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Gabriel

GABRIEL (1776–1800)

Virginia, Governor (17991802: Monroe), Executive Papers of Governor James Monroe, 1799-1802, Accession 40936, Letters Received, Record Group 3, State Government Records Collection, Library of Virginia, Richmond, Virginia.

Gabriel, an enslaved African American man, was born in 1776 probably in Henrico County on the Brookfield plantation of his master, Thomas Prosser. During his life Gabriel did not use the surname Prosser although later historians have referred to him as Gabriel Prosser. His parents are unknown, but he had at least two brothers. Gabriel was large of stature, standing at least six feet tall. Trained as a blacksmith, he also knew how to read and write. Gabriel was hired away from the plantation regularly and apparently, as was the custom, was allowed to hire himself out occasionally. In the mid-1790s, he married an enslaved woman named Nanny.

In 1798 Gabriel's master died, and his son Thomas Henry Prosser inherited his estate including Gabriel. In 1799 Gabriel was convicted of biting off part of the ear of a white neighbor. About that time he began plans for an insurrection in which slaves would enter Richmond with force, capture the Capitol and the Virginia State Armory, and hold Governor James Monroe hostage to bargain for freedom for Virginia's slaves. Gabriel would have been familiar with the Democratic-Republicans and Federalists debates about the proper extent of liberty and the legacies of the French, American, and even the Haitian revolutions. Learning from these debates, Gabriel and the other conspirators based their actions on conceptions of freedom and liberty that flowed from the revolutionary movements. Gabriel spent much of the summer of 1800 in Richmond recruiting unskilled urban slaves and the conspiracy spread to Petersburg, Charlottesville, Suffolk, and Norfolk.

On the date of the planned uprising, August 30, 1800, a tremendous storm dropped heavy rain on central Virginia, swelling creeks and turning Richmond's dirt streets into quagmires. The storm aborted Gabriel's plans, a conspiracy known to hundreds of slaves throughout central Virginia. The intensity of the storm delayed the conspirators' planned gathering, and a few nervous slaves told their masters of the plot. The arrests of the conspirators led to trials in Richmond, Petersburg, Norfolk, and several surrounding counties. Gabriel was captured late in September in Norfolk and returned to Richmond in chains. The conspirators were tried in courts of oyer and terminer, established under a 1692 statute in which testimony was heard by five justices, not a jury, with appeal only to the governor. Twenty-six slaves were hanged, and another apparently committed suicide in his cell. Gabriel was the last to be executed and he died alone on the Richmond gallows near Fifteenth and Broad streets.

Suggested Reading:

Egerton, Douglas R. Gabriel's Rebellion: The Virginia Slave Conspiracies of 1800–1802. Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press, 1993.

Schwarz, Philip J. "Gabriel's Challenge: Slaves and Crime in Late Eighteenth-Century Virginia." Virginia Magazine of History and Biography 90, no. 3 (July 1982): 283–309.

Douglas R. Egerton "Gabriel's Conspiracy and the Election of 1800." Journal of Southern History 56, no. 2 (May, 1990): 191–214.

Related Links:

Learn more in Death or Liberty: Gabriel, Nat Turner, and John Brown (LVA exhibition: January 10, 2000—November 8, 2000)

This Day in Virginia: August 30