The York County Conspiracy of 1661: The History of America’s First Uprising

York County

The York County Conspiracy of 1661: The History of America’s First Uprising

Virginia’s York County is located right next to the Chesapeake Bay. Due to its location inside the Norfolk-Newport News metropolitan area, York County is now one of the most populous areas in the state.

From Yorktown, the location of the penultimate battle of the American Revolutionary War in 1781, comes the name of York County. Colonial Williamsburg, one of the nation’s most well-known historical tourist destinations and a living history site, is also located in the county and draws thousands of people each year. York County, Virginia, was one of the first and most populated places in British North America in the 17th century. It is not too far from Jamestown, which was the first colonial settlement in America and was founded in 1607.

There lived affluent tidewater farmers who helped His Majesty’s Empire in the years before the American Revolution by profiting from vast, expansive tobacco plantations.

The York County Conspiracy of 1661: The History of America's First Uprising
Colonial Map of York County Virginia

Tens of thousands of indentured servants, who signed their lives away, at least for a period of time, in exchange for the “opportunity” to leave Europe and come to the New World, farmed and built these farms, and by extension, all of British North America, in the 17th century.

A wealthy planter called Major Goodwin, who owned a sizable plantation in York County, decided to restrict the diet of his indentured workers to just cornbread and water in early 1661 after a bad autumn harvest. He did this as a cost-cutting effort to make up for his lost profits.

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When there was enough meat, servants were given a ration of meat at least three times a week. This was the traditional and agreed-upon diet for people who were forced to work in York County for a certain amount of time.

There was almost immediate clamor and unhappiness among the indentured workers after Goodwin reduced the diet to just cornbread and water.

“There was discussion of severe treatment, and talk that they were fed nothing but cornmeal and water,” said servant Thomas T. Collins in court testimony, “which was not common in the law of the country.”

The York County Conspiracy of 1661: The History of America's First Uprising

For several days, there was simmering unhappiness and complaining among the servants. Soon, a group of forty formed a coalition and met to air their grievances about the poor provisions.

When a man named Isaac Friend, who’d been subject to a term of