The Gloucester County Conspiracy, or The Servant’s Plot
In Restoration‐era Virginia, exiled Parliamentarians, New Model Army veterans, radical Dissenters, and African slaves joined powers to revolutionize their colony.
Anthony Comegna, PhD
Assistant Editor for Intellectual History
In the early 1660s, England’s restored King Charles II harbored a bit of a grudge. Parliament had shown the world that kings, too, could die if and when the people demanded it–and that was a scary precedent if ever there was one. Puritan zealots plunged their country into a decade‐long, horribly bloodly civil war and murdered his father. Charles II now rounded up the most dangerous regicides and dissenters left after the Civil Wars, executed the worst offenders against royalty, and banished many more to servitude in the New World. Once in Virginia, though, they almost immediately began conspiring amongst themselves to revive the old battles between slavery and freedom.
Virginia’s Burgesses and Cavalier Governor William Berkeley used the Restoration period to double down on long‐standing policies of persecution. Charles I had appointed Berkeley in 1641–shortly before the heavy fighting started at home–but the Commonwealth’s forces compelled Virginia’s submission by 1652 and Berkeley temporarily retired. Reappointed by Charles II in 1660, the governor and the House of Burgesses determined to consolidate control over the colony and reassert Cavalier power in Virginia. The Chesapeake lordlings feared–above all else–combinations of black and white laborers inspired by antinomian ideas.
In Gloucester County, Virginia, 1 September 1663, white indentured servants and African slaves combined forces in what’s called “The Servant’s Plot” or the “Gloucester County Conspiracy.” Sources on the proposed rebellion are scarce and almost nothing survives from the conspirators themselves, but the document below contains testimony given by six of the conspirators. It appears their numbers included Muggletonians and Fifth Monarchists, veterans from the New Model Army, men and women, white and black. The conspirators planned to gather at “the Poplar Spring.” From there, the first stop would be Lieutenant Colonel Francis Willis’ plantation to steal arms and drums–an essential tool to raising spontaneous armies from the countryside. Whatever language you spoke, whichever continents you or your ancestors were ripped from, everyone in Virginia knew the sound of war drums. They would arm servants and slaves, raise recruits from the countryside with the booming of drums, and revolutionize the colony. Most of them also knew the sting of betrayal. When a servant named Birkenhead revealed the plot to the House of Burgesses, they awarded him 5,000 pounds of tobacco and declared a colonial holy day.
The ancient strategy “divide and conquer” was raised to a new level of sophistication after Bacon’s Rebellion a decade later. In that series of strange and ferociously bloody events, rebels and leadership repeated patterns from the Poplar Spring. As his contest against the colonial government raged, Bacon offered liberty to Virginia slaves and land to indentured servants. Bacon’s interracial army sacked Jamestown, and though their leader died of disease and the movement collapsed with him, the slaves fought to the last. Fearing more Gloucester County and Bacon‐style interracial, working‐class rebellions, Virginia officials consciously used the decades after the rebellion to drive a permanent, legal wedge between white servants and black slaves. In 1680, the Virginia legislature constricted black liberties with a “Negro insurrections” act. A 1682 law declared that all slaves imported by water (that is, from Africa) were condemned to slavery for life. All those imported by land (that is, Native Americans) were bound to a twelve‐year period of indenture. The average term for white indentures remained about 4 to 5 years. Planters and legislators even shifted to discouraging more poor whites from flooding the colony and replaced unfree white labor with chattels from Africa. By 1705, the “Act concerning Servants and Slaves” fully institutionalized race. When once it was merely a set of vague cultural notions about Christian and non‐Christian peoples, race was now an indication of your naturalized and necessary position within a developing new social order. Virginia took differences of skin color and made them irrevocable markers of social, political, and economic status. The Virginia Slave Codes became the model virtually all British colonies adopted in succeeding decades–they created the modern concept of race just as they were creating the modern world.
Note to Readers: “Ye” is pronounced like and has the same meaning as “the.”
