Impact of the Stono Rebellion on the Lives of Enslaved People

historical marker for the Stono Rebellion

Henry de Saussure Copeland / Flickr / CC BY-NC 2.0

The Stono Rebellion was the largest rebellion mounted by enslaved people against enslavers in colonial America. The Stono Rebellion's location took place near the Stono River in South Carolina. The details of the 1739 event are uncertain, as documentation for the incident comes from only one firsthand report and several secondhand reports. White Carolinians wrote these records, and historians have had to reconstruct the causes of the Stono River Rebellion and the motives of the enslaved people participating from biased descriptions.

The Rebellion

On Sept. 9, 1739, early on a Sunday morning, about 20 enslaved people gathered at a spot near the Stono River. They had planned their rebellion for this day. Stopping first at a firearms shop, they killed the owner and supplied themselves with guns.

Now, well-armed, the group then marched down a main road in St. Paul's Parish, located nearly 20 miles from Charlestown (today Charleston). Bearing signs reading "Liberty," beating drums and singing, the group headed south for Florida. Who led the group is unclear; it might have been an enslaved person named Cato or Jemmy.

The band of rebels hit a series of businesses and homes, recruiting more enslaved people and killing the enslavers and their families. They burned the houses as they went. The original rebels may have forced some of their recruits to join the rebellion. The men allowed the innkeeper at Wallace's Tavern to live because he was known to treat his enslaved people with more kindness than other enslavers.

The End of the Rebellion

After journeying for about 10 miles, the group of roughly 60 to 100 people rested, and the militia found them. A firefight ensued, and some of the rebels escaped. The militia rounded up the escapees, decapitating them and setting their heads on posts as a lesson to other enslaved people. The tally of the dead was 21 whites and 44 enslaved people killed. South Carolinians spared the lives of enslaved people they believed were forced to participate against their will by the original band of rebels.

Causes

The freedom seekers were headed for Florida. Great Britain and Spain were at war (the War of Jenkin's Ear), and Spain, hoping to cause problems for Britain, promised freedom and land to any British colonial enslaved people who made their way to Florida. 

Reports in local newspapers of impending legislation may have also prompted the rebellion. South Carolinians were contemplating passing the Security Act, which would have required all white men to take their firearms with them to church on Sunday, presumably in case of unrest among a group of enslaved people broke out. Sunday had been traditionally a day when the enslavers set aside their weapons for church attendance and allowed their captives to work for themselves.

The Negro Act

The rebels fought well, which, as historian John K. Thornton speculates, may have been because they had a military background in their homeland. The areas of Africa where they had been sold into captivity were experiencing intense civil wars, and a number of ex-soldiers found themselves enslaved after surrendering to their enemies.

South Carolinians thought it was possible that the enslaved peoples' African origins had contributed to the rebellion. Part of the 1740 Negro Act, passed in response to the rebellion, was a prohibition on importing enslaved Africans. South Carolina also wanted to slow the rate of importation; African Americans outnumbered whites in South Carolina, and South Carolinians feared insurrection.

The Negro Act also made it mandatory for militias to regularly patrol to prevent enslaved people from gathering the way they had in anticipation of the Stono Rebellion. Enslavers who treated their captives too harshly were subject to fines under the Negro Act in an implicit nod to the idea that harsh treatment might contribute to rebellion.

The Negro Act severely restricted the lives of South Carolina's enslaved people. No longer could they assemble on their own, nor could they grow their food, learn to read, or work for money. Some of these provisions had existed in law before but had not been consistently enforced.

Significance of the Stono Rebellion

Students often ask, "Why didn't enslaved people fight back?" The answer is that they sometimes did. In his book "American Negro Slave Revolts" (1943), historian Herbert Aptheker estimates that over 250 rebellions of enslaved people occurred in the United States between 1619 and 1865. Some of these insurrections were as terrifying for enslavers as Stono, such as the Gabriel Prosser revolt of enslaved people in 1800, Vesey's rebellion in 1822, and Nat Turner's rebellion in 1831. When enslaved people were unable to rebel directly, they performed subtle acts of resistance, ranging from work slow-downs to feigning illness. The Stono River Rebellion is a tribute to the ongoing, determined resistance of African Americans to the oppressive system of enslavement.

Sources

  • Aptheker, Herbert. American Negro Slave Revolts. 50th Anniversary Edition. New York: Columbia University Press, 1993.
  • Smith, Mark Michael. Stono: Documenting and Interpreting a Southern Slave Revolt. Columbia, SC: University of South Carolina Press, 2005.
  • Thornton, John K. "African Dimensions of the Stono Rebellion." In A Question of Manhood: A Reader in U.S. Black Men's History and Masculinity, vol. 1. Ed. Darlene Clark Hine and Earnestine Jenkins. Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press, 1999.