1811 German Coast Uprising
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The 1811 German Coast Uprising was a revolt of black slaves in parts of the Territory of Orleans on January 8–10, 1811. The uprising occurred on the east bank of the Mississippi River in what are now St. John the Baptist and St. Charles Parishes, Louisiana. While the slave insurgency was the largest in US history, the rebels killed only two white men. Confrontations with militia and executions after trial killed ninety-five black people.
Between 64 and 125 enslaved men marched from sugar plantations near present-day LaPlace on the German Coast toward the city of New Orleans. They collected more men along the way. Some accounts claimed a total of 200–500 slaves participated. During their two-day, twenty-mile march, the men burned five plantation houses (three completely), several sugarhouses, and crops. They were armed mostly with hand tools.
White men led by officials of the territory formed militia companies to hunt down and kill the insurgents. Over the next two weeks, white planters and officials interrogated, tried and executed an additional 44 insurgents who had been captured. Executions were by hanging or decapitation. Whites displayed the bodies as a warning to intimidate slaves. The heads of some were put on pikes and displayed at plantations.
Since 1995 the African American History Alliance of Louisiana has led an annual commemoration in January of the uprising, in which they have been joined by some descendants of participants in the revolt.
The German Coast was an area of sugar plantations, with a dense slave population. According to some accounts, blacks outnumbered whites by nearly five to one. More than half of those enslaved may have been born outside Louisiana, many in Africa.
Fernin F. Eaton believes these figures are too high, noting that the 1810 census recorded slaves in a less than 3:1 ratio to whites in St. Charles Parish, and about 1:1 ratio in St. John Parish. Sugar cane plantations west of New Orleans may have had higher numbers of slaves. Slaveholders fleeing the Haitian Revolution had brought slaves to the region directly from Saint-Domingue, or in 1809 when forced by the Spanish Empire from Cuba. In addition, until 1808, the United States had continued to import enslaved people from Africa and the Caribbean.
In the overall Orleans Territory, from 1803–1811, the free black population nearly tripled, to 5,000, with 3,000 arriving as migrants from Haiti (via Cuba) in 1809–1810. In Saint-Domingue they had enjoyed certain rights as free people of color.
After the US negotiated the Louisiana Purchase in 1803, Territorial Governor William C.C. Claiborne struggled with his diverse population. Not only were there numerous French- and Spanish-speaking people, but there was a much greater proportion of native Africans among the slaves than in more northern U.S. states. In addition, the mixed-race Creole and French-speaking population grew markedly with refugees from Haiti following its successful slave revolution. The American Claiborne was not used to a society with the number of free people of color which Louisiana had. But he worked to continue their role in the militia, which had been established under Spanish rule. He had to deal with the competition for power between long-term French Creole residents and new US settlers in the territory. Lastly, Claiborne was suspicious that the Spanish might encourage an insurrection. He struggled to establish and maintain his authority.
The waterways and bayous around New Orleans and Lake Pontchartrain made transportation and trade possible, but also provided easy escapes and nearly impenetrable hiding places for slaves who escaped. Some maroon colonies continued for years within several miles of New Orleans. With the spread of ideas of freedom from the French and Haitian revolutions, European-Americans worried about slave uprisings in the Louisiana area.
According to a paper by Nathan A. Buman,
Foreign goods, ideology, and knowledge flowed through the gateway of New Orleans into the rest of the territory. For Claiborne, New Orleans's status as a major port served as both a blessing and a curse. He benefited from the capital, labor, and innovative methods for agricultural production flowing into and out of the port while confronting the importation of radical, dangerous ideology.
A group of conspirators met on January 6, 1811. It was a period when work had relaxed on the plantations after the fierce weeks of the sugar harvest and processing. As planter James Brown testified weeks later, "the black Quamana [Kwamena, meaning "born on Saturday"], owned by Mr. Brown, and the mulatto Harry, owned by Messrs. Kenner & Henderson, were at the home of Manuel Andry on the night of Saturday–Sunday of the current month in order to deliberate with the mulatto Charles Deslondes, chief of the brigands." Slaves had spread word of the planned uprising among the slaves at plantations up and down the German Coast.
The revolt began on January 8 at the André plantation. After striking and badly wounding Manuel André, the slaves killed his son Gilbert. "An attempt was made to assassinate me by the stroke of an axe," Manuel André wrote. "My poor son has been ferociously murdered by a horde of brigands who from my plantation to that of Mr. Fortier have committed every kind of mischief and excesses, which can be expected from a gang of atrocious bandittis of that nature."
