Mississippi’s slave patrol system served as an important mechanism for the white population to control the movement of slaves and prevent insurrections. Groups of four to five white men, consisting of both slaveholders and nonslaveholders, were assigned to patrol an area in their county called a beat. These men, led by a captain of the patrol, walked or rode horses through the beat, looking for slaves out at night without passes from their owners. Patrollers also had the right to enter a slave owner’s property and inspect the slave quarters for weapons or illegal assemblies of slaves. Mississippi law authorized patrollers to act as judge and jury, meting out an immediate punishment of up to thirty-nine lashes with a whip. Any fugitive slaves captured by the patrol were supposed to be brought before a justice of the peace for confinement, and the patrol received up to six dollars per captured runaway slave.
The Mississippi slave patrol system originated within the state militia. Local militia commanders assigned the captains of patrols, who were then responsible for assembling the patrols from among the members of the militia. In 1831 Mississippi changed the law to allow towns to form their own systems of slave patrols. Towns faced a different set of circumstances than did rural areas, since slaves often congregated in towns on weekends and thus had the opportunity to collude in their efforts to resist slavery. Two years later, Mississippi decentralized the slave patrol system by shifting control from the state militia to the county police boards, thereby allowing local authorities to modify the patrols to meet local needs.
Although the slave patrol system looked potent on paper, it proved quite ineffective and inefficient. The duty generally offered no reward for patrollers and was considered an onerous and dull task to be avoided in most circumstances. Mississippi law allowed assigned patrollers to send substitutes to fulfill their obligation of service, which required that they patrol once every two weeks—or more often if the police board saw a need. Nearly all patrols operated on weekend nights, when most owners granted slaves free time to visit spouses and neighbors. Since patrols usually operated only twice a month, slaves had numerous opportunities to evade the patrols. A slave’s perception that the patrols operated effectively and with extreme violence was the real power behind the patrols. Former slave testimony often recalled “paddyrollers” as a terrifying presence around plantation areas, harassing slaves traveling at night and disrupting their social gatherings. Other former slaves, however, recalled the patrollers as comically inept and easily foiled. The slave patrol’s strength, therefore, rested in its symbolic power to intimidate slaves and control the night. Slave owners had no other institutional mechanism to police their slaves at night.
With the rise in sectional tensions prior to the onset of the Civil War, local authorities increased the size and frequency of slave patrols to quell potential revolts. Some communities also formed extralegal organizations to monitor slave activities. Historians have suggested that the practices used by the slave patrols to intimidate the slave population—which constituted a majority in many areas—led to the development of similar night-riding groups during Reconstruction, including the Ku Klux Klan, although establishing the connections has proven difficult because of a lack of records.
- J. Michael Crane, Journal of Mississippi History (Summer 1999)
- Gladys-Marie Fry, Night Riders in Black Folk History (1975)
- Sally E. Hadden, Slave Patrols: Law and Violence in Virginia and the Carolinas (2001)
- Charles S. Sydnor, Slavery in Mississippi (1933)