Black History,  Colonial Era,  North Carolina History

Black Resistance in Colonial North Carolina


Black resistance to slavery throughout the Carolinas in the first half of the eighteenth century is significant yet notably under-recognized considering the larger rebellions to come. History books often cover only one major incident from this region of colonial America – South Carolina’s Stono Rebellion of 1739. However, rebellion took many more subtle, and often less aggressive, forms, though a resignation to violent action was never entirely disregarded as an option among slaves.

When the larger colony of Carolina split in 1712, two relatively different approaches to resistance emerged. With its burgeoning slave economy well established, South Carolina proactively began reforming legislation. North Carolina, by contrast, had no such economy or large slave population. Such conditions forced the northern of the two colonies into a reactive position with legislation being introduced largely in response to resistance. North Carolina’s lack of abundant resources referencing colonial slavery has left its history of reactionary legislation largely neglected.

Application of the social lens highlights the significance of traditionally marginalized Blacks within the history of the Carolinas. Futhermore, this lens explores how society may have influenced acts of rebellion among the oppressed and examines how society responded to such acts. The use of a political lens specifically demonstrates North Carolina’s reactive response to resistance by referencing the colony’s frequently altered legislation.

Unlike its neighbor to the south, colonial North Carolina did not contain a dominant slave society. Because of this, modern historians have mostly overlooked slavery in North Carolina during the colonial period, preferring to focus attention and research into South Carolina’s planter-driven society with its abundant resources. In the 1970s and 80s, Alan Watson, Marvin Kay, and Lorin Cary emphasized resistance in North Carolina’s slave community, alluding to this oversight among historians in their respective articles. Newer research into the resistance or rebellion of Carolina slaves, particularly those of North Carolina, is lacking, and existing scholarship has largely ignored the direct impacts of these actions on colonial legislation.

As Milton Ready points out in his general history of North Carolina, various slave codes from this period transitioned slavery in the state to an organized institution from one that was far more flexible and less structured. However, neither he nor historians of North Carolina’s colonial period have ventured to illustrate the direct correlation between the actions of the slaves and the resulting establishment or amendment of laws. Though existing literature on the topic does not neglect these resources, none proceed to the conclusion that a seemingly powerless group was able to, through various actions of rebellion and resistance, alter the course of North Carolina’s legislation. Acknowledging the ability of the enslaved to influence the creation and revision of laws during this early period of Carolina history provides the opportunity for further discussion concerning the true impact of this presumably silenced group on the colony.

Alan Watson’s article, “Impulse Toward Independence: Resistance and Rebellion Among North Carolina Slaves, 1750-1775,” offers an excellent overview of the methods employed by North Carolina’s slave population during the late colonial period. Watson’s research provides insight into often elusive county documented incidents. “Slave Runaways in Colonial North Carolina, 1748-1775,” by Marvin Kay and Lorin Cary, supplies a more in-depth analysis of the most often utilized method mentioned by Watson. Kay and Cary’s collective research presents a unique perspective on runaway patterns in North Carolina by delving into the distinctive characteristics and motivations behind escape. This acknowledges the cultural significance of resistance among the enslaved. Additionally, a chronological examination of the 1715 and 1741 slave codes and other legislation enacted by the North Carolina General Assembly, as well as numerous runaway slave advertisements, demonstrate the shifting course of colonial law in response to either real or perceived rebellion.

Ready’s The Tarheel State: A History of North Carolina employs numerous lenses throughout the examination of slavery during the colonial period. The economic lens demonstrates how the absence of a staple crop inhibited the expansion and strength of the colony thereby limiting the slave population during the colonial period. This limiting factor meant that the fragile government was ill-prepared to establish a commanding presence over their Black population. Therefore, North Carolina’s initial laws against offenders of resistance were either nonexistent or far more lenient than those of its economically solvent neighbors. Ready also utilizes the military lens to demonstrate the role that the Tuscarora War and its employment of runaway slaves had in further altering those laws.

Black Resistance in Colonial North Carolina, 1712-1763

In 1669, the Fundamental Constitutions and Laws established the institution of slavery throughout the Carolina province. The partition of the province in 1712 ushered in changes to the existing structure as North Carolina solidified her place as a unique colony. Legislation pertaining to slaves was especially lenient during these early years given the sparse black population. North Carolina’s growth was hampered by numerous factors, including the lack of staple crops such as Virginia’s tobacco and South Carolina’s indigo and rice, the lack of a viable port, such as Charleston, and the existence of a weak government. In 1705, only about 1,000 blacks lived in the area that became North Carolina. As that population increased, so too did slave resistance and, by association, laws in response to the action.

Prior to the division of the Carolina province, the English attempted to forcibly remove the Tuscarora Indians from eastern North Carolina. This set off a series of conflicts between the two groups and created a new fear among settlers. The diminutive slave population began to assert their independence by running away to join the Tuscarora against the white elites. With slaves growing in numbers and progressively showing signs of rebellion, the young government took action.

In 1715, North Carolina passed a series of laws commonly referred to as the slave code.

In addition to confronting the runaway situation, the 1715 code also established a slave court. A fair and balanced trial was not the objective. Three justices of the peace, typically slaveholders, oversaw the process.

