By the 1660s, the Virginia colony had transformed into an enormous tobacco-producing operation dependent largely on the labor of English and Irish indentured servants and, to a lesser extent, enslaved Africans and Virginia Indians. Approximately four out of five servants were men, and they suffered a high mortality rate due to disease and ill treatment. In fact, their masters' treatment of them was so poor as to provoke an aside in a 1657 act otherwise concerned with runaways by which servants were granted the right to take to the courts complaints of "harsh and bad usage, or else for want of diett or convenient necessaries."
In 1661, forty servants in York County, angered by the lack of meat in their diets, conspired to rebel rather than take their case to court. Led by a servant named Isaac Friend, they planned to use force of arms to secure their freedom, but they were betrayed and arrested. The York County Court delivered stern warnings to Friend and to his master, who was encouraged to keep closer watch on his servants. That same year the General Assembly passed two acts, one requiring better treatment of servants on their way to Virginia and the other requiring better treatment once they arrived.
Only two years later, when another conspiracy was uncovered to the north, in Gloucester County, did colonial officials became truly alarmed.
On September 1, 1663, nine indentured servants met secretly at a small house belonging to Peter Knight in the woods near Cooks Quarter in Gloucester County. After appointing William Bell and John Gunter their leaders, the men agreed to meet again at midnight the following Sunday, September 6, at a place called Poplar Spring. Each would bring what weapons he could scavenge and steal in the hope that they could eventually arm a company of thirty men. From Poplar Spring the group would then march to the home of Lieutenant Colonel Francis Willis, a member of the governor's Council, to seize arms and a much-needed drum, the group having recruited a drummer from the militia company commanded by Major John Smith, another councillor.
The servants may also have planned to raid the nearby home of the widow Katharine Cook—indeed, William Budell later testified that they had intended to "march from house to house"—but all agreed that their ultimate destination was the Green Spring mansion of Governor Sir William Berkeley. Thomas Collins told authorities that, with weapons brandished, they would make clear to Berkeley their "desire to bee released of one year of their tyme w'ch they had to serve," and, should the governor refuse, "that then they would goe forth of ye Land if they Could to an Island." Budell even implied that they might be prepared to kill Berkeley should it come to that. In any event, their plans set, the nine pledged "an oath of secresie," according to Budell, the violation of which would result in death.
The men's attempts at secrecy failed, however. A servant named Birkenhead revealed their plans to the governor, who arranged for the conspirators to be ambushed at their meeting place, a result that Berkeley later attributed to "Gods hands," which had delivered "so transcendent a favour as the preserving all we have from so utter ruin." The General Court tried the captured servants for treason, accusing them of attempting "utterly to deprive, depose, cast downe and disinherite" the governor and, further, to wage war against Virginia in an attempt to "wholy submit and distroy" the colony. According to Robert Beverley Jr., four were hanged.
Gone were the days when the colonial government might merely shake its finger at a reputed rebel like Isaac Friend. Upon thwarting the Gloucester County Conspiracy, the House of Burgesses rewarded Birkenhead "his freedom and five thousand pounds of tobacco," making sure to compensate his master for the loss of his labor. The House also declared "that the thirteenth of September, the day this villanous plot should have been putt into execution, be annually kept holy."
The historian T. H. Breen has suggested that Virginia's response to the conspiracy "appears excessive unless one considers it in the context of the strained relationship between the major tobacco planters and colonial laborers." Robert Beverley's history provides another clue to the motives behind the response. He writes that the servants included "several mutinous and rebellious Oliverian soldiers," or supporters of Oliver Cromwell during the English Civil Wars. The loyal subjects of Charles II, whose father had been beheaded by Cromwell's men, may have been wary of such an element in their midst, and the historian Anthony S. Parent gives credence to these concerns by pointing out that the servants appeared to have military training: "The plot's martial structure betrayed its New Model Army provenance: companies were formed, captains elected, drummers recruited, marching orders given, and arms and ammunition strategically collected." Although the servants' politics and training are not mentioned in any of the surviving government documents, Charles II was sufficiently alarmed, according to Beverley, to command that a fort be built at Jamestown to protect the governor. Still, Beverley reports that "the country, thinking the danger over, only raised a battery of some small pieces of cannon."
