The Stono Rebellion was a violent albeit failed attempt by as many as one hundred slaves to reach St. Augustine and claim freedom in Spanish-controlled Florida. The uprising was South Carolina’s largest and bloodiest slave insurrection. While not a direct challenge to the authority of the state, the Stono Rebellion nevertheless alerted white authorities to the dangers of slave revolt, caused a good deal of angst among planters, and resulted in legislation designed to control slaves and lessen the chances of insurrection by the colony’s black majority population.
The revolt began on Sunday, September 9, 1739, on a branch of the Stono River in St. Paul’s Parish, near Charleston. Several factors influenced slaves’ timing of the rebellion, including a suspicious visit to Charleston by a priest who contemporaries thought was “employed by the Spaniards to procure a general Insurrection of the Negroes,” a yellow fever epidemic that swept the area in August and September, and rumors of war between Spain and England. It is also probable that the Stono rebels timed their revolt to take place before September 29, when a provision requiring all white men to carry firearms to Sunday church services was to go into effect. In addition, several of the insurgents originated from the heavily Catholic Kongo, and their religious beliefs influenced the timing of the uprising.
Whatever the slaves’ reasoning, the revolt began early on Sunday when the conspirators met at the Stono River. From there, they moved to Stono Bridge, broke into a store, equipped themselves with guns and powder, and killed two men. Guns in hand, they burned down a house, killed three people, and then turned southward, reaching a tavern before sunup. There the insurgents discriminated, sparing the innkeeper because they considered him “a good man and kind to his slaves.” The innkeeper’s neighbors were less fortunate; the rebels burned four of their houses, ransacked another, and killed all the whites they found. Other slaves joined the rebellion, and some sources suggest that at this point the insurgents used drums, raise a flag or banner, and shouted “Liberty!” during their march southward.
At about eleven o’clock, Lieutenant Governor William Bull encountered the insurgents on his way to Charleston. Bull and his four companions “escaped & raised the Countrey.” As the rebels proceeded southward, their ranks increased from sixty to as many as one hundred participants. According to a contemporary account, they then “halted in a field and set to dancing, Singing and beating Drums to draw more Negroes to them.”
By late afternoon the original insurgents had covered ten miles. Some were undoubtedly tired, and others were likely drunk on stolen liquor. Confident in their numbers and Kongolese military training, the rebels paused in an open field near the Jacksonborough ferry in broad daylight. To rest and also to draw more slaves to their ranks, they decided to delay crossing the Edisto River.
By four o’clock between twenty and one hundred armed planters and militiamen, possibily alerted to the revolt by Bull’s party, confronted the rebels in what was thereafter known as “the battlefield.” The rebels distinguished themselves as courageous, even in the eyes of their enemies, but white firepower won the day. Some slaves who had been forced to join the rebellion were released, other were shot, and some were decapitated and their heads set on posts. Thirty members of the rebel force escaped, many of whom were hunted down the following week.
Whites perceived the Stono insurrection to have continued at least until the following Sunday, when militiamen encountered the largest group of disbanded rebels another thirty miles south. A second battle ensued, this one effectively ending the insurrection. Yet white fears echoed for months. Militia companies in the area remained on guard, and some planters deserted the Stono region in November “for their better Security and Defence against those Negroes which were concerned in that INsurrection who were not yet taken.” Some of the rebels were rounded up in the spring of 1740, and one leader was not captured until 1742.
The rebellion resulted in efforts to curtail the activities of slaves and free blacks. The 1740 Negro Act made the manumission of slaves dependent on a special act of the assembly and mandated patrol service for every militiaman. The colony also imposed a prohibitive duty on the importation of new slaves in 1741 in an effort to stem the growth of South Carolina’s majority black population.
About forty whites and probably as many blacks were killed during the Stono insurrection. The willingness of slaves to strike out for freedom with such force heightened anxieties among whites over internal security in the South Carolina slaveholding society for years to come.
Pearson, Edward A. “‘A Countryside Full of Flames’: A Reconsideration of the Stono Rebellion and Slave Rebelliousness in the Early Eighteenth-Century South Carolina Lowcountry.” Slavery and Abolition 17 (August 1996): 22-50.
Smith, Mark M. Stono: Documenting and Interpreting a Southern Slave Revolt. Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 2005.
Thornton, John K. “African Dimensions of the Stono Rebellion.” American Historical Review 96 (October 1991): 1101-13.