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.”
He must have learned something about escaping because on April 26, 1834, he successfully escaped from jail and seems to have disappeared back into society. Thus, he eluded the hangman. However, this same anonymity is history’s worst enemy because so many questions are left unanswered. So Windover was mostly forgotten.
For almost three more decades, up until the Civil War, insurrections continued. The Richmond Dispatch reported on Oct. 30, 1860, that a man named Dodson was indicted in Pittsylvania Court House, Va., for “advising and inciting Negros in this state to rebel and make insurrection.”
“Dodson was overheard to tell Negros at a late hour of the night, that the children of Israel were in greater bondage than they and that they threw off the yoke of slavery by themselves, that the negroes of St. Domingo had overpowered their masters and set themselves free, and that if they would only be determined, and show that they were in earnest, the North would send them help; that there were 500 men in this county who would help them, and that many of the remainder would do nothing against them, and that in a short time they could all be free.”
The Richmond Dispatch also reported an attempted insurrection in the town of Manchester, Chesterfield County, Va., in January 1861. The conspirators, who met at the home of a man named Vaughn, consisted mostly of freed slaves, members of the Howlett family. It was reported the conversation included potentially treasonous statements, such as they would all be freed in two months and that “a vessel laden with silver was now on its way from the North for the use of the colored people.”
Several of Vaughn’s slaves reported the plot to the authorities. After several hours of testimony, it was concluded that the comments made at Vaughn’s table related to informal news accounts that people were sharing among themselves, rather than any contemplated insurrection.
Paul N. Herbert of Fairfax County is a frequent contributor to the Civil War page.