Saturday, July 14, 2012

Kentucky Woman on 1856 Slave Insurrection Scare, Part I

I apologize for the limited number of posts this past week, but I have been quite busy at work with our annual educator-focused Kentucky History Education Conference (Thursday) and field study bus trip (Friday). I was very pleased with both events, but their planning and completion left me pretty much too exhausted to least I'll use that as an excuse.

A few posts ago I shared an excerpt from George Browder's 1856 diary in which he recollected the slave insurrection scare in western Kentucky that winter. At least one other diarist conveyed the uncertainty and fears at that particular time as well.  Ellen Kenton McGaughey Wallace, whose extensive diary is at the Kentucky Historical Society too commented - in much more detail than Browder - about this incident.  Ellen Kenton McGaughey was born in 1821 to a prominent Christian County family and married in 1846 to Albert Wallace, a man twenty years older. The 1860 census lists Albert and Ellen owning forty slaves.

On December 3, 1856, Ellen wrote about general life and some personal family news but then mentioned "...the town and county in a great state of excitement on account of the Negroes a general insurrection is feared.. Ammunition has been sent to Clarksville [Tennessee] and the citizens are preparing for any sudden alarm." She mentions that her husband has armed himself that evening, "something very strange fro him to do. "One who has passed such and awful trial during cholera as I did should be able to meet any crisis." The next day she again started her entry with family news, but quickly followed up on the previous day's news. "...dreadful things are coming to pass seven or eight negroes hung. The jails of the neighboring towns as well as this are crowded with negroes suspected. some have confessed their intentions to rise and murder the whites and in a body gathering strength or the go to fight their way to a free state. the whole town county and adjoining counties are in a perfect state of agitation and under [?] patrol. Uncle Robert Hume and John are with us to night Alfred some better. I do not feel alarmed. the danger may be greater than I imagine."

After skipping a few days Ellen returned to her diary on December 8: "Sunday this has been a day of great anxiety to the citizens, committees have been examining the negroes and committing to jail. Uncle Robert Hume and John spent they day with us and are with us to night Alfred has some appearance of thrush and sore mouth. The news still fearful with regard to the negroes Old men look serious and women fear. I fear I shall never feel safe after this"

On December 11, Ellen wrote "there has been six negroes arrested in town today At Newstead they are also making arrest danger seems to be thick around there was to be a general rising on the 24 of Dec. 1856. The plan universally known and freely arrayed Gentlemen who caught it to scorn at first are now active in endeavoring to ward off danger. I only wish I had half dozen revolvers and the heart and hand to use them but I am easily frightened as a kitten. I disgrace my ancestry my mother was as brave and courageous as these or any times could require, her spirit was equal to any emergency. She shrank from no duty however perilous and such also was my beloved sister Harriet." The following day Ellen mentioned "this day a Negro was hung for killing his overseer the excitement grows stronger and stronger had not the plot been discovered the region of country would have flowed with blood." There seems to have been a rumor floating that "White men who had fought in the Mexican War laid the plan and provided arms and ammunition for the negroes." Committees of the most able citizens in every neighborhood and town have been sitting for day to day making investigations and the disclosures are truly fearful"

The swift action on the part of citizens' committees and the efforts and desires of whites to arm themselves in defense against slave aggression shows how serious these threats were taken. Fascinating too is the belief that white men (Mexican War veterans) were the architects of the insurrection and thus the slaves were incapable of organizing such a plot.

A follow up post will continue to illustrate the fears expressed during this scare.

Ellen's 1856 part of the diary can be found online at:

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