Four Freedom Fighters from Southampton

Posted on June 23, 2022
| Posted in History & Heritage

By: John Quarstein

Southampton County, Virginia was established in 1749. An agrarian community, its primary rivers, the Blackwater and Nottoway, flowed into the Albemarle Sound, not the Chesapeake Bay. This circumstance limited commerce; consequently, Southampton had few towns, just a couple of major plantations, and mostly small farms. The 1830 census details the main county products were cotton, corn, brandy, and chattel people. The rapid rise of cotton cultivation in the Deep South prompted the growth of the interstate slave trade, making bondsmen Virginia’s largest export during the first five decades prior to the Civil War. The census also details that there were 7,756 enslaved people of African descent in the County along with 1,745 free Blacks and members of the Nottoway Tribe. The minority white population, 6,573, feared the consequences of a slave revolt.

Something must have been very unique about Southampton’s African community as during the first quarter of the 19th century four men of African descent, born just a few years and miles apart, took different paths to find freedom from the oppressive conditions of slavery. Nat Turner, Anthony Gardiner, Dred Scott, and John ‘Fed’ Brown challenged existing norms and, in doing so, enflamed the nation’s slavery debate which resulted in its abolition.

Nat Turner, a slave and mesmerizing self-schooled preacher, believed that signs from Heaven guided him to initiate one of the longest and bloodiest slave revolts in American history. Turner, born in October 1800 on Benjamin Turner’s farm, was highly intelligent, literate and deeply religious. He purportedly began seeing visions from God in the 1820s. These visions prompted him to plan an uprising against enslavers.

On 11 February 1831 Nat Turner witnessed a solar eclipse. He believed this was his sign from God to begin his rebellion. Originally planned for 4th of July, Turner became ill and was unable to enact his plans. A few weeks later, 13 August 1831 an atmospheric disturbance made the sun appear bluish-green. Turner regarded this as his final sign to act and he called upon his closest followers to meet him in a ‘reptile infested swamp’ on the afternoon of 21 August 1831. Turner told them that they would use their enemies’ weapons to strike for freedom. After a meal, they began their rebellion, traveling from house to house, freeing slaves, and killing all enslavers and their families they encountered.

By noon on 22 August Turner’s command numbered over 60 armed men. After killing the Rebecca Vaughn family, ‘General Nat’ and his troops were checked by the Southampton Militia at nearby Parker’s Field. They discovered their path to Jerusalem (today’s Courtland, VA) blocked over the Nottoway River by militia. The insurrectionists spent that evening at Major Ridley’s Quarter. The next day, Turner’s remaining followers were defeated by the Blunt Family at Belmont Plantation; more were scattered by the militia at Captain Newt Harris’s house. The uprising was then violently suppressed by Virginia and North Carolina militias. Turner; nevertheless escaped and was not captured until the end of October. He was executed on 11 November 1831.

As with all other violent slave revolt’s Nat Turner’s Insurrection failed to fulfill its purpose. Slave revolts were a desperate effort to break the bonds of enslavement. By the beginning of the 19th century, many enslavers realized the need to end slavery. Yet, how to achieve this goal was the big question and prompted a “Back to Africa” movement.

Located on the west coast of Africa, Liberia was colonized through the efforts of the American Colonization Society (ACS). The Society was founded on 21 December 1816 at the Davis Hotel in Washington, D.C. Notable attendees included James Monroe, Andrew Jackson, Francis Scott Key, and Daniel Webster. Senator Henry Clay presided over the meeting and was joined by other co-founders John Randolph, Richard Bland Lee, and Bushrod Washington. Many society members believed that free blacks could not be assimilated into white society. Numerous laws existed that limited their economic and social opportunities. There was also a bias against free blacks who were often persecuted as anti-slavery agitators. Free blacks lived under slavery’s shadow and many believed they would have a better life back in Africa. Clay thought that repatriation was preferable to emancipation. Many upper South States appropriated money to underwrite transportation of these individuals to Liberia.

One of these early Liberian colonists was Anthony William Gardiner. Gardiner was born free in Southampton County on 3 February 1820. He was 11 years old when Gardiner sailed with his family to Monrovia, Liberia, aboard the Valador, on 12 February 1831.

Anthony Gardiner prospered politically in Liberia. He was a signer of the Country’s Declaration of Independence and helped to draft that new nation’s Constitution in 1847. He became LIberia’s first Attorney General in 1848. Gardiner was elected Vice-President in May 1871 and served two terms. After briefly serving as Acting President in 1876 and was eventually elected President in 1878 serving until he resigned 20 January 1883 over a boundary dispute with Sierra Leone. Gardiner, during his five years in office, strove to expand trade, established Liberia’s Interior Department, and promoted public education.

Liberia was the first independent African republic. Over 13,000 free migrants were transported to LIberia; however, this experiment did not work well due to fighting between the Americo-Liberians and indigenous people. Many people of African descent living in the United States did not wish to return to Africa as they had become Americanized despite the prejudice they endured.

The American Colonization Society was unable to achieve the mass exodus of free blacks back to Africa nor could it end slavery. The conditions of slavery were simply inhuman and which were exposed by several books written by escaped enslaved persons. One of these authors was the runaway John ‘Fed’ Brown. His expose described the break-up of slave families, the fear instituted in those enslaved of punishment and exploitation, and treatment so severe that one could scarcely imagine that men could do such things to other men.

