The 1805 Slave Revolt at Chatham


From John Hennessy, (for more on the slave landscape at Chatham see Eric Mink’s posts on here and here):

The laundry at Chatham, once the domain of Chatham's slaves.

The laundry at Chatham, once the domain of Chatham’s slaves.

Chatham bubbled in the news the other day when Chance the Rapper won best new artist. One of Chance’s songs, “How Great,” briefly mentions the 1805 uprising of enslaved people at Chatham.  We have thus had a few questions.  So, I post here a piece I wrote a few years back that sheds light on the uprising.

Several years ago, the park’s former superintendent, Russ Smith, found this vivid letter and affidavit at the Central Rappahannock Heritage Center (which has become truly an important repository over the last many years). It, more than anything else we have ever seen, explains the origins and nature of the slave revolt at Chatham on January 2, 1805.  By way of context, Chatham was still owned at the time by its builder, William Fitzhugh, but he had removed his residence to Alexandria, leaving supervision of Chatham’s slaves to a new overseer named Starke. Starke had managed to antagonize at least a part of the resident slaves at Chatham, and after the holidays some rose in a spontaneous act of defiance that resulted in death and confusion. One slave died in the battle that followed, and a white man was mortally injured.

The affidavit included here was sent by a local Falmouth Resident, William Richards, to Governor John Page, seeking clemency for one of the slaves implicated (and sentenced to hang) in the rebellion–a man named Robin. Robin was likely well-known to his owner Fitzhugh as a determined soul; in a 1797 letter Fitzhugh recorded that he “had him whip’d and continue to do whenever he comes” to Chatham (Robin was then likely being employed at Eagle’s Nest, another of Fitzhugh’s plantations in King George County.  The request for clemency ultimately worked. Robin was spared, though he was likely deported to the Caribbean.

The Chatham slave revolt is one of the few uprisings recorded in the Fredericksburg area, and the only one I know of that resulted in death to either the slaves or their white controllers.

The document is ripe for extensive analysis. But here it is, unimproved.  

Falmouth 6th February 1805

Sir,

Annexed is a Statement of the Circumstance attending the late riot on the Plantation of William Fitzhugh, Esq., late of Chatham in this County whose humanity to his servants has become almost proverbial.  The management of this Estate was a short time Since transferred to Col. Rob Randolph who, believing that the Overseer employed by Mr. Fitzhugh for nearly 20 years was too indulgent, thought proper sometime since to change him for Mr. Starke who at present Acts in that Capacity.  to this change do I think the late event chiefly to be attributed as no disposition to oppose the former Overseer had ever been manifested altho. he had frequently chastised many of the Servants.

There does not appear to have been any settled plan of Opposition on the part of the Negroes nor previous disposition to oppose the authority of the Overseer.  There have been Written and printed Statements on the Subject some of which I am sorry to say have been very incorrect.  having acted as a mag— at the Commitment I pledge myself that the one you have hereunto Annex’d as correct — far as related to material facts.  there may be some trifling occurrences which I have Omitted.  Considering the nature and extent of the riot I flatter myself that your Excellency will concur with me in Opinion that as one of the Negroes was Shot on the plantation, another drowned that the Hanging of Abram will be a Sufficient example to the others.  It is not my wish that Robin should be pardoned.  It is only to change his sentence to transportation.  —the Gallows that has induced me to exhibit this Statement .  the Three unfortunate young fellows who lay over to take them Trial at our next Court are not —I believe more than 22 years old.  to make remarks respecting them at this time might be improper.  In case of your concuring with me in opinion I will thank you To deliver to my Friend Mr. Will. J. Roberts the Bearer of this a Respite or Reprieve and forward one to the Sheriff.

I am Sir with Esteem Your Most Ob——

Will Richards

A Statement of the Circumstances attending the late riot of the Negroes on the Estate of William Fitzhugh, Esq. late of Chatham in Stafford County

Falmouth 6th February 1805

Sir

On Wednesday the 2d of January last the overseer (Mr. Stark) undertook to chastise a Negroe Fellow named Robin who resisted and finally proved too strong for him.  Mr. Starke immediately came up to Falmo. to procure assistance.  Phill. another Negroe belonging to the Estate followed him and observed while in Town that the overseer had better not return as he was determined that he should not reside on the Estate.  Mr. Stark got John Bett and Benj. Bussell to go with him.  those two persons were perhaps the most improper that could have gone as they were generally thought Cruel and were rendered still more obnoxious from some personal differences that had taken place with some of the Negroes previous to this event.  on their arrival at the place where the Negroes were occupied Threshing Corn, Abram, one of the persons convicted, picked up an Axe after making use of some expressions and make a Stroke at Bussell and would probably Kill’d him had he succeeded in Striking.  a scuffle very soon succeeded in which Bussell recd. a wound that has Since put a period to his existence.  the other Two would probably have Shared the same Fate but for the interposition of some of the Negroes better disposed who rescued them.  Phill. who had made use of the Threatening expressions respecting the overseer in Falmouth and who was the only one of the rioters that remained upon the plantation when the Second party went down was shot Dead in endeavouring to escape after having been taken.  Robin — the other Fellow condemned was not engaged in the Brawl[?] when Mr. Bussell received his mortal wound but had fled soon after the Scuffle between himself and the overseer previous to the event.  From the Evidence given at the commitment and trial there does not appear to have been any settled on predetermined plan of opposition or disposition to rebel as a full confirmation of this being the opinion of Messers. Bett, Bussell, & the overseer, neither of these persons (except the latter) had any weapons for defence and him only a pistol.  a dislike to changing their overseer which had taken place a short time before appears to have been the Principal cause for dissatisfaction.  No disposition to oppose his Authority had been before manifested and probably this may have been as Much the effect of the humer[?] of a xmas Holliday as any thing else.  Abram is a Strong, daring and resolute Negroe and had generally acted as a leader amongst the Negroes on the estate and says he would as soon die now as at any other time.  Robin is a Carpenter (a Young Man) appears Penetent and Sorry for what has happened.

[Statement by William Richards of Falmouth]

I am willing that a reprieve should be granted in favor of Robin untill the governor can obtain the advice of a full Court and more information — Alex Stuart

I also advise that a reprieve be granted for one month (to Robin)

Al. McRae 12. Feb. 1805

I concur with Mr. Stuart & Mr. McRae that a reprieve of one month be granted for Robin.

W: Foushee

12. Feb. 1805

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2 thoughts on “The 1805 Slave Revolt at Chatham

  1. In his letter, William Richards has come up with some language that might be used in obituaries today rather than the standard language, to wit:

    “…Abram … picked up an Axe … and make a stroke at Bussell and … a scuffle very soon succeeded in which Bussell recd. a wound that has Since put a period to his existence.”

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