The rebellion gained momentum quickly. The 15 or so slaves at the André plantation, approximately 30 miles upriver from New Orleans, joined another eight slaves from the next-door plantation of the widows of Jacques and George Deslondes. This was the home plantation of Charles Deslondes, a field laborer later described by one of the captured slaves as the "principal chief of the brigands." Small groups of slaves joined from every plantation which the rebels passed. Witnesses remarked on their organized march. Although they carried mostly pikes, hoes and axes but few firearms, they marched to drums while some carried flags. From 10–25% of any given plantation's slave population joined with them.
At the plantation of James Brown, Kook, one of the most active participants and key figures in the story of the uprising, joined the insurrection. At the next plantation down, Kook attacked and killed François Trépagnier with an axe. He was the second and last planter killed in the rebellion. After the band of slaves passed the LaBranche plantation, they stopped at the home of the local doctor. Finding the doctor gone, Kook set his house on fire.
Some planters testified at the trials in parish courts that they were warned by their slaves of the uprising. Others regularly stayed in New Orleans, where many had townhouses, and trusted their plantations to be run by overseers. Planters quickly crossed the Mississippi River to escape the insurrection and raise a militia.
As the slave party moved downriver, they passed larger plantations, from which many slaves joined them. Numerous slaves joined the insurrection from the Meuillion plantation, the largest and wealthiest plantation on the German Coast. The rebels laid waste to Meuillion's house. They tried to set it on fire, but a slave named Bazile fought the fire and saved the house.
After nightfall the slaves reached Cannes-Brulées, about 15 miles northwest of New Orleans. The men had traveled between 14 and 22 miles, a march that probably took them seven to ten hours. By some accounts, they numbered "some 200 slaves", although other accounts estimated up to 500. As typical of revolts of most classes, free or slave, the insurgent slaves were mostly young men between the ages of 20 and 30. They represented primarily lower-skilled occupations on the sugar plantations, where slaves labored in difficult conditions.
After being injured, Col. André went to the other side of the river to round up a militia organized by planters, who began pursuing the slave rebels.
By noon on January 9, the residents of New Orleans had heard of the insurrection on the German Coast. Over the next six hours, General Wade Hampton I, Commodore John Shaw, and Governor William C.C. Claiborne sent two companies of volunteer militia, 30 regular troops, and a detachment of 40 seamen to fight the slaves.
By about 4 a.m., the troops reached the plantation of Jacques Fortier, where Hampton thought the insurgents had encamped for the night. The insurgents had left hours before Hampton's arrival and started back upriver. Over the next few hours, they traveled about 15 miles back up the coast and neared the plantation of Bernard Bernoudy.
There, planter Charles Perret, under the command of the badly injured André and in cooperation with Judge Saint Martin, had assembled a militia of about 80 men from the opposite side of the river. At about 9 o'clock, this second militia discovered the slaves moving toward high ground on the Bernoudy estate. Perret ordered the militia to attack the slaves. Perret later wrote that there were about 200 slaves, about half on horseback. (Most accounts said only the leaders were mounted, and historians believe it unlikely the slaves could have gathered so many mounts.)
The battle was brief. Within a half-hour of the attack, 40 to 45 slaves had been killed and the remainder slipped away into the woods. Perret and Andrée's militia tried to pursue slaves into the woods and swamps, but it was difficult territory.
On January 11, the militia captured Charles Deslondes, whom André considered "the principal leader of the bandits." The militia did not hold him for trial or interrogation. Samuel Hambleton described Deslonde's fate: "Charles [Deslondes] had his Hands chopped off then shot in one thigh & then the other, until they were both broken – then shot in the Body and before he had expired was put into a bundle of straw and roasted!"
Having suppressed the insurrection, the planters and government officials continued to search for slaves who had escaped. Those captured were interrogated. Officials conducted two sets of trials, one at Destrehan Plantation owned by Jean Noel Destréhan and one in New Orleans. The Destréhan trial, run by the parish court resulted in the execution of 18 slaves, whose heads were put on pikes. The plantation displayed the bodies of the dead rebels to intimidate other slaves. One observer wrote, "Their Heads ... decorate our Levée, all the way up the coast, I am told they look like crows sitting on long poles."
The trials in New Orleans, also in the parish court, resulted in the conviction and summary executions of 11 more slaves. Three of these were publicly hanged in the Place d'Armes, now Jackson Square, and their heads were put up to decorate the city's gates.
