The slave societies of the American South formed slave patrols to control their slaves and enforce the slave codes, laws that attempted to regulate slave behavior. Slave patrols were usually locally organized groups of young white men, both middle-class slave owners and lower-class yeomen farmers. Patrollers generally had three main duties: searching slave quarters; dispersing slave gatherings; and safeguarding white communities by patrolling the roads.
Fear of growing slave populations and the threat of foreign invasion drove southerners to institute and later expand slave patrols. Due to its early black majority and threats from Native Americans and the Spanish, South Carolina established the earliest slave patrol in 1704; Virginia followed in 1727, North Carolina in 1753, and Georgia in 1757. As new territories and states formed across the Deep South and West in the early nineteenth century, they too established slave patrols. The Territory of Mississippi formed patrols in 1811, as did Missouri in 1823. The city of Washington, D.C., established citizen patrols in 1838; in 1842 they became an auxiliary night police to patrol the city's streets and enforce a "colored curfew."
Slave patrols reinforced a sense of white solidarity in the South between slave owners and non-slave owners, all of whom shared a desire to keep the nonwhite population under control. However, conflict sometimes arose between slave owners and patrollers. Some planters felt that patrollers abused slaves who had permission to travel, while other planters neglected to write the required passes. Much of the burden of patrolling fell to non-slave owners, who sometimes resented what they saw as serving the planter class.
It is unclear how effective slave patrols were at actually regulating slave behavior. However, it is quite clear that slaves feared and learned survival skills to thwart patrollers. Francis Henderson was nineteen years old when he escaped slavery in 1841. He recalled,
The slaves are watched by the patrols, who ride about to try to catch them off the quarters, especially at the house of a free person of color. I have known the slaves to stretch clothes lines across the street, high enough to let the horse pass, but not the rider; then the boys would run, and the patrols in full chase would be thrown off by running against the lines.
A number of post-Revolutionary changes created more work for patrollers. African Americans understood the Revolutionary rhetoric of liberty and many slaves made escape attempts after the Revolution. Other slaves became free through manumission. In the Upper South, some masters freed their slaves because they believed slavery conflicted with Revolutionary ideals, while other masters freed or sold their slaves because of economic changes that reduced the need for slave labor. Those who sold their slaves often took part in the new domestic slave trade to the Deep South, which slaves greatly feared and from which they would flee. Patrollers therefore had to track runaway slaves and investigate the activities of the growing free black communities.
In this atmosphere of change and with the inspiration of abolitionist activities and the Haitian Revolution of 1791, free and enslaved African Americans throughout the South rebelled against slavery. Among the most noteworthy slave rebellions were Gabriel Prosser's planned rebellion in Virginia in 1800; a large rebellion in Louisiana that lasted for three days in 1811; a battle between slaves, Indians, and the U.S. Army at Fort Blount in Florida in 1816; and Nat Turner's Virginia rebellion in 1831, during which slaves killed at least fifty-five whites. White leaders brutally put down each of the rebellions, but not before fear spread throughout the slave societies, which responded with stricter laws and severe penalties for any hint of rebellion. After the Nat Turner rebellion, much of the South became an armed camp in which slave patrols were stepped up and black movement, gatherings, and the presence of free black communities were limited.
Egerton, Douglas R. Gabriel's Rebellion: The Virginia Slave Conspiracies of 1800 and 1802. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1993.
Frey, Sylvia R. Water from the Rock: Black Resistance in a Revolutionary Age. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1993.
Fry, Gladys-Marie. Night Riders in Black Folk History. Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press, 1975.
Greenberg, Kenneth S., ed. The Confessions of Nat Turner and Related Documents. New York: St. Martin's, 1996.
Hadden, Sally E. Slave Patrols: Law and Violence in Virginia and the Carolinas. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 2001.
Laura Croghan Kamoie