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Enslaved People in the Southeast


Letter from Governor William C. C. Claiborne to Col. Alexander De Clouet in 1814. Image courtesy of Howard-Tilton Memorial Library, Tulane University.

Since the beginning of slavery in the South of the United States, insurrections and rebellions occurred and were a source of fear for the white population. These insurrections were often met with harsh reprisals against enslaved men, women and children who participated in any type of rebellion. Laws were enacted in every Southern state and city to regulate how many enslaved people could congregate together and what types of movement, if any, enslaved people were allowed. Movement was so regulated that many slave insurrections occurred outside the plantation system. Historians estimated that there were at least 250 slave rebellions in the US before slavery was abolished.

During the War of 1812, many Southern cities and areas were concerned about British troops inciting slave insurrections. In this letter from Louisiana Governor William C. C. Claiborne to Col. Alexander De Clouet, Claiborne warns De Clouet to be alert to "Agents of the Enemy busily engaged in exciting negroes to insurrection" as British troops approached New Orleans. De Clouet was instructed to search "all negro cabins and other places where arms are most likely to be concealed."

The situation regarding slavery in Spanish East and West Florida was complex during the early 1800s as the territory switched hands between Spanish, British, and finally American control. The so-called Negro Fort, built at Prospect Bluff on the Apalachicola River, was erected by British forces during the War of 1812. At the end of the war, they left it in the possession of runaway slaves who had fled to the British lines. The fort grew into a settlement of maroon families, a short-lived free community, and was seen by slave owners as an inducement for slaves to run away.

An issue of the National Intelligencer, seen below, re-printed letters from the Navy Department that described the American attack. Well-armed, the occupants of the fort were prepared to defend their new-found freedom; but when the American gunboats opened fire with heated shot, the cannon ball hit the fort’s powder house, detonating the munitions in a massive explosion. 270 were killed and the greater part of the rest mortally wounded.

The US Secretary of War (Army) also submitted to its report to Congress during a later inquiry, which outlined American concerns about the runaways and plans for destroying the fort.

Later in Florida, during the Second Seminole War, pamphlets, such as the one seen below, helped fan the flames of white paranoia and distrust thereby facilitating the suppression of indigenous peoples and escaped slaves. Pamphlets were a relatively inexpensive means of distributing literature to a wide swath of the reading public. In this case, an anonymous “gentleman who has spent eleven weeks in Florida” used the format for politically and economically-motivated propaganda. This pamphlet also features a frontispiece from “the Horrid Massacre in Virginia,” known as Nat Turner’s Rebellion. 

The final item is a Petition to the General Assembly of the State of North Carolina dating to 1830, in which 87 slave-holding residents of Sampson, Bladen, New Hanover, and Duplin County appeal to the courts for greater enforcement against runaways.