U.S. territorial law provided no appeal from a parish court's ruling, even in cases involving imposition of a death sentence on an enslaved individual. Governor Claiborne, recognizing that fact, wrote to the judges of each court that he was willing to extend executive clemency (“in all cases where circumstances suggest the exercise of mercy a recommendation to that effect from the Court and Jury, will induce the Governor to extend to the convict a pardon.”) In fact, Gov. Claiborne did commute two death sentences, those of Henry, and of Theodore, each referred by the Orleans Parish court. No record has been found of any referral from the court in St. Charles Parish, or of any refusal by the Governor of any application for clemency.
As Eaton points out, some accounts of the events erroneously ascribe greater participation in the resultant deaths of the enslaved men both to Claiborne and to the U.S. Army. In fact, the territorial legal "superstructure" in place for the United States, i.e., the Superior Court, had no role in the trials, which were conducted solely by the parish courts, comprising the judge and a jury of planters. The U.S. Army arrived too late on the scene, after "volunteers" had killed many of the alleged insurgents. General Hampton's January 16, 1811, report to the Secretary of War describes having his forces in place, prepared to advance, but that the enslaved individuals slipped out in the night "in great silence" and were subsequently attacked "five leagues" away, not by the Army and not by the militia, but by "a spirited party of Young Men from the opposite side of the river."
Whites killed about a total of 95 slaves at the time of the insurrection, and by execution after trials as a result of this revolt. From the trial records, most of the leaders appeared to have been mixed-race Creoles or mulattoes, although numerous slaves in the group were native-born Africans.
Fifty-six of the slaves captured on the 10th and involved in the revolt were returned to their masters, who may have punished them but wanted their valuable laborers back to work. Thirty more slaves were captured, but the whites determined they had been forced to join the revolt by Charles Deslondes and his men, and returned them to their masters.
The heirs of Meuillon petitioned the legislature for permission to free the mulatto slave Bazile, who had worked to preserve his master's plantation. Not all the slaves supported insurrection, knowing the trouble it could bring.
As was typical of American slave insurrections, the uprising was short-lived and quickly crushed by local white forces; it lasted only a couple of days and did not overcome local authorities. Showing planter influence, the legislature of the Orleans Territory approved compensation of $300 to planters for each slave killed or executed. The Orleans Territory accepted the continued presence of US military troops after the revolt, as they were grateful for their presence. The insurrection was covered by national press, with Northerners seeing it arising out of the wrongs suffered under slavery.
No state or federal historical marker commemorates the insurrection, though it is mentioned on the marker for the Woodland Plantation (formerly Andre Plantation): "Major 1811 slave uprising organized here." Despite its size and connection to the French and Haitian revolutions, the rebellion is not thoroughly covered in history books. As late as 1923, however, older black men "still relate[d] the story of the slave insurrection of 1811 as they heard it from their grandfathers." Since 1995, the African American History Alliance of Louisiana has led an annual commemoration at Norco in January, where they have been joined by some descendants of members of the revolt.
In a 2011 lecture, the independent historian Fernin F. Eaton suggests that evidence is insufficient to support either the premise that the slaves engaged in any uprising, or the claims as to the extent of involvement. Eaton notes evidentiary shortfalls, such as the planter Manuel André (or, Andry) reporting his son, Gilbert, was killed by the slaves. The records of the Archdiocese show that Gilbert had died January 2 and been buried January 3, five days before the uprising.
Eaton considers the reported events in the context of planter and white unrest. They followed by a few weeks a violent uprising by planters and other elites upriver against Spanish rule, and a short-lived challenge to American domination as well. Historians frequently connect that revolt, referred to as the 1810 West Florida Rebellion, to secret initiatives and possible financial underwriting by the federal government under President James Madison. This maneuvering continued into the 1812 East Florida Rebellion, a/k/a "The Patriots' War". Eaton suggests further research is needed to put these reported 1811 German Coast events into the context of the ambivalent loyalties of the planters. Several planters on the German Coast were still pensioners of the Spanish government at that time. The planters and other elite had already been in a state of high alert, not against the slaves, but against the abolitionist sentiment of the American Congress, which had restricted "the African trade" in 1808 and the importation of slaves into Louisiana. In these conditions, they could have panicked at rumors of a rebellion and rounded up "likely" slaves. It had happened before in Louisiana and other southern states.
- Nat Turner's slave rebellion
- Gabriel Prosser
- Denmark Vesey
- Slave rebellion
- History of slavery in Louisiana
- Adam Rothman, Slave Country: American Expansion and the Origins of the Deep South, Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2005, p. 106
- Mary Ann Sternberg, "Along the River Road: Past and Present on Louisiana’s Historic Byways," Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 2001, p. 12
- "'American Rising': When Slaves Attacked New Orleans". NPR. January 16, 2011. Retrieved January 16, 2011.
