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Denmark Vesey and Middleton Place

Category: Blog

This summer marks an important bicentennial anniversary in Charleston’s rich and sometimes complicated history. On July 2, 1822, Denmark Vesey was executed for planning a revolt against the system of race-based chattel slavery that held most people of African descent in perpetual bondage. Many surviving documents surrounding this historical event articulate the large-scale planning in which some co-conspirators aided. Some of the testimonies in court also mention certain plantations by name that were visited, possibly to enlist recruits, including “Mr. Middleton’s Place.”[1] The Official Account – written by court magistrates Lionel Kennedy and Thomas Parker – names a co-conspirator, Scipio Simms, who came to Middleton Place. Not only is this important for our understanding of the complexity of the alleged plot, but also the agency to which the enslaved and freedmen acted to take their freedom into their own hands.

Denmark Vesey, also known as Telemaque, was born either near the Gold Coast region of West Africa or the Caribbean. In the early 1790s, Telemaque, by now known as Denmark Vesey, was enslaved by Captain Joseph Vesey, who eventually settled in Charleston. In 1799, he purchased a lottery ticket and won a prize of $1,500. With this large sum of money, Vesey bought his freedom and began a carpentry business. Unfortunately, he could not buy his family’s freedom because they were enslaved by others. A plan was needed to free his family, loved ones, and the surrounding community in Charleston. Allegedly, Vesey and other enslaved people created a plan to replicate the successful Haitian revolt against the French in 1804.

After years of planning, the plot began to dissolve in June of 1822 after details were revealed to enslavers. Mayor James Hamilton Jr. called up the city militia to start arresting anyone allegedly involved. As arrests continued throughout the summer, a court of magistrates and freeholders met in secret at the Charleston Work House to hold a trial against a total of 131 accused co-conspirators. Out of the last number mentioned, seventy-seven were found guilty; thirty-five individuals were executed, and forty-two were banished either outside of South Carolina or the United States.

The trial records, written by Lionel Kennedy and Thomas Parker, were eventually published months later due to calls made by the public for more information about the uprising. Inside those records, an enslaved individual named Scipio Sims was tried and found guilty due to several individuals testifying against him, including an enslaved individual named Monday Gell. In Gell’s testimony, he mentions Scipio visited “Mr. Middleton’s place” near the “Savannah’s” to discuss “business,” a term many co-conspirators referred to as the plot.[2]

The “Savannah” that Monday described was “Horse Savannah,” a Middleton-owned property across Middleton Place. In Henry Augustus Middleton Smith’s 1911 work, “The Ashley River: Its Seats and Settlements,” he illustrates a map detailing Middleton Place and Horse Savannah. This area contained inland rice fields, cattle grazing land, timber tracts, a Johnathon Lucas rice mill, and a large enslaved community. Scipio’s ability to travel nearly 14 miles up the Ashley River demonstrates his willingness to risk his own life for the freedom of other enslaved people. Over forty-three years later, freedom would arrive to the people enslaved by the Middletons when another visitor traveled to Horse Savannah.

 

On February 23, 1865, Horse Savannah is mentioned in the diary of Dr. Henry Marcy, a surgeon from Massachusetts who accompanied Union forces when they burned Middleton Place. Dr. Marcy describes the scene of emancipation, stating,

My first object was to get the [colored] people together and advise them what to do – find there is a schooner and several flats here and as they are all determined to leave I advise them to load the boats and proceed to the city. . . Accompanied by the driver I rode down to the [Horse Savannah / Jerry Hill] five miles away.  Here found about 150 slaves. Called them together and made them a little talk…The [colored] people seem happy and are making ready to leave for town.[3]

 While it may seem Horse Savannah and Middleton Place played a minor role in Denmark Vesey’s plot, those locations still hold historical significance. It was where Scipio Sims risked his life to recruit other enslaved people to fight for their freedom. It was where people who were enslaved at Middleton Place first heard of their newfound freedom, and it’s a place where you can listen to these stories of action and agency daily.

Written by Brandon M. Stone, Engagement Manager [email protected].

 

Further Reading:

Harrold, Stanley., Miller, Randall M. The Denmark Vesey Affair: A Documentary History. United States: University Press of Florida, 2017.

Lionel Henry Kennedy, and Thomas Parker. An official report of the trials of sundry Negroes, charged with an attempt to raise an insurrection in the state of South-Carolina: preceded by an introduction and narrative: and, in an appendix, a report of the trials of four white persons on indictments for attempting to excite the slaves to insurrection. Charleston: James R. Schenck, 1822.

Schipper, Jeremy. Denmark Vesey’s Bible: The Thwarted Revolt That Put Slavery and Scripture on Trial. United States: Princeton University Press, 2022.

 

[1] Lionel Henry Kennedy, and Thomas Parker. An official report of the trials of sundry Negroes, charged with an attempt to raise an insurrection in the state of South-Carolina: preceded by an introduction and narrative: and, in an appendix, a report of the trials of four white persons on indictments for attempting to excite the slaves to insurrection. Charleston: James R. Schenck, 1822. 94

[2] Ibid. 94

[3] Marcy, Henry O. Diary of a Surgeon in U. S. Army, 1864-1866. Courtesy of the South Carolina Historical Society.

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