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Gabriel (1776 – October 10, 1800), today commonly if incorrectly known as Gabriel Prosser, was a literate enslaved blacksmith who planned and led a large slave rebellion in the Richmondmarker area in the summer of 1800. Governor James Monroe and the state militia suppressed the rebellion. Gabriel and 26 other enslaved people who participated were hanged. In reaction, the Virginia and other legislatures passed restrictions on free blacks, as well as the education, movement and hiring out of the enslaved.

In 2002 the City of Richmond passed a resolution in honor of Gabriel on the 202nd anniversary of the rebellion. In 2007 Governor Tim Kaine gave Gabriel and his followers an informal pardon, in recognition that his cause, "the end of slavery and the furtherance of equality for all people - has prevailed in the light of history."

Life and background

Born into slavery in Henrico County, Virginiamarker, Gabriel had two brothers, Solomon and Martin. They all lived on the tobacco plantation, called Brookfield, of Thomas Prosser. It was likely that Gabriel's father was a blacksmith, as that was the trade Gabriel and Solomon were trained in. He was also taught to read and write. By the mid-1790s, as Gabriel neared the age of twenty, he stood "six feet two or three inches high". His long and "bony face, well made", was marred by the loss of his two front teeth and "two or three scars on his head". Whites as well as blacks regarded the literate young man as "a fellow of great courage and intellect above his rank in life."

Gabriel's Rebellion

Gabriel planned the revolt during the spring and summer of 1800. On August 30, 1800, Gabriel hoped to lead the slaves into Richmond, but torrential rains postponed the rebellion. The slaves' owners had suspicion of the uprising. Before it could be carried out, two slaves told their owner Mosby Sheppard about the plans. He in turn warned Virginia's Governor James Monroe, who called out the state militia. Gabriel escaped downriver to Norfolk, but there he was spotted and betrayed by another slave for the reward. That slave did not receive the full reward.

Gabriel was returned to Richmond for questioning, but he did not submit. Gabriel, his two brothers, and 24 of their followers were hanged.


Historian Douglas Egerton offered a new perspective on Gabriel in his book Gabriel's Rebellion: The Virginia Slave Conspiracies of 1800 & 1802. The book incorporated extensive primary research from surviving contemporary documents. Among his findings, Egerton observed that Gabriel was never known by the surname "Prosser". He noted that was an after-the-fact assumption from a period when slaves and ex-slaves sometimes adopted their owner's family names, or whites assumed they would do so. According to Egerton, in 1800 white authorities referred to Gabriel as "Prosser's Gabriel," but his common-use name was simply Gabriel.

Egerton found that Gabriel was a skilled blacksmith who was mostly "hired out" by his owner in Richmond foundries, an increasingly common practice as the market for tobacco was depressed and soil depleted. Slaveholders leased skilled slaves for jobs available in Virginia industries. Egerton concluded that Gabriel would have been stimulated and challenged by interacting with co-workers of European, African and mixed descent. They hoped Thomas Jefferson's Republicans would liberate them from domination by the wealthy Federalist merchants of the city. Gabriel also would have learned about the uprising and struggles of slaves in Saint Domingue.

Egerton believed that Gabriel had two white co-conspirators, at least one of whom was identified as a French national. Documentary evidence of their identity or involvement was sent to Governor Monroe but never produced in court. The internal dynamics of Jefferson's and Monroe's party in the 1800 elections were more complex than they appeared to either white or black partisans in Richmond. A significant part of the Republicans' base was owners of large plantations. Any sign that white radicals, and particularly Frenchmen, had supported Gabriel's plan could have cost Jefferson the election. Slaveholders had been made fearful by the violent excesses unleashed by the French Revolution and the rebellion of slaves in Saint-Domingue. Egerton believed that Gabriel planned to take Governor Monroe hostage to negotiate an end to slavery. Then he planned to "drink and dine with the merchants of the city".

Egerton noted that Gabriel did not order his followers to kill all whites except Methodists, Quakers and Frenchmen; rather, he instructed them to refrain from killing any people in those three categories. Methodists and Quakers were active missionaries for manumission, and the French ended slavery in 1794.

Gabriel initially escaped on a ship owned by a former overseer, a recently converted Methodist who repeatedly overlooked information as to his passenger's identity. Hoping to obtain a sufficient reward to purchase his own freedom, a slave "hired out" to work on the ship turned in Gabriel. He was paid only $50 as a reward, not the $300 expected.