- Eugene D. Genovese, Roll, Jordan, Roll: The World the Slaves Made, New York: Vintage Books, 1976, p. 592
- James W. Lowen, Lies Across America: What Our History Sites Get Wrong, New York: Simon & Schuster, 2007, p. 192
- Adam Rothman, Slave Country: American Expansion and the Origins of the Deep South, Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2005, p. 111
- Eaton, Fernin (November 7, 2011). "1811 Slave Uprising; Governor on Trial: Claiborne in His Own Words". Salon publique, Pitot House, New Orleans. Academia.edu. Retrieved September 7, 2012.
- Nathan A. Buman, "To Kill Whites: The 1811 Louisiana Slave Insurrection", Louisiana State University, August 2008, pp. 32–33, 37, 51, 58. Retrieved January 18, 2013.
- Daniel Rasmussen, American Uprising: The Untold Story of America's Largest Slave Revolt. New York, NY: Harper, 2011, p.11
- Daniel Rasmussen, American Uprising: The Untold Story of America's Largest Slave Revolt. New York, NY: Harper, 2011, p.135
- Daniel Rasmussen, American Uprising: The Untold Story of America's Largest Slave Revolt. New York, NY: Harper, 2011, p.109
- "January 8, 1811". African American Registry. 2005. Archived from the original on October 1, 2009. Retrieved December 8, 2008.
- Peter Kolchin, American Slavery: 1619–1877, New York: Hill and Wang, 1994, p.156
- Daniel Rasmussen, American Uprising: The Untold Story of America's Largest Slave Revolt. New York, NY: Harper, 2011, p. 148.
- January 16, 1811 and January 19, 1811, Rowland, Dunbar, ed. Official Letter Books of WCC Claiborne, 1801-1816. Vol. 5. State department of archives and history, 1917, p. 100-101; p. 107-108
- Carter, Clarence Edwin, ed. The Territorial Papers of the United States, V. 9: The Territory of Orleans--1803-1812. US Government Printing Office, 1940, p. 983
- ibid, p. 982; Rowland, p. 198-199
- Eaton, Fernin (November 7, 2011). "1811 Slave Uprising; Governor on Trial: Claiborne in His Own Words". Salon publique, Pitot House, New Orleans. Academia.edu. Retrieved February 19, 2015 https://www.academia.edu/1910804/Gov._Claiborne_in_his_own_words--a_salon_publique_at_Pitot_House_Bayou_St._John
- Ibid, Eaton, Salon Publique
- Carter, p. 917-918
- Adam Rothman, Slave Country: American Expansion and the Origins of the Deep South, Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2005, p.115
- Adam Rothman, Slave Country: American Expansion and the Origins of the Deep South, Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2005, p.116
- Marael Johnson, "Louisiana Why Stop?: a Guide to Louisiana's Roadside Historical Markers," Houston: Gulf Publishing Co., 1996, p.52
- Lubin F. Laurent, "A History of St. John the Baptist Parish", Louisiana Historical Quarterly, 7 (1924), pp 324–25
- "John Shaw to Paul Hamilton", New Orleans, January 18, 1811, National Archives.
- "Samuel Hambleton to David Porter", January 15, 1811, Papers of David Porter, Library of Congress, in Slavery, Stanley Engerman, Seymour Drescher, and Robert Paquette, eds. New York: Oxford University Press, 2001. p. 326.
- Aptheker, Herbert, American Negro Slave Revolts, New York, Columbia University Press, 1943.
- Conrad, Glenn R. ed. The German Coast: Abstracts of the Civil Records of St. Charles and St. John the Baptist Parishes, 1804–1812. Lafayette: Center for Louisiana Studies, University of Southwestern Louisiana, 1981.
- Engerman, Stanley, Seymour Drescher, and Robert Paquette, eds. Slavery. New York: Oxford University Press, 2001. pp. 324–26.
- "German Coast Uprising (1811)", in Junius P. Rodriguez, ed., The Encyclopedia of Slave Resistance and Rebellion, Westport, CT, and London: Greenwood Press, 2007, 213–16
- Rasmussen, Daniel. American Uprising: The Untold Story of America's Largest Slave Revolt. New York: Harper, 2011.
- Sitterson, J. Carlyle. Sugar Country; the Cane Sugar Industry in the South, 1753–1950. Lexington: University of Kentucky Press, 1953.
- Thrasher, Albert, ed. On to New Orleans! Louisiana's Heroic 1811 Slave Revolt. 2nd ed. New Orleans: Cypress Press, 1996.