Mississippi experienced only one actual slave revolt, but on several occasions, planters uncovered conspiracies to revolt. The infrequency of slave insurrections in Mississippi, as in the rest of the South, stems from the fact that the likelihood of success was usually limited, making slaves unwilling to take the risk. Indeed, conspiracies seem to have occurred only when instability in the white community suggested to slaves that rebellion might succeed.
Mississippi’s only outright rebellion coincided with the Natchez Uprising of 1730, in which Natchez Indians and allied slaves took up arms against French settlers, killing all men. In a subsequent raid on Natchez led by Choctaw allied with the French, African slaves again took up arms, holding off the Choctaw long enough to allow the Natchez to evacuate the town. While in many ways this incident falls outside the mold of slave insurrection and conspiracy, it is instructive because the weakness of French colonizers and the proximity of Natchez allies rendered the chances of success worth the risk of rebellion.
More than forty years later, in the summer of 1776, slaves on the plantation of William Dunbar were discovered plotting insurrection. This incident fits more closely the pattern of slave insurrection conspiracies in Mississippi. As a result of the isolation of Dunbar’s plantation, the masters lacked strength in numbers. Dunbar and his fellow planters formed a committee to try the slaves, convicted and hanged the alleged organizers, and then pooled resources to compensate Dunbar for the value of the executed slaves.
In 1814 slaves in the Natchez region were discovered to be conspiring to ally with Creek and French attackers during the War of 1812. This incident also matches the pattern of slave insurrections, as planters generally had grown more harsh in their treatment of slaves following the introduction of cotton. In Natchez, the slaves outnumbered the masters. Another contributing factor was internal division over the war and the rumored threat of an invasion. Slaves likely believed that a divided and outnumbered master class would be overthrown and that invaders and Indian allies would grant freedom. Once again, planters formed a committee to try and punish the organizers.
Another alleged conspiracy was discovered in Livingston, Mississippi, in 1835. Livingston was located in the frontier regions of recently opened lands that formerly had been controlled by Choctaw. Slaves outnumbered masters, and as a result of patterns of slave migration, the slave community was likely stronger and more cohesive than the planter community, which was made up of recent migrants from disparate places of origin. The conspiracy was uncovered at the same time that the outlaw John Murrell hysteria hit the region, although it is unclear how or whether the two events were related. Once again, a committee was formed to try and punish the conspirators. As with other such incidents, the Livingston uprising came after planters introduced harsher working conditions—forcing slaves to simultaneously cultivate cotton and build plantations—and the planters were outnumbered and isolated and had not yet developed a cohesive society.
Mississippi’s last known slave conspiracy occurred in 1861, just as the Civil War began, in the Second Creek region near Natchez. Slaves knew that the planters were divided over the issue of war and heard rumors that Union troops would soon invade. When the conspiracy was uncovered, planters again formed a committee and interrogated and punished the conspirators, killing several of them.
Despite the differences between these incidents, several common threads connect them. First, all occurred in areas where the slaves outnumbered the masters. Second, most conspiracies occurred at times when the planters either were isolated or did not present a united front to their slaves. Third, the conspiracies occurred either in isolated frontier regions (Dunbar’s plantation and Livingston) or amid widespread rumors of invasion (the British in 1814, Union forces in 1861). This evidence leads to the reasonable conclusion that for slaves to believe that insurrection had a chance at succeeding, they needed to outnumber masters, needed to know that masters would be unable to call in additional help, and needed an escape route (unsettled lands or with encroaching enemies). Despite the harshness of slavery in Mississippi, slaves did not often organize rebellions because the conditions indicating likely success were rare. Conversely, when those conditions existed, Mississippi’s slaves did conspire to revolt.
- Gwendolyn Midlo Hall, Africans in Colonial Louisiana: The Development of Afro-Creole Culture in the Eighteenth Century (1992)
- Winthrop D. Jordan, Tumult and Silence at Second Creek: An Inquiry into a Civil War Slave Conspiracy (1993)
- David J. Libby, Slavery and Frontier Mississippi, 1720–1835 (2004)
- Christopher Morris, Journal of Social History (Fall 1988)
- Joshua Rothman, Flush Times and Fever Dreams: A Story of Capitalism and Slavery in the Age of Jackson (2014)