Uprisings by slaves bring harsh responses

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Slavery always has, and always will, produce insurrections wherever it exists, because it is a violation of the natural order of things.” — Angelina Grimke, 1836

John Brown’s attempt to free slaves in October 1859 resulted in his capture and execution. It was the spark that started the Civil War. Much lesser known was John Windover’s earlier attempt to free slaves in Fairfax on Sept. 5, 1833.

During the week that Windover attempted the Fairfax insurrection, there were at least three advertisements for slaves in the Alexandria Gazette. A $50 reward was offered to anyone who returned Vincent, “a negro boy” of 17 or 18 years old, with “no marks recollected except some light spots in his face occasioned by poison.”

Simon, a “stout made, dark mulatto who limps in his walk,” fetched a $40 reward. He was further described as a “tolerable good bricklayer and brickmaker as well as waiter.”

And “a gentleman from the South wished to purchase forty or fifty slaves, of good character, for his own service.” The gentleman did not provide his offering price but did give details as to what he was looking for: “It is desirable to have a blacksmith, carpenter, coachman, and a man cook.”

Slaves were certainly not unusual in Fairfax at that time. One author asserted that in 1830 there were 3,970 slaves in Fairfax County, which represented 44 percent of the entire population. It was at a time when abolitionists were gaining ground and the fervor on both sides of the slave trade escalated to a boiling point.

The British Empire outlawed slavery in all its territories in 1833, and New York City suffered through several violent days of an abolitionist riot in July 1834. In 1831, William Lloyd Garrison started his abolitionist newspaper, the Liberator, in Boston, and Nat Turner led a slave insurrection in Southampton County, Va.

After Turner’s capture and execution, Virginia enacted stringent legislation designed to lessen the potential for future rebellions. Any person who expressed the opinion that one man had no right to own another was penalized with a $500 fine and one year in jail. Conspiracy was considered treason against the state and the penalty was death.

On a warm Thursday evening in September 1833, outside Allison’s Tavern in Fairfax (then known as the Town of Providence), emotions ran hotter than the 87-degree temperature that had been recorded that day. John Windover, a 30- to 35-year-old, 5-foot-10-inch white man described as “stout made, light florid complexion, light hair with very coarse features,” had with him a large box believed to contain weapons.

He, along with two unidentified men, were seen and heard encouraging a group of nine or 10 slaves to rebel. Windover’s comment, overheard by white people standing nearby: “If you will only be true, you can all get free.”

Windover had planned to stay at Allison’s Tavern that night but departed for Alexandria or Washington shortly after talking to the slaves. Allison’s Tavern, now known as the Ratcliffe-Allison House (Earp’s) is still standing, at the intersection of Main Street and Old Lee Highway in downtown Fairfax City. He advised others that he had “got the Negros in Prince William County to join [him], and many others.” He also told the slaves and a nearby white woman that they did not know about him at that time, but they would know him two weeks later, when he vowed to return.

Questioned by authorities after the incident, the slaves reported that Windover gave them money and told them he had plenty of weapons. He asked them to meet him later at a designated place about two miles from the Fairfax Court House.

He returned to Fairfax as promised because an article in the Sept. 20, 1833, edition of the Alexandria Gazette stated:

“A white man, named Windover, has been arrested and committed to jail in Fairfax County, for trial, on a charge of seditious conduct and improper tampering with some of the blacks of the county. They informed against him themselves.”

Before he was indicted he made an unsuccessful attempt to escape by trying to burn down the jail. He subsequently was indicted in early 1834 for “conspiring with Sundry Negroes to make insurrection,” and for “setting fire to the jail of this county.”

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