The Stono Rebellion of 1739

The Stono Rebellion occurred near the Stono River, about 20 miles from Charleston, South Carolina, and was the largest slave revolt in colonial America.  Spain was offering freedom to any slave who reached Spanish territory, so slave escapes had been on the increase in the Carolinas, and slave revolts were feared by plantations owners.  Plans were being made to require whites to be armed and more vigilant.

The Stono Rebellion occurred during the early morning hours of Sunday, September 9, 1739.  While white families were in church, a slave called Jemmy led a group of about 20 slaves who broke into a store, killed the store owner, and armed themselves with a supply of guns and ammunition.  From there the slaves moved southward from one plantation to another slaughtering whites and burning houses as they went.  Men, women, and children were killed.  Some were beheaded and their heads were left for display.  At one tavern, the insurgents spared the life of the innkeeper because he was known to be good to his slaves. At another, a slave hid his master and distracted the insurgents. As the slaves moved southward more slaves from the plantations joined the rebel force, which continued in military fashion displaying a flag and beating a drum. 

Lt. Gov. William Bull, who was traveling on horseback with four companions, happened upon the rebels about eleven o’clock in the morning.  Bull and his companions quickly fled for their own safety.  They alerted the militia and local planters, who then organized men to pursue the insurgents. At about four o’clock in the afternoon they came upon the group of slaves about ten miles to the south. (Bull 186)   Some slaves were resting.  Others were drunk on whiskey they had stolen in the raid.  The slaves fought hard, but the militia won the fight and ended the Stono Rebellion killing many of the slaves.  Slaves who escaped the scene were tracked down for months, and most were apprehended.   Those responsible for the revolt were executed.  One slave, July, who had saved the lives of his owner and the owner’s family was given his freedom. Forty-four blacks and twenty-one whites lost their lives as a result of the Stono Rebellion.

South Carolina responded to the rebellion by galvanizing an effort to control the behavior of slaves and prevent any further revolts.   Stricter slave codes were established with the Negro Act of 1740, dictating such things as how slaves were to be treated, punished, and dressed.  It forbade them from assembling with one another or being taught to read or write.  The 1740 slave codes were largely unaltered until emancipation in 1865.

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