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Stono Rebellion: Definition & Summary

Instructor: Wendy Faircloth

Wendy has taught all subjects of high school social studies and English and has a master's degree in Secondary Education.

This lesson will explore what led slaves in colonial South Carolina to take the enormous risk of revolt and the results of their attempt. You will learn about the biggest slave rebellion in Colonial America, the Stono Rebellion, and the effects this rebellion had on both slaves and slaveholders.

Slavery in Colonial South Carolina: Was Rebellion Inevitable?

Have you ever wondered what you would do if you had been forced into slavery? Would you try to comply at first and seek a chance to run away later? Or would you be willing to risk your life in fighting for your freedom? These were decisions that Colonial American slaves, often abducted in Africa and brought to the colonies on a miserable and frightening journey, had to face.

South Carolina was an especially difficult and deadly place to be a slave. Forced into long hours of labor in South Carolina rice fields, these slaves worked in sweltering heat. They faced frequent sickness and death from malaria, a disease spread by infected mosquitoes. Children born to these slaves often died very young, with many not living even to their sixteenth birthdays.

Slaveholders Fear Slave Rebellions

White slaveholders in South Carolina, who were outnumbered by slaves, feared and dreaded what would happen if slaves united in revolt. Harsh laws existed to restrict slaves to plantations, to prevent them from meeting to organize. Slave owners were also concerned about slaves running away. In 1739, slave owners were particularly tense. Spain, seeking to cause turmoil in the English colonies, proclaimed that slaves who reached Spanish territory (in what is now Florida) would be given freedom. This Spanish proclamation gave slaves additional incentive to try to escape to freedom.

With these considerations in mind, the colonial government in Charlestown (Charleston) created the Security Act. This was a new law requiring white men to carry guns to church on Sunday, the one day of the week on which slaves were allowed to work for themselves. This Act was supposed to be enforced beginning September 29, 1739.

Rebellion Breaks Out

The Security Act was enacted too late. September 9, 1739 was a day that changed everything in coastal South Carolina. A group of twenty slaves gathered before dawn with the intent of leading an armed rebellion. First, they went to a shop that sold guns and ammunition. They armed themselves and then killed the two men who were running the shop.

The group of slaves continued south, killing a white slaveholder and his two children. They marched onward, stopping at a tavern. Because the tavern owner was known for treating his slaves well, the rebels chose to spare his life. Moving on to the homes of more white slaveholders, the original group of twenty slaves were joined by others, and the group slaughtered all the residents of at least six houses as they continued south. They marched in military style, carrying a flag and beating a drum. By mid-morning, the insurgents' group included about sixty men.

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