toast “with the merchants of the city” (Egerton, p. 51).
The uprising collapsed just before sunset on the appointed day, when a severe thunderstorm hit the Richmond area. The chaos of the storm convinced two Henrico slaves, Tom and Pharoah, that the revolt could not succeed. They informed their owner of the conspiracy, and he hurried word to Governor Monroe. As the state militia closed in, Gabriel escaped south by way of the swampy Chickahominy River. After hiding along the James River for nearly two weeks, Gabriel risked boarding the schooner Mary. Captain Richardson Taylor, a former overseer who had recently converted to Methodism, willingly spirited Gabriel downriver to Norfolk. There Gabriel was betrayed by a slave crewman, who had heard of Monroe’s $300 reward for Gabriel’s capture. Returned to Richmond under heavy guard, Gabriel was quickly tried and found guilty of “conspiracy and insurrection” (Egerton, p. 109). On October 10, 1800, the young revolutionary died with quiet composure at the town gallows near Fifteenth and Broad Streets. He was twenty-four. In 2002 the Richmond city council formally adopted a resolution proclaiming Gabriel to be “an American patriot and freedom fighter” (Richmond Times-Dispatch, October 11, 2002).
- Egerton, Douglas R. 1993. Gabriel’s Rebellion: The Virginia Slave Conspiracies of 1800 and 1802. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press.
- Schwarz, Philip J. 1988. Twice Condemned: Slaves and the Criminal Laws of Virginia, 1705–1865. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press.
- Sidbury, James. 1997. Ploughshares into Swords: Race, Rebellion, and Identity in Gabriel’s Virginia, 1730–1810. New York: Cambridge University Press.
- Williams, Michael Paul. 2002. Views on Slave Revolt Leader Clash. Richmond Times-Dispatch (October 11): p. B3.
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