People & Events
Witchhunt in New York: The 1741 rebellion
|Resource Bank Contents|
For many white New Yorkers, it seemed just a matter of time. They had seen insurrection firsthand over the previous years, including the 1712 revolt that resulted in the deaths of nine whites. They knew of the recent Stono Rebellion in South Carolina, where about 25 whites had died. But more and more black slaves were coming to the city each year -- by 1741, two thousand of the twenty thousand inhabitants were black. Keeping the blacks from gathering was proving to be impossible, despite the harsh laws. A revolt was inevitable.
On March 8, Fort George was destroyed by fire. Fire struck again a week later -- this time it was a house. At least five more fires were set early in April. By now many inhabitants of the city feared an arsonist plot, and some even left the city. Suspicion focused on the city's enslaved population and its multiracial working class community.
The government, in an attempt to expose the culprits, offered a handsome reward and, if necessary, a pardon to anyone who would name names. Authorities questioned Mary Burton, a sixteen-year-old white indentured servant (a servant contracted to work for a set amount of time). Promised her freedom and 100 [pounds], she revealed the plans of a vast conspiracy to burn down the city and kill whites. She pointed the finger at John Hughson, the owner of the tavern where she worked, Hughson's wife, as well as two slaves and a prostitute who were regulars at the tavern. They were all tried by the New York Supreme Court. All denied knowing anything about the conspiracy. All were hanged.
The accusations continued. Authorities were particulary suspicious of persons with ties to the Spanish colonies or to the Catholic Church, for Protestant England was at war with Catholic Spain at the time. Five Spanish Negroes were implicated, convicted and hanged. A white teacher named John Ury was suspected of being a Jesuit priest in disquise and the instigator of the uprising. Mary Burton confirmed this. He was hanged. The list goes on.
The "witchhunt" ended when Mary began to accuse wealthy, prominent New York citizens. She was then granted her freedom and given her 100[pound] reward.
Eighteen blacks had been hanged. Thirteen had been burned to death. More than seventy had been deported. To this day it remains a topic of debate among historians whether this episode involved paranoid white fears, an organized conspiracy, or both.
A List of White Persons taken into Custody on Account of the 1741 Conspiracy
New York: The Revolt of 1712
The Stono Rebellion
Thomas Davis on the impact of the Stono Rebellion on slaveowners
Part 1: Narrative | Resource Bank Contents | Teacher's Guide
Africans in America: Home | Resource Bank Index | Search | Shop
WGBH | PBS Online | ©