1663 Septr 1
Indictment against John Gunter, William Bell & others for treason—laid the 6th of September in the 15th of Charles 2d at Newmans land in Gloucester. Attempt of servants to get a year of their time and if refused to go out of the country as appears by the depositions[.]
The Jurors for our Soveraigne Lord ye King upon their oath pr’sent that John Gunter[, Wm Bell, Richard Darbishire, John Hayte, Thomas Jones, Wm Ball, Wm Poultney, Wm Bendell, and Thomas Collins, all Late of ye Country of Gloster and all Laborers…] as false Traytors against his most Excellent Prince, of Soveraigne Lord Charles ye second by ye Grace of God King of England Scotland, France and Ireland and of his Dominions thereunto Belonging defender of ye ffaith &c, The feare of God in their harts not haveing, nor weighing their due Allegiance but seduced by ye Instigacon of the devill, and intending wholy to withdraw, putt out and Extinguish the hearty love and the true, and due obedience w’ch a true, and faithfull subject of ye King should beare, and by ye Law is bound to beare towards our said Soveraigne Lord ye King, The sixth day of this instant September in ye fifteenth year of ye Raigne of our said Soveraigne Lord ye King at Newmans Land in ye County of Glocester aforesaid ffalsly, malitiotisly, and traterously intended, immagined, went aboute, and Compassed ye said King their Soveraigne, and naturall Leige Lord not onely from his Royall State, Tytle, Power, and Government of this his Ma’ties Country of Virginia utterly to deprive, depose, cast downe, and disherite but also to bring, and put ye Right Hon’rable S’r Wm Berkeley Kn’t his said Ma’ties Governo’r and Cap’t Genn’ll of this Country of Virginia from his Power Authority, and Government if hee should oppose, or resist them in their wicked, and Rebellious proceedings, and also sedition in this said Country to rayse up, and warr to Levy, and make and wholy submit and distroy ye State of this Country of Vir’g being in, and throughout well constituted, and ordered, and to [ ] Intent they might fullfill, and bring to passe those their aforesaid trayterous purposes, Immaginacons, compassions, and intents they…did traterously meete together, conferr, and treate concerning their traterous purposes…and then and there malitiously, advisedly, and traterously, did agree, designe, intend and determine the house of one Francis Willis…Esqr one of his Ma’ties Councellours of State for this Country of Virginia to breake and Enter rend all the Gunns, Weapons, and other armes and amunicons of Warr there found to seise upon and take away and therewith to arme themselves, and Likewise the house of one Katharine Cooke in ye same County Widow…and therewith to arme certaine other psons to ye number of thirty, by them, and w’th them through their false, malitious and traterous, procurments combyned and Engaged in there said trayterous, and rebellious purposes, immaginacons, compassing, and Intents, and also to kill and murder all and Every Pson and Psons that should in any manner, or wayes resist, oppose, or hinder them in their wicked and rebellious pcedings, and sedition, to ye utter subvercon of ye state of this his Ma’ties Country, and Contrary to ye statutes in such Cases made to witt ye 25 Ed: 3: ca: 2: 13: Eliz: and against ye peace of ye Soveraigne Lord ye King his Crowne and Dignityes &c.
The Examinacon of Thomas Collins of ye County of Glocester Laborer being Examined sayth
That upon ye first day of this pr’sent September the said Collins went to acquaint Bell that one Richard Darbishire aboute three dayes bedfore did bid him ye said Bell w’th ye said Collins meete him and other at Mr Knights Little house in ye woods aboute a designe for their freedom where ye said Collins and Bell did meete other Eight men, and there they did Contrive, and agree that upon ye Sunday night following aboute 12 of ye Clock to meete at a place called ye poplar spring, and to bring armes w’th them ye said Collins intending to bring one of his Mast’r Coll Walkers Gunns and other ammunicon, and from thence to march to ye Right Hono’ble ye Governo’r and there to desire to bee released of one year of their tyme w’ch they had to serve, and for their Cap’t they would have Either Gunter, or Bell, and in case ye Governo’r should deny to release them ye said years service that then they would goe forth of ye Land if they Could to an Island w’ch ye said Collins doth not remember ye name off, and further sayth not.