Gabriel's uprising was notable not because of its actual impact — the rebellion was quelled before it could begin — but because of the potential for mass chaos and widespread violence. In Virginia in 1800, 39.2 percent of the population was enslaved, with a concentration of slaves on plantations in the Tidewater area and west of Richmond. No reliable numbers existed regarding slave and free black conspirators; most likely, the number of men actively involved numbered only several hundred.

From 1780 to 1810, the number of slaves freed in the Upper South had grown markedly, as some slaveholders were inspired to free slaves by the American Revolution and its ideals. Methodists and Quakers especially worked to convince slaveholders to manumit slaves. The percentage of free blacks rose from 1 percent to more than 10 percent by 1810, with Virginia nearly doubling its percentage, from 4.2 to 7.2. By 1810 nearly three-quarters of Delawaremarker's blacks were free. Some Virginia slaveholders watched these activities nervously, made uneasy as well by the violent aftermath of the French Revolution and the uprising of slaves in the 1790s in Saint Domingue. In 1792 France granted social equality to free people of color, and in 1793 French Revolutionary commissioners in Saint-Domingue granted freedom to all the slaves. White refugees migrated to the US during the years of upheaval, now known as the Haitian Revolution. In 1804 black and mulatto revolutionaries gained freedom, declaring the colony the independent black nation of Haitimarker.

Gabriel had been able to plan the rebellion because of relatively lax rules of movement between plantations and the city. After the rebellion, many slaveholders greatly restricted the slaves' rights of travel when not working. Fears of a slave revolt regularly swept major slaveholding communities.

Prior to this rebellion, Virginia law had allowed education of slaves, and training slaves in skilled trades. After the rebellion, and after a second conspiracy was organized in 1802 among enslaved boatmen along the Appomattox and Roanoke Rivers, the Virginia Assembly in 1808 banned hiring out of slaves and required freed blacks to leave the state or face re-enslavement (1806). Free blacks had to petition the legislature to stay in the state, and were often aided in that goal by white friends or allies. In addition to the catalyst of Gabriel's Rebellion, the law against residency was prompted by the marked increase in population of free people of color in Virginia, as noted above in manumission of slaves after the American Revolution. The very existence of free blacks challenged the conditions of slave states.

Legacy and honors

Gabriel's rebellion served as an important example of slaves' taking action to seek freedom.

  • In 2002 the City of Richmond adopted a resolution to commemorate the 202nd anniversary "of the execution of the patriot and freedom fighter, Gabriel, whose death stands as a symbol for the determination and struggle of slaves to obtain freedom, justice and equality as promised by the fundamental principles of democratic governments of the Commonwealth of Virginia and the United States of America."

  • In the fall of 2006 the Virginia State Conference of the NAACP requested Gov. Tim Kaine to pardon Gabriel in recognition of his contributions to the civil rights struggle of African Americans and all peoples.

  • On August 30, 2007, Virginia Governor Tim Kaine informally pardoned Gabriel and his co-conspirators. Kaine said that Gabriel's motivation had been "his devotion to the ideals of the American revolution — it was worth risking death to secure liberty." Kaine noted that "Gabriel's cause — the end of slavery and the furtherance of equality of all people — has prevailed in the light of history", and added that "it is important to acknowledge that history favorably regards Gabriel's cause while consigning legions who sought to keep him and others in chains to be forgotten." The pardon was informal because it was posthumous.


  • Arna Bontemps, Black Thunder. New York: Macmillan, 1936, a historical novel based on Gabriel's Rebellion


  • Tim Barry, a singer/songwriter from Richmond, wrote and performed “Prosser’s Gabriel” which chronicles the events of Gabriel's life, focusing on the attempted revolution.

See also



  • Aptheker, Herbert. American Negro Slave Revolts. New York: International Publishers, 1983 (1943).
  • Egerton, Douglas R. Gabriel's Rebellion: The Virginia Slave Conspiracies of 1800 and 1802. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1993.
  • Rodriguez, Junius P., ed. Encyclopedia of Slave Resistance and Rebellion. Westport, CT: Greenwood, 2006.
  • Sidbury, James. Ploughshares into Swords: Race, Rebellion, and Identity in Gabriel's Virginia, 1730-1810. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1997.

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