When Brown reached freedom in England he told his story to Louis Alexis Chamerovzow, Secretary of the British and Foreign Anti-Slavery Society in 1854. Chamerovzow explained in the book’s preface, Slave Life in Georgia: A Narrative of the Life, Sufferings, and Escape of John Brown, A Fugitive Slave, Now In England, that telling John Brown’s travails as a slave would advance the anti-slavery cause thereby exposing the world to the horrible life of those still held in bondage.

John Brown, originally named ‘Fed’ was born in 1818 on the Betty Moore Farm on the Nottoway River in Southampton County. At age ten, he was separated from his family and eventually taken by slave dealer Starling Finney in 1830 to Georgia. The rising value of cotton in the 1820’s prompted an increased need and value of those enslaved. Fed was sold to a rather cruel planter Thomas Stevens for $350.

Stevens, who whipped his slaves daily, caused Fed to try to run away several times. In the last attempt he was caught and described what he called bells and horns placed around his neck and a circle of iron that fit around the crown of his head. The two torture objects were held together by three iron rods (horns) that stuck out three feet above his head and had bells attached at the end of each rod. The entire contraption weighed about fourteen pounds, and dissuaded Brown from attempting another escape. As Brown recalled, ‘When Stevens had fixed this ornament on my head, he turned me loose, and told me I might run off now if I liked.’

By some good fortune in 1845, Steven’s son temporarily removed the ‘bell and horn’ and Fed made his escape. Eventually he made his way to Indiana where he assumed his free name John Brown. With the help of Quaker conductors on the Underground Railroad, Brown then moved to Canada in 1847 where he was a copper miner. In 1849 Brown moved to runaway Josiah Henson’s Dawn Institute to learn a trade until moving to England where he died in 1876.

While the Underground Railroad was successful in freeing thousands of slaves; however, it was not a viable solution. Many, like John Brown, never gave up their hope of freedom. When Brown was able to break his own chains of slavery, he proved that he was a man equal to all others. He advanced himself by his own exertions and set an example for others of his race to follow.

Various efforts had been tried by enslaved African descended people to achieve freedom. Rebellion had little opportunity to succeed, being a fugitive slave was dangerous and often unsuccessful, and the Liberian concept was only for free blacks. Nevertheless, the United States had become a nation based on the rule of law; accordingly, when Congress passed the Northwest Ordinance it outlawed slavery in the eventual states known as Minnesota, Wisconsin, Indiana, Illinois, and Ohio. This law was reinforced by the Missouri Compromise. The Mason Dixon Line became the boundary between African-descended people living enslaved or free. This situation would be challenged by the Southampton County native Dred Scott.

Born in Southampton County about 1798, Dred Scott was acquired by the Peter Blow family shortly thereafter. The Blows moved to Alabama and then to St. Louis, Missouri, where they sold Dred to John Emerson, a surgeon serving with the U.S. Army.

When Dr. Emerson died in 1843, his wife, Irene, inherited Scott, his wife and children. Dred attempted to purchase his freedom; however, Mrs. Emerson refused. Scott then filed a legal suit in 1850. The St. Louis Circuit Court declared that Scott and his family should be granted freedom since they had been illegally held as slaves when Dr. Emerson had taken them on his Army assignments in the free jurisdictions of Illinois (Fort Armstrong) and Wisconsin Territory (Fort Snelling). Mrs. Emerson appealed. The Missouri Supreme Court struck down the decision in 1852 and the Scotts were returned to slavery.

With the assistance of new lawyers, some of whom were later members of President Abraham Lincoln’s Cabinet, the Scotts filed suit in Federal Court. The case went to the Supreme Court and on 6 March 1857, Chief Justice Roger B. Taney delivered the majority ruling that according to the Constitution, any person descended from Africans, whether enslaved or free, was not a citizen of the United State. He stated that neither the Northwest Ordinance nor the Missouri Compromise could exclude slavery. Taney ruled that Scott could not be freed by legislative action because he was subject to the Fifth Amendment which prohibited the taking of property from its owner ‘without due process.’ Dred Scott was returned to the Blow family and later manumitted. Justice Taney’s decision deepened tensions between the North and the South. The Civil War broke out four years later.

Nat Turner, Anthony Gardiner, John Brown, and Dred Scott all conspired to end enslavement of African descended people. Each man’s case took slavery to task for its inherent evils. Nat Turner reinforced the white fears of slave revolts. The 1831 Southampton Insurrection was one of the last major slave revolts prior to the Civil War. Governor John Floyd called the Virginia General Assembly into session in January 1832, during which the causes, events, and results of Nat Turner’s rebellion were discussed. Several bills concerning general manumission or the sale and deportation of all slaves were debated. None of these concepts proved to be successful.

Virginia’s first slave code was passed in 1682. New slave codes; however, were legislated in 1832 after the shock of Nat Turner’s bloody insurrection. The new laws were much more stringent and diligently enforced. They addressed prohibiting the movement, assembly and education of slaves; prohibiting a slave from lifting a hand against a white person – even in self-defense; restricting slaves from holding religious meetings without the presence of a licensed white minister; and establishing harsher punishments for runaway slaves. Even the freedom of free blacks was limited by these codes.

It is no wonder then that other Southampton African-descended people sought freedom from oppression. Prejudice prompted the Gardiner family to move to Liberia, for John ‘Fed’ Brown to runaway and then to tell his sad story of slavery’s inhuman concepts. Brown’s book stimulated others to find ways to end enslavement, while Dred Scott’s legal efforts was yet another major spark drifting the nation toward a showdown about abolition. Each of these stories are profound reflections from four men from Southampton County. They were all freedom fighters and their efforts changed American politics and began the march toward emancipation.