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SLAVE INSURRECTIONS

SLAVE INSURRECTIONS. A web of rumor, contradiction, exaggeration, demagoguery, and factual error enshrouds the subject of slave revolt in Texas. Even the most basic of questions remains open to debate: Were there real plots that threatened to overthrow the institution or only panics roused by self-serving politicians? The issue derives in large part from confusions that clouded the minds of antebellum Texans regarding the nature of slavery itself. Actions by the Texas legislature provide apt illustration. Although a committee of the House concluded in 1857, "Our slaves are the happiest . . . of human beings on whom the sun shines," in 1858 the legislature passed a measure to repress insurrection and punish its participants. The lawmakers produced an idealized vision one year but recanted the next. The first major insurrection episode in Texas occurred in 1835–36. Apprehensive Texas leaders, facing the impending arrival of the forces of Antonio López de Santa Anna, charged their enemies with fomenting a black rebellion in the summer of 1835. The greatest uncertainty centered on slaves along the Brazos who in October reportedly "made an attempt to rise" as part of an elaborate scheme to seize the land. Though whites retaliated by rounding up, whipping, and hanging bondsmen, fears of insurrection continued as Texas military fortunes waned. Such fears contributed to the panic of the Runaway Scrape the next spring. The crisis passed with the Texans' victory, but gangs of runaways participated with Indians and Mexicans in a guerrilla-like warfare for the remainder of the decade.

A supposed slave-Mexican coalition also aroused anxiety in 1856. The rebellion, suspected first by vigilantes in Colorado County in September, reportedly spread into neighboring counties to the west and south, but only the alleged conspirators suffered actual damage. Extralegal investigating committees claimed to have executed three blacks, whipped a white abolitionist, and evicted the entire population of Mexicans, charging them with incendiary provocations. In fact, though slaves had supposedly been made restless by the presidential campaign of Republican John C. Frémont, this incident exemplified the anti-Hispanic hostility that had been growing throughout western Texas since 1854 more than a genuine slave insurrection. Anti-Hispanic feeling culminated in the Cart War of 1857.

The bloodiest insurrection episode, sometimes called the Texas Troubles, occurred in the intense political climate of 1860. In July a series of unexplained fires in Dallas, Denton, and other parts of North Texas encouraged again the formation of vigilance committees. These groups conducted interrogations that spread terror in the slave quarters and implicated itinerant ministers as the insurrection leaders. The general rebellion expected on election day, August 6, did not occur, but wildly exaggerated reporting spread panic through most northern and a few central Texas counties. Ultimately about ten reputed abolitionists and probably half that many slaves reportedly died at the hands of frontier justice between July and September. The expectation of a black revolt persisted even after the Civil War. Described by one historian as a "drama of the imagination," this last scare swept through the Gulf South in the summer of 1865 and reached East Texas in the fall. Even early scoffers came to accept the danger as Christmas day, the day of the expected uprising, approached, but the holidays passed without a rising.

These scares followed a consistent pattern. All broke out when Texans felt strong outside political or military pressure and became apprehensive about internal enemies of slavery. In no instance did an organized body of slaves shed white blood, though vigilantes did. Some genuinely suspicious circumstances kindled the crises; the conflagrations of July 8, 1860, for instance, began in different towns at approximately the same hour, a fact pointing to arson. Occasionally vigilantes found slaves in possession of arms. Testimonials regarding the slaves' intention of revolting in 1835 came from fairly reliable military sources. Otherwise, the evidence suggests that the incidents grew out of emotional tensions and mob actions. Vigilantes often obtained "confessions" through intimidation. Newspapers reported secondhand and contradictory information, based sometimes on accounts supplied by members of mobs. In 1860 Unionists disputed the existence of rebellions with the suggestion that faulty matches had caused the fires and with the charge that secessionists deliberately spread hysteria to gather support. Intensive studies of specific groups and communities cast doubt on the existence of actual revolts. Most northern Methodists persecuted as black Republican incendiaries in 1860, for example, had fled the previous year, and suffered persecution on flimsy evidence including name misidentification. Though newspapers reported slave rebellions in the population and political centers of Harrison and Travis counties, neither place experienced any real revolt. Even historian Herbert Aptheker, frequently accused of confusing rumors with rebellions, described the evidence for the 1860 plot as "far from satisfactory."

That no organized revolutionaries emerged from the ranks of Texas slaves to shed their masters' blood obviously provided whites little comfort, for the slaveowners still judged their bondsmen capable of rebellion. Despite this potential, other factors discouraged such activity. Studies of slave revolts in the Americas suggest the following preconditions, all absent from the Texas environment: extended and widespread economic distress; black majorities, especially when concentrated on very large absentee plantations and in cities; and a heavy presence of newly arrived Africans, who were even more militant if they were Islamic.

However, other characteristics which inspired insurrection fleetingly appeared in Texas, no doubt contributing to white uneasiness. Rebellions flourished during times of international conflict, especially when authorities armed slaves for military purposes. This situation very nearly occurred in the Texas Revolution and produced a potential uprising, only to vanish with the speedy end of the war. Subsequently, white power grew, slave revolts diminished throughout the United States, and improved material conditions rendered slave unrest more individualized. One final inducement to slave revolt, the example of an active Maroon community of runaways, developed in Mexico. Fugitives fled to Mexico after Texas independence. Some found leadership in a Seminole refugee named Coacoochee and his black partner, Juan Caballo, who in 1850 persuaded authorities in Mexico to support their colony in Coahuila as a buffer to Indian or Anglo incursions. This successful experiment was later moved to ease border tensions, but the general lure of freedom made Mexico the common destination of runaways in the 1850s. Armed groups sometimes conducted provisioning raids in West Texas while on their trek to the border. Slaveowners agitated for diplomatic or other government support and in 1851 and 1855 sponsored military expeditions to recapture the fugitives, but the blacks resisted and grew to an estimated 4,000 strong. The Mexican avenue to freedom served as an outlet for slave discontent and removed some potential militants from bondage in Texas. Thus, although slaves resisted individually, the necessary conditions for organized rebellion never completely obtained in Texas. See also ABOLITION, and ANTEBELLUM TEXAS.

BIBLIOGRAPHY: 

Wendell G. Addington, "Slave Insurrections in Texas," Journal of Negro History 35 (October 1950). Herbert Aptheker, American Negro Slave Revolts (New York: Columbia University Press, 1943; rpt., New York: International, 1963). Dan T. Carter, "The Anatomy of Fear: The Christmas Day Insurrection Scare of 1865," Journal of Southern History 42 (May 1976). Eugene D. Genovese, From Rebellion to Revolution: Afro-American Slave Revolts in the Making of the Modern World (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1979). Paul D. Lack, "Slavery and Vigilantism in Austin, Texas, 1840–1860," Southwestern Historical Quarterly 85 (July 1981). Bill Ledbetter, "Slave Unrest and White Panic: The Impact of Black Republicanism in Antebellum Texas," Texana 10 (1972). William W. White, "The Texas Slave Insurrection of 1860," Southwestern Historical Quarterly 52 (January 1949).

James M. Smallwood

Citation

The following, adapted from the Chicago Manual of Style, 15th edition, is the preferred citation for this article.

James M. Smallwood, "SLAVE INSURRECTIONS," Handbook of Texas Online (http://www.tshaonline.org/handbook/online/articles/jcs02), accessed October 21, 2014. Uploaded on June 15, 2010. Published by the Texas State Historical Association.