The Slave Insurrection Panic of 1856

[Mexicans] consort freely with the negroes, making no distinction from pride of race. A few, of old Spanish blood, have purchased negro servants, but most of them regard slavery with abhorrence.

The Mexicans were treated for a while after annexation like a conquered people. Ignorant of their rights, and of the new language, they allowed themselves to be imposed upon by the newcomers, who seized their lands and property without a shadow of claim, and drove hundreds of them homeless across the Rio Grande....

...They are regarded by slaveholders with great contempt and suspicion for their intimacy with slaves, and their competition with slave labor.

....From several counties they have been driven out altogether. At Austin, in the spring of 1853, a meeting was held, at which the citizens resolved, on the pleas that Mexicans were horse-thieves, that they must quit the county. About twenty families were thus driven from their homes, and dispersed over the western counties....

Even at San Antonio, there had been talk of such a razzia. A Mexican, caught in an attempt to steal a horse, had been hung by a Lynching party, on the spot, for example. His friends happened to be numerous, and were much exited, threatening violence in return. Under the pretext of subduing an intended riot, the sheriff issued a call for an armed posse of 500 men who the idea of dispersing and driving from the neighborhood a large part of the Mexican population....

Frederick Olmsted. A Journey Through Texas.

While Frederick Olmsted is best known for the many public parks he designed, in his youth he also had a significant career as a journalist. Of particular note were his journeys reporting on the American south between 1852 and 1857, commissioned by the New York Daily Times (the precursor of the New York Times). Published in three volumes, they are an amazingly detailed and vivid description of life in the South in the years just preceding the civil war; of how enslavers lived and justified themselves, and of how the enslaved survived.

Olmsted's volume A Journey through Texas is a description of that state in 1854. Never-the-less it greatly helped me understand the context of rebellion that I am addressing here, which took place two years later, in Colorado County. One needs to keep in mind that right from when the first White settlers had made their way to Texas, bringing their slaves with them, they used every opportunity to squeeze out the local populations, be they Mexican, or, for that matter, Indigenous peoples. Reading Olmsted, I was struck by how tropes attributed to African Americans today were already then directed by slave owning White settlers towards the local populations.

One of the reasons for the Texas Revolution, when it succeeded from Mexico, in 1836, was that Mexico was about to outlaw slavery. Which Mexico did in 1837. That country then became a haven for the enslaved and, like the better known northern Underground Railroad, a similar southern network came into being helping the enslaved make their way to Mexico. Enslavers tried to intercept their runaways before they reached the border. Olmsted describes such encounters with "Nigger-hunters". (Where the focus then was on keeping people from crossing south, today it is about keeping people from coming north.)

That the local Mexican population was seen being as sympathetic to the enslaved became one more excuse to expel them—they were scapegoated as the instigators.

The conspiracy to rebel that gripped Colorado County in 1856 was typical of countless such rebellions, real or imagined, that were popping up in the South starting in the 1830s and lasting through the Civil War. We know of this one from the letter written to the Galveston News by the Columbus County slaveowners' Vigilance Committee. It reported that they had successfully suppressed a general insurrection. There was to have beeb an uprising on the night of September 9, where the entire White population was to be murdered, except for the young ladies who were to be taken captive and made the wives of the "diabolical murderers." The rebells would then their fighting their way to freedom in Mexico. The password was "Leave not a shadow behind."

Additional information on these events are detailed in Consider the Lily: The Ungilded History of Colorado County, Texas, by Bill Stein. Bill Stein was the director of the Nesbitt Memorial Library in Columbus, Texas from 1997-2008. Researching local history, he found archival testimony of formerly enslaved men who told of how several were tortured to no avail — because there was no conspiracy — until one, unnamed, belonging to the enslaver John Tooke, fabricated the story to satisfy his master.

In its letter to the Galveston News the Vigilance Committee stated that two hundred of the enslaved were identified as participants. But, the Committee stated, the lives of all were generously spared, except for three supposed ringleaders, who where hanged. Those spared were flogged. Two of them were flogged so severely that they died shortly afterward. One White person, an alleged Abolitionist co-conspirator, was expelled from the county. And then the entire local Mexican population, deemed to have encouraged the rebellion, was also expelled, with a resolution passed "forever forbidding any Mexican from coming within the limits of the county."

I spent a few days in Columbia County. In Columbus, the county seat, I was directed

by the Visitors Center to visit the historic court house and adjacent 1883 water tower, and to do the Mansion tour, as well as the Live Oak tour. Indeed the town is dotted with impressively huge oak trees. The largest, the Columbus Oak, is estimated to be at least 500 years old. But there is another oak that is not on the tour, which I only heard of thanks to a woman came up to me to admire my camera. She directed me to the Hanging Tree, where two Black teenagers were lynched in 1935.

One a more positive note, I found the town's historic Water Tower to be closed. I had read of it as housing the Columbus Confederate Memorial Museum, curated by the United Daughters of the Confederacy. At first I thought it was closed because of the pandemic but on closer inspection I noticed that all the signage had been removed. At the Visitor Center they said only that the Water Tower could no longer be visited. They did not elaborate.

Next: The Winston County Conspiracy of 1859

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