By 1720, the black population in North Carolina had grown to nearly 3,500. Less than a decade later, it doubled in size. In 1728, William Byrd was commissioned by Virginia to survey its shared boundary with North Carolina. Throughout his journeys, Byrd recorded his observations of both the enslaved and the “free.” In his journal, dated the eleventh of March 1728, Byrd mentioned a family of mulattos whose head of the house often remained out of sight, indicating he was likely a runaway. A year later, new legislation placing greater restrictions on the mobility and individual freedom of slaves was enacted by the North Carolina General Assembly. These mandates aimed at discouraging runaways and preventing a constantly feared uprising by forbidding both travel at night and mass meetings of any form.

Irish physician John Brickell published The Natural History of North Carolina, an account of his travels through the state, in 1737. In these memoirs, he recounted several observations of enslaved blacks and draws the conclusion that those born in America proved better than those brought from Africa. Two years after Brickell published his account, a mass slave uprising in neighboring South Carolina, deepened the colony’s fear of their black population.

On September 9, 1739, twenty slaves, led by a man known as Jemmy, met near the Stono River in South Carolina before proceeding to a local store to execute the owners and arm themselves with guns and powder. The group then carried out a short-lived reign of terror. By the end, more than sixty individuals were killed, twenty-five of them white. Once again, the North Carolina General Assembly was poised to respond via legislation.

With the Stono Rebellion fresh on their minds, the 1741 General Assembly embarked on a mission to revise the existing laws in an effort to quell any similar uprisings or rebellious behavior in North Carolina.

With laws continually aimed at suppressing them further, slaves turned to their cultural heritage and survival techniques to support their resistance efforts. According to Watson’s findings, poisonings, arson, and feigned illnesses or lack of intelligence were common tactics. However, the mostly commonly documented method of resistance was attempted or successful escape from bondage.

Despite the Assembly’s sweeping legislation to deter runaways, it became increasingly difficult to do so as the black population swelled to nearly 20,000 in the 1750s. Runaway slave advertisements filled the colony’s newspapers. This growing impulse toward escape and ultimately freedom within the enslaved population undoubtedly created much uncertainty among those governing the colony.

In 1753, following an attempted slave rebellion, the General Assembly instituted a patrol system. At the same time, other laws shifted in response to the colony’s growing financial concerns from the French and Indian War, and it fell on the enslaved to bear the burden. By 1758, the North Carolina Assembly had altered punishment for enslaved male offenders. It was repealed in 1764 likely from the demands of offended slaveholders expecting to be compensated for the loss of rebellious slaves.

The black population continued its cycle of growth, reaching approximately 30,000 by 1764. Those numbers would only increase as the nation rushed toward Revolution. With each successive upheaval of resistance among slaves, the Assembly would respond with revised laws in the attempt to control outright rebellion. Only after the Civil War did North Carolina’s slave codes cease to exist. These, however, were replaced during the Reconstruction era with equally discriminatory measures, known as black codes.


By chronologically examining methods of resistance among slaves along with the enactment of North Carolina laws, it is clear to see a correlation between the two. For each action by the enslaved, there was a prompt reaction by the Legislature. As new laws went into effect, slaves altered their course of resistance forcing their oppressors to shift their approach. This cause-and-effect method of research illuminates the powerful influence of a silenced people.

Existing research has shown how the colony used its legislative powers to keep an oppressed group even more subdued, but none have illustrated the direct impact the enslaved community had on the government during this period. North Carolina lawmakers were forced to consistently change their course of action in response to a constant threat believed to be ignorant. By exploring the actions of both groups simultaneously, the research has demonstrated that black resistance regulated the course of colonial legislation, despite slaves having no actual role in the proceedings.

Though the struggles for equality and justice continue to the present day, the idea that slaves held much more influence, even among government, than commonly believed helps to guide future research. This is especially significant regarding colonial North Carolina. With this perspective, possibilities abound to further highlight the empowerment of marginalized groups throughout history and to encourage an exploration into less understood arenas of the past.

[Excerpt from “A Great Deal of Mischief”: Black Resistance in North Carolina, 1712-1763″]

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  • Brickell, John. The Natural History of North Carolina. Dublin, 1737. Google Books.
  • Byrd, William. The Westover Manuscripts: Containing the History of the Dividing Line Betwixt Virginia and North Carolina; A Journey to the Land of Eden, A. D. 1733; and A Progress to the Mines. Written from 1728 to 1736, and Now First Published. Petersburg: Printed by Edmund and Julian C. Ruffin, 1841.
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  • Johnston, Samuel. North Carolina Gazette, November 11, 1751.
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  • ——– Acts of the North Carolina General Assembly, 1729.
  • ——– Acts of the North Carolina General Assembly, 1741.
  • ——– Acts of the North Carolina General Assembly, 1758.
  • Padgett, James A. “The Status of Slaves in Colonial North Carolina.” The Journal of Negro History 14, no. 3 (July 1929): 300-327.
  • Ready, Milton. The Tarheel State: A History of North Carolina. Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 2005.
  • Watson, Alan D. “Impulse Toward Independence: Resistance and Rebellion Among North Carolina Slaves, 1750-1775.” The Journal of Negro History 63, no. 4 (October 1978): 317-328.
  • ——– “North Carolina Slave Courts, 1715-1785.” The North Carolina Historical Review 60, no. 1 (January 1983): 24-36.
  • West, Sen., Robert, and Robert West, Jun. North Carolina Gazette, March 13, 1752.
  • Wood, Peter H. Black Majority: Negroes in Colonial South Carolina from 1670 to the Stono Rebellion. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1974. https://www-fulcrum-

* Image courtesy of the the Norman B. Leventhal Map Center of the Boston Public Library