The rebels also may have included convict laborers, or criminals swept from English jails to work in Virginia. On April 20, 1670, Berkeley issued an order prohibiting the worst felons from being imported to Virginia, citing "the horror yet remaining amongst us of the barbourous designe of such villaines in September 1663."
The Gloucester County Conspiracy occurred during the uneasy transition in Virginia from a reliance on indentured labor to an even greater reliance on enslaved labor. Whether the Gloucester rebels included enslaved Africans or Virginia Indians is unclear, but when authorities in Westmoreland County uncovered a planned uprising in 1687, the culprits by then were only slaves. The General Assembly responded swiftly and firmly.
In 1898 Mary Johnston wrote the romantic novel Prisoners of Hope, set in Gloucester County in 1663. The book's servant conspiracy is led by "Oliverian soldiers" and includes convicts, slaves, and Indians. The leader, a man aptly called Landless, is both an Oliverian and a convict. Echoing how historians often interpreted Bacon's Rebellion (1676–1677) as an early cry for liberty, Johnston portrays him as a proto–Founding Father.
March 1658 - The General Assembly passes laws revising the required time of service for servants without indentures; granting servants the right to take complaints to court; and adding time to indentures, in the case of pregnancy and secret marriages, to both male and female servants.
January 24, 1661 - The testimonies of several indentured servants and one overseer are entered into the record of the York County Court. They reveal a plot in which the servants, angry about the lack of meat in their diet, planned to rebel.
September 1, 1663 - Nine indentured servants meet secretly in Gloucester County to plan an uprising. They arrange to meet the following Sunday, September 6, and march to the governor's mansion to demand their freedom.
September 6, 1663 - A group of armed indentured servants meets in Gloucester County with plans to march on the governor's mansion. The men are ambushed and arrested. Some records indicate that the arrests actually take place a week later, on September 13.
September 8–9, 1663 - A group of indentured servants, arrested in Gloucester County on charges of treason, provides testimony to the General Court about their conspiracy.
September 13, 1663 - This day is declared an annual holiday by the General Assembly, which describes it as when a "villanous plot" by armed indentured servants in Gloucester County "should have been putt into execution."
September 16, 1663 - William Berkeley and the House of Burgesses agree to reward the servant Birkenhead his freedom and five thousand pounds of tobacco for revealing a plan to rebel by servants in Gloucester County.
April 20, 1670 - Governor Sir William Berkeley and the governor's Council issue an order prohibiting the importation of certain English convicts as servants. They cite the Gloucester County Conspiracy of 1663 as one reason for the action.
October 24, 1687 - Nicholas Spencer informs fellow members of the governor's Council, as well as Governor Francis Howard, baron Howard of Effingham, of a suspected slave conspiracy in Westmoreland County. Effingham creates an oyer and terminer court, with Spencer, Richard Lee II, and Isaac Allerton to serve as judges. The trial's results are unknown.
1898 - Prisoners of Hope, a romantic novel by Mary Johnston, is published. Its dramatization of a conspiracy of servants is based on the Gloucester County Conspiracy of 1663. The hero, a man aptly called Landless, is portrayed as a proto–Founding Father.
Cite This Entry
- APA Citation:
Wolfe, B. Gloucester County Conspiracy (1663). (2013, January 29). In Encyclopedia Virginia. Retrieved from http://www.EncyclopediaVirginia.org/Gloucester_County_Conspiracy_1663.
- MLA Citation:
Wolfe, Brendan. "Gloucester County Conspiracy (1663)." Encyclopedia Virginia. Virginia Humanities, 29 Jan. 2013. Web. READ_DATE.
First published: February 7, 2012 | Last modified: January 29, 2013
Contributed by Brendan Wolfe, editor of Encyclopedia Virginia from 2008 to 2019.