Slave patrols were a crucial mechanism of slave control in the colonial and antebellum periods of South Carolina’s history. From their experimental colonial beginnings, slave patrols bound elite planters to less wealthy white farmers and helped white South Carolinians enforce their perceived racial superiority.
Like South Carolina’s earliest slave codes, the earliest slave patrol systems were based on Barbadian models. Trapped by the paradox of enslaving native peoples and employing them as slave catchers, white South Carolinians took matters into their own hands; they provided for official slave patrols beginning in 1704. The slave patrol and the local militia both drew from the same pool of able-bodied men, but in times of invasion patrollers were to stay away from combat and police the slave population. In the early years of the eighteenth century, gentlemen served alongside poorer white farmers in the patrols. From 1734 to 1737, in an effort to improve the quality of patrols, patrollers were paid for their services. Following the Stono Rebellion in 1739, the Commons House of Assembly passed the Negro Act of 1740, which provided for constant, regular patrols. Patrol captains divided their beats systematically, and the Charleston night watch patrolled the streets of the colony’s only city of any significance. The system of patrols established in 1740 would last, with minor revision, until the end of the Civil War.
The popular conception of slave patrollers has often conflated them with professional slave catchers. In South Carolina all plantation owners were called upon to serve in patrols, and specific rules were instituted so that women and exempted men (men in ill health, firemen, and military officers who had served more than seven years) could provide substitutes. As the nineteenth century progressed and local militias lost power, city councils and other governing bodies took responsibility for slave patrols. Patrol beats were not large; most ranged between ten and fifteen miles. Slave patrols served social functions as well, providing patrollers from different social classes a chance to share liquor or compete for leadership in an exclusively male arena. Such interaction strengthened the idea of white solidarity across class lines.
Former slaves often recalled the patrollers as drunken, rowdy men from the lowest rungs of society, but men of property did serve as patrol captains, particularly during the colonial period. In the antebellum period overseers and other non slave owning whites rode on patrol. The typical antebellum patrol consisted of a handful of men on horseback with three principal tasks: to search slave quarters, to disperse slave gatherings, and to guard roads and towns from delinquent slaves. During times of heightened tension, such as rebellions or wars, patrols stayed out all night and were invested with increased authority to disrupt the lives of slaves. Following the Civil War, official slave patrols ended. Unfortunately for recently freed slaves, however, white South Carolinians were bent on maintaining their racial superiority. Paramilitary groups, such as the Ku Klux Klan, terrorized the state’s African American population in ways that reflected the long tradition of the slave patrol.
Hadden, Sally E. Slave Patrols: Law and Violence in Virginia and the Carolinas. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2001.
Henry, Howell M. The Police Control of the Slave in South Carolina. 1914. Reprint, New York: Negro Universities Press, 1968.
Jones, Norrece. Born a Child of Freedom, yet a Slave: Mechanisms of Control and Strategies of Resistance in Antebellum South Carolina. Middletown, Conn.: Wesleyan University Press, 1989.