Tuesday, April 7, 2020

New York Slave Revolt of 1712

By Michelle Shocklee

I've never been to New York City. It's on my bucket list, but if I never make it there, I won't be heartbroken. Big cities, crowds, and noise just aren't my thing. But just between you and me, as a history nerd, I would love to time-travel to New York City in the 1700s. Not live there, mind you, but take in all the sights and nuances before coming back to my modern comfy home with air conditioning, indoor plumbing, and wifi. One event from that time period, however, is something I would definitely not want to witness. 

After England took over the colony of New Amsterdam from the Dutch in 1664, renaming it in honor of the Duke of York, they began importing more slaves directly from Africa rather than the West Indies. By 1712, the population of New York City was between 6,000 and 8,000 people, of whom approximately 1,000 were enslaved black people working as domestic servants, artisans, dock workers and various skilled laborers. Unlike the sprawling slave plantations of the south where slaves

were somewhat isolated from free people, residents of New York lived in close quarters, even in the city’s early days. That meant in the densely populated city, slaves and free people often worked and lived side-by-side. As one can imagine and sympathize with, resentment among the city’s slaves grew. And as a result of their close proximity, it was much easier for them to communicate with each other. Whispers of rebellion were fed as more and more laws put more and more restrictions on blacks, both slaves and freemen alike.

On the evening of April 6, a group of more than twenty slaves gathered in an orchard on Maiden Lane (near Broadway) in the center of town. Armed with swords, knives, hatchets and guns, the group sought to inspire the city’s slaves to rise up against their masters by staging a dramatic revolt. To gain the attention of the white slave owners, an outhouse was set on fire at the home of Peter Van Tilburg. When the town's residents responded to fight the fire, they were confronted by twenty-three slaves (though reports ran as high as one hundred). They attacked, killing nine people and injuring another six. Some of the panic-stricken residents ran to the fort at Battery Park and alerted governor Robert Hunter who discharged the militia to scour the city for the rioters.

Many of the slaves ran north through a wooded swamp and escaped. Seventy people were rounded up near present day Canal Street and taken into custody, although it is not clear if all had participated in the riot or were simply innocent bystanders. While awaiting trial, six of the black rioters took matters into their own hands and committed suicide. Eventually forty slaves were brought to trial. Eighteen were acquitted, and a few more were pardoned, but the remaining captives suffered greatly for their rebellion. Four were burned alive at the stake. One was tortured and killed by a medieval breaking wheel. Another was chained and starved to death, and thirteen were hanged. Among those who were hanged was a pregnant woman. She was allowed to give birth before she was led to the gallows. Afterwards, harsh rules were enacted to control the black population including restrictions on gathering, gambling, owning weapons, and travel. A high tax was placed on anyone desiring to set his slave free – often much higher than what the slave would bring at auction. This almost guaranteed the perpetual enslavement of African Americans living in New York.

The American Revolution would take place sixty years later. American Patriots would fight for their freedom on the same streets as those brave enslaved men and women fought on in 1712. How very sad that the citizens of our country in those days didn't recognize the injustice of keeping men and women in bondage while at the same time declaring their own freedom and independence. It would be another 153 years before slavery was abolished in the United States.   

Your turn: Have you ever been to New York City? What was your favorite thing to see and do? Did you visit any historical sites? Do tell!!

Michelle Shocklee is the author of several historical novels, including The Women of Rose Hill historical series set on a Texas cotton plantation. Her new time-slip novel set in Nashville will release in September 2020. Married to her college sweetheart and the mother of two grown sons, she makes her home in Tennessee, not far from the historical sites she writes about. Visit her online at www.MichelleShocklee.com.


Widowed during the war, Natalie Ellis finds herself solely responsible for Rose Hill plantation. When Union troops arrive with a proclamation freeing the slaves, all seems lost. In order to save her son’s inheritance she strikes a deal with the arrogant, albeit handsome, Colonel Maish. In exchange for use of her family’s property, the army will provide workers to bring in her cotton crop. But as her admiration for the colonel grows, a shocking secret is uncovered. Can she trust him with her heart and her young, fatherless son?


  1. I've been to NYC twice in my life. Once was as a teen with some cousins who lived in nearby Hackensack, NJ. That time we went to a car show and maybe the Empire State Building. Then I went with a friend who took me on a whirlwind tour when we saw FAO Schwartz, though we didn't go in, the Trump Tower and Ellis Island. It was fun but the older I get, the less I enjoy crowds and my husband doesn't enjoy cities so I don't think there will be a redo! Thanks for the post. When I think of "slavery" in NY, I tend to think of the indentured immigrants like the Irish, so this was an eye-opener.

  2. Very interesting post. I was not aware of slavery in NY. I grew up in New Jersey, so trips into NYC were commonplace, both as school field trips and visits for events and to see the sites with family. We went to Radio City Musical hall on numerous occasions which I loved. I remember a Christmas show that had live animals on stage for the nativity scene. The Statue of Liberty is probably my favorite visit.

    1. Linda, thanks for sharing. I'm sure growing up in that area allowed for some cool field trips!

  3. Connie, thanks for sharing your memories with us. =)

  4. Wonderful Post! A little known incident but a very interesting historical event. I grew up in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. Going to New York was always a fun adventure. Being just a two hour drive made it a convenient destination for Philadelphians. From class trips to the Empire State Building, to Canal Street shopping with the girls and Broadway shows with the hubby, I enjoyed my visits to New York City. It was much more hustle and bustle and crowded than Philadelphia but that was okay since I didn't have to live there. My favorite thing about New York City is the many restaurants and theaters.