Taken by mee ye 13th of Sept’ 1663 Bul: Mitford his Ma’ties Attor’y
The Examinacon of William Budell taken ye 8th of September 1663 before us Leift Coll Willis, m’r Abraham Iverson and maj: John Smith who sayth that being at a little house of m’r Peter Knights in ye woods neere unto m’rs Cooks quarter where were pr’sent Eight servants, and my selfe, namly W’m Bell, one Collins, W’m Poultney, Richard Darbishire, one Gunter servant to m’r Pate, there wee did move that an oath of secresie should pass for ye unconcealment of our designe w’ch was as followith, first that wee all should meete at poplars spring on Sunday night next, and to bring w’th us what Company, armes, and ammunicon wee could gett, and in ye first place to gett to ye dwelling house of Leift C Willis, and to seise on his armes and drum. and soe to march from house to house, and wee did intend to goe to ye Governor, and demand our freedome, and in Case that ye Governor should refuse, to march out of ye Country, and further that if case any Pson then pr’sent should not condiscend, and yield, and keepe secret our intended designe then wee resolved to be ye death of him, and further sayth not as witness my hand
The Examination of William Bell. then Examined doth averr and Confirme all ye pr’misses aforesayd, and further sayth that Richard Darbishire came unto mee, and acquainted mee of ye aforesaid designe above a month agoe, and further saith not as witness my hand this 8th of September 1663
The Examinacon of Thomas Collins taken ye 8th of September 1663 Sayth that ye persons above menconed were all resolved to meet one Sunday night next at poplar spring, and that the Company within menconed did propose and offer unto Wm Bell that ye said Wm Bell should bee their Leader in the aforesaid designe, but hee would not accept of the offer, and further sayth that hee the said Collins was on Saturday night last sent unto ye sayd Bell by one Richard Darbishire that hee the said Bell should come to m’rs Cooks Quarters, and Speake w’th ye said Darbishire, and further sayth not
The Examinacon of Wm Poultney taken ye 8th of September 1663 sayth that he was pr’sent at a Little house of Mr Knights on Saturday Last, and there were pr’sent ye persons in ye aforemenconed Examinacon specified, and there was agreed amoungst them to make a Rysing, and to march to Leift. Coll Willis his house, and to seise on his armes and Drum, and to Endeavor to recource their freedomes, and further sayth that Richard Darbishire first acquainted him ye ye designe and further sayth not the marke of
WILLIAM W POULTNEY.
The Examinacon of John Gunter taken ye 9th of September 1663 who sayth that on Last Sunday hee was at a Little house in the woods where was foure more besides himselfe, but w’t they did he will not Confesse onely hee sayth that thay were intended to got to ye Governor aboute their freedome, and further sayth not
The Examinacon of Thomas Jones taken ye 9th of September 1663 who sayth that on Sunday Last Jno Gunter desired him to goe to Maj’r Smiths house, and desire Maj’r Smiths Drummer to meete him at James his House, and soe to goe to m’r Knights Little house in ye woods, and wee three went, and mett Six more nine in all whose names I know not, and that on Sunday next wee were to meete at Poplare spring, and there Gunter pmised to bring what of m’r Pates servants hee Could, and from poplar spring wee were resolved to march to Coll Willis house, and seise on his armes, and ammunition, and drume, and soe to march from house to house to house, and seise on what armes wee could gett and that Last Sunday was seaventh day at night, Gunter revealed it to us, and then they shooke hands, and swore surely to their Designes, and after all was don amongst us, then Bell, Gunter, and Darbishire had private Conference amoungst themselves, what it was I know not, and further sayth not as witness my hand
The Examinacon of Wm Ball taken ye 9th Septemb’r 1663 who sayth that Jones told him Last friday night that sunday they were to meete at m’r Knights house in ye Woods, and desired mee to goe, and sunday I went w’th them, and there wee mett 9 in all but what was their designe I know not, but onely ye next sunday night wee were to meete at ye poplar spring, and further sayth not as witnese my hand the marke of