On a Friday afternoon, November 27th, 1829, with the Ohio River and the hills of the northern shore as backdrop, four rebel slaves were executed near the Greenup County, Kentucky, courthouse. This is a story from the days of the interstate slave trade, when thousands of African Americans were sold “down-river” to the new cotton plantations of Mississippi, Louisiana, and Texas.
Revolts on board tran-Atlantic slave ships are common knowledge, but such is not the case with interstate slave trade rebellions. No definitive count exists of revolts along the Ohio River, but there is reason to believe that far more happen than have made it into the historical record. Whatever the case, the Greenup Slave Revolt of August 14th, 1829, has not received the attention it deserves.
Most recently, Stanley Harold makes brief mention of the Greenup Revolt in his book, Border War: Fighting Over Slavery Before the Civil War (2010), and he suggests that “enslaved African Americans recognized the significance of the boundary formed by the river in the region west of the Appalachian Mountains. …. Some black men, and lesser numbers of black women, fought and killed to cross these boundaries. They hoped to avoid sale south, leave masters and traders behind, and enjoy the limited degree of freedom available to them in the North.”
In 1851, when Harriet Beecher Stowe, the author of Uncle Tom’s Cabin, chose the location for the opening scene of her famous novel, she picked “the town of P—- , in Kentucky,” not too far from the shores of the Ohio. “Late in the afternoon of a chilly day in February, two gentlemen were sitting alone over their wine, in a well-furnished dining parlor, in the town of P——, in Kentucky.” The most influential work of American fiction starts with a story of the interstate slave trade.
Before the abolition of slavery, the Ohio River may have separated free from slave state, it may have served as a border between the North and the South, but it also inspired resistance and revolt. The story of submissive Uncle Tom, being sold down river, was always meant to be counterposed to that of Eliza and George Harris, two slaves who ran away to escape their fate on the interstate slave trade.
Julius A. Bingham, “the sole proprietor, editor and printer” of the Western Times of Portsmouth, Ohio, became the first to report the news of the Greenup Revolt. Located a short distance down river from the scene of the revolt and executions, Portsmouth was a booming commercial and industrial hub, having been recently chosen as the southern terminus of the Ohio-Erie Canal. Portsmouth was a river town where runaways could hop a ride on the Underground Railroad, if they could, first, make it across the river, and, second, if they could find one of the few “friends of the oppressed” who made their home in Ohio’s Scioto county. Stations were safe houses and the transport of fugitives was secret business for a reason, but Portsmouth had a small black community, dating back to its earliest days. The residents of Portsmouth would have been very interested to read about a foiled slave revolt that had occurred just across the river in Kentucky.
Entitled, “Affray and Murder,” Bingham’s article proved so sensational that the Scioto Gazette in Chillicothe, Ohio, reprinted the story in their August 26th issue, and from there the story went viral. It would find its way to David Walker, one of the most radical abolitionists of the age, who included it, at the last minute, in his famous pamphlet, “Walker’s Appeal; Together with a Preamble, to the Coloured Citizens of the World, but in Particular and Very Expressly to Those of the United States of America” (1829). More simply known as “Walker’s Appeal,” this pamphlet called on slaves to rise up in revolt in order to bring an end to slavery. Considering historians date its publication to September of 1829, it seems more than reasonable to argue that David Walker may very well have been inspired by the actions of the four men who were executed at Greenup.
As reported in the Portsmouth Western Times, and printed verbatim in David Walker’s Appeal, “A most shocking outrage was committed in Kentucky, about eight miles from this place, on 14th inst. [August 14, 1829] A negro driver, by the name of Gordon, who had purchased in Maryland about sixty negroes, was taking them, assisted by an associate named [Gabriel] Allen [of Paris, Kentucky], and the wagoner who conveyed the baggage, to the Mississippi. The men were hand-cuffed and chained together, in the usual manner for driving those poor wretches, while the women and children were suffered to proceed without incumbrance. It appears that, by means of a file the negroes, unobserved, had succeeded in separating the iron which bound their hands, in such a way as to be able to throw them off at any moment.
“About 8 o’clock in the morning, while proceeding on the state road leading from Greenup to Vanceburg, [modern-day US Route 23] two of them dropped their shackles and commenced a fight, when the wagoner (Petit) rushed in with his whip to compel them to desist. At this moment, every negro was found to be perfectly at liberty; and one of them seizing a club, gave Petit a violent blow on the head, and laid him dead at his feet; and Allen, who came to his assistance, met a similar fate, from the contents of a pistol fired by another of the gang.
“Gordon was then attacked, seized and held by one of the negroes, whilst another fired twice at him with a pistol, the ball of which each time grazed his head, but not proving effectual, he was beaten with clubs, and left for dead.
“They then commenced pillaging the wagon, and with an axe split open the trunk of Gordon, and rifled it of the money, about $2,400. Sixteen of the negroes then took to the woods; Gordon, in the mean time, not being materially injured, was enabled, by the assistance of one of the women, to mount his horse and flee; pursued, however, by one of the gang on another horse, with a drawn pistol; fortunately he escaped with his life barely, arriving at a plantation, as the negro came in sight; who then turned about and retreated.”
Did any of these brave men and women escape to freedom? Apparently not. Bingham concluded his account, explaining, “the neighbourhood was immediately rallied, and a hot pursuit given – which, we understand, has resulted in the capture of the whole gang and the recovery of the greatest part of the money. Seven of the negro men and one woman, it is said were engaged in the murders, and will be brought to trial at the next court in Greenupsburg.”
They started out as the Greenup Eight, but ultimately it was only four men who would hang that late November afternoon. The sentences of the remaining four have been lost to time. They and the forty-some others who were never charged in the “affray,” it would seem safe to assume, were eventually sold at the auction block or, in private, either here or further down river. Perhaps one of those unfortunate souls was sold as far south as the New Orleans market, where a kind Christian soul, like Uncle Tom, might end up in the hands of a murderous master, one who might even teach a lesson in sadism to Simon Legree. The depths of depravity generated within the American slave system are well documented thanks to the writings of Stowe and other activists who campaigned to awaken the conscience of their fellow Americans.
Unfortunately, no court records from the trial are known to exist, but thanks again to the reportage found in Bingham’s Western Times, we have a memorable account of the proceedings when these four men were put to their deaths.
Reportedly, when the fateful hour arrived and a large crowd had gathered in Greenup, all four of the condemned “maintained to the last, the utmost firmness and resignation to their fate. They severally addressed the assembled multitude, in which they attempted to justify the deed they had committed, on the principle implanted in the breast of every man by nature, to fight for freedom, and slay the tyrant who dares to deprive them of it. This only they had done, and having failed to accomplish the sole object for which they slew their merciless oppressors, traffickers in human flesh, it remained for them to pay the forfeit of that failure with their lives.”
“They were willing to do so,” reported Bingham. These heroic men, bound and standing before a crowd of patriotic white Americans, asserted that “they had done no more than their judges and executioners would have done under similar circumstances; and that too, with a solemn appeal to the Judge of heaven and earth, for the integrity of their motives, and the justice of their cause.”
Julius Bingham then concluded his reportage by noting that one of the men, “while standing upon the cart, just ready to be launched into eternity exclaimed several times, ‘Death! Death, any time, in preference to slavery!’”
Julius A. Bingham, “Affray and Murder,” Western Times (22 August 1829), reprinted in Scioto Gazette (26 August 1829).
Julius A. Bingham, “Execution,” Western Times (28 November 1829), reprinted in Ithaca Journal and General Advertiser (6 January 1830).
Stanley Harold, Border War: Fighting Over Slavery Before the Civil War (University of North Carolina Press, 2010).
“We are informed that Gabriel Allen, of this county, and a man by the name of Pettit were killed a few days ago near Greenupsburg,” Louisville Public Advertiser (2 September 1829).
David Walker, Walker’s Appeal; Together with a Preamble, to the Coloured Citizens of the World, but in Particular and Very Expressly to Those of the United States of America” (1829). For more on Walker visit davidwalkermemorial.org