Slave Patrols

Woodcut from 1839 Anti-Slavery Almanac
Beginning in 1757 Georgia's colonial assembly required white landowners and residents to serve as slave patrols. Asserting that slave insurrections must be prevented, the legislature stipulated in "An Act for Establishing and Regulating of Patrols" that groups "not exceeding seven" would work in districts twelve miles square. The statute, modeled on South Carolina's earlier patrol law, ordered white adults to ride the roads at night, stopping all slaves they encountered and making them prove that they were engaged in lawful activities. Patrollers required slaves to produce a pass, which stated their owner's name as well as where and when they were allowed to be away from the plantation and for how long. Patrols operated in Georgia until slavery was abolished at the end of the Civil War (1861-65).
Whites could hire substitutes to patrol for them; absentees were fined. Much of the burden of patrol duty fell to nonslaveholders, who often resented what they sometimes saw as service to the planter class. The Chatham County grand jury complained in the mid-1790s about the difficulty it faced in enforcing the patrol requirement. By the early nineteenth century it became necessary to pay people to perform what had been voluntary unpaid service. In 1819 Savannah's city watch received one dollar for every evening they served and shared in any reward for the forced return of fugitive slaves.
To disperse any nighttime meetings, patrollers visited places where slaves often gathered. Owners feared such gatherings allowed slaves to trade stolen goods for liquor and other forbidden items. River patrols were organized in Savannah and Augusta to combat "midnight depredations" and to protect cargo, crops, and other materials piled along waterfront docks from slave theft. Religious meetings were also a favorite haunt of patrollers because they provided opportunities for socializing that attracted slaves. After 1792 Georgia law protected religious assemblies from being disturbed, but slaves and African Americans could not gather "under pretence of divine worship" contrary to the regulation of patrols. Paranoia over slave unrest after the Saint Domingue (later, Haiti) slave rebellion of 1791 led to a Savannah ordinance that no slaves could meet for religious services without a white preacher present.
Slave patrols had the legal right to enter, without warrant, the plantation grounds of any Georgian; they often searched the slave quarters and inspected slave homes, looking for stolen goods, missing slaves who had turned runaway, weapons that could be used in an insurrection, or evidence of literacy and education, including books, papers, and pens (teaching a slave to read was forbidden by Georgia law in the antebellum period). Enforcement was often more lax than the letter of the law suggested. For instance, in Greene County, in the heart of the plantation Black Belt, the grand jury complained about the laxity of the patrols and their failure to provide effective vigilance over the county's vast slave populace.
In towns and growing cities like Savannah, Macon, and Augusta, slave patrollers usually did their work on foot, and the men chosen as urban patrols were not always well-to-do. The responsibilities of city patrollers occasionally merged with those associated with modern-day policemen and firemen: patrollers investigated strange circumstances (moving lights in a warehouse at night, rowdy gatheringsin drinking dens, anyone who acted suspiciously). Indeed, urban patrollers preceded the advent of city policeman and fireman forces in virtually every southern town.
With the Civil War's outbreak in 1861, white Georgians feared the possibility that slaves would rebel or that enforcing discipline among slave communities would become more difficult. As a result, patrols, often in conjunction with home militia units, intensified their vigilance. Apprehension increased after U.S. president Abraham Lincoln's Emancipation Proclamation went into effect in 1863, and the movement and behavior of slaves were more strictly regulated. In Atlanta, for example, patrols began arresting any blacks found on the streets after nine o'clock at night, whether or not they had passes. City authorities also prevented social gatherings of African Americans unless patrollers or policemen were present.
Although slave patrols ceased to function after the Civil War, they provided the blueprint for later activities of the Ku Klux Klan —a new means by which the white community sought to control the activities of freedmen and freedwomen during Reconstruction.


Further Reading
Paul Finkelman, ed., Slavery, Race, and the American Legal System, 1700-1872: The Pamphlet Literature, 16 vols. (New York: Garland, 1988).

Gladys-Marie Fry, Night Riders in Black Folk History (Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press, 1975).

Sally E. Hadden, Slave Patrols: Law and Violence in Virginia and the Carolinas (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 2001).

Timothy J. Lockley, Lines in the Sand: Race and Class in Lowcountry Georgia, 1750-1860 (Athens: University of Georgia Press, 2001).
Cite This Article
Hadden, Sally E. "Slave Patrols." New Georgia Encyclopedia. 02 August 2018. Web. 07 September 2021.
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