Gabriel Prosser was an enslaved blacksmith born in 1776 at Brookfield, a tobacco plantation in Henrico County, Virginia. Born into slavery, he and his brothers, Solomon and Martin, lived on the plantation owned by Thomas Prosser. Gabriel trained as a blacksmith from ten; Gabriel and his brothers likely followed their father's footsteps. He was also a skilled carpenter and was often 'hired out' by Thomas Henry, son of Thomas Prosser, who took over the plantation after his father's passing to work around Richmond. Thomas Henry was economically inclined hence his hiring out of Gabriel for his skills, thus allowing Gabriel more freedom to travel around as many merchants and plantation owners relied on cheap labor.
Gabriel was described as 'unusually intelligent and unusually large,' standing at six feet, two or three inches tall. He possessed great strength because of his profession as a blacksmith. As a child, Gabriel learned to read and write, an extremely uncommon occurrence among the enslaved. In addition, he was a profoundly religious man strongly influenced by the bible. He was married to Nanny, a fellow enslaved woman with whom he had no children.
The Saint Domingue uprising and the American Revolution fueled Gabriel's revolutionary stance. The themes of liberty, equality, and brotherhood coupled with the radicalism of some white artisans and abolitionists and Gabriel's hatred for the business owners who exploited the enslaved on plantations ignited a burning desire within him. With Gabriel permitted to hire out his skills, it allowed him to socialize with other enslaved people and free blacks. Gabriel witnessed how free blacks owned successful businesses despite the intense discrimination they faced, especially how they'd grown in Richmond, primarily due to the many enslaved people slaveholders eventually freed.
Following an incident in September 1799 which resulted in Gabriel, his brother Solomon and another enslaved person being put on trial, Gabriel began planning the rebellion. He believed that if the enslaved revolted, the poor white people would join in solidarity with them. He planned on seizing Capitol Square and keeping Governor James Monroe as a hostage to bargain with city authorities. Gabriel's plan for the revolt showed a great deal of intelligence on his part. He thought extensively of who to involve and why which showed how aware he was of how other revolutions succeeded in their attempts. He recognized Quakers, Methodists, and Frenchmen as people he could forge alliances with and involved enslaved people from over ten counties, including Carolina and Louisa and the cities of Richmond, Norfolk, and Petersburg, Virginia.
In preparation, Gabriel and his brothers, along with the help of other blacksmiths, turned scythe blades into swords and created spears and other weapons. Gabriel anticipated hundreds of enslaved people to participate in the storming of Capitol Square. The revolt was set to be the most far-reaching rebellion ever planned in U.S history; however, in an unfortunate turn of events, unforeseen circumstances foiled the entire operation before they could even execute it.
Gabriel planned the revolt for August 30, 1800, and upon Gabriel's announcement of its commencement, word began to spread amongst the white people of Richmond. Furthermore, two enslaved people betrayed the movement and informed their respective owners about the pending attack, subsequently warning Monroe. Monroe reacted by dispatching the state's military to patrol. On the day of the attack, heavy rainfall flooded the streets of Richmond preventing the revolt from ever happening. Gabriel was captured several days later and brought in for questioning. He was put on trial on October 6 and executed by hanging on October 10.
The revolt sent a wave of shock over the slaveholders resulting in restrictions on travel for enslaved people and free blacks increasing in 1802 along with the prohibition of gatherings with other black people. Hiring out of enslaved people was subsequently banned, and a few years later, the state ordered free blacks to leave Virginia or face re-enslavement.
Despite the unsuccess of the revolt, Gabriel's determination and bravery serve as an example of the lengths enslaved people went through in the struggle for freedom, justice, and equality. It will always be a lingering question in history whether it would have been a success had the plan been executed as arranged. Unfortunately, we will never know; however, Gabriel's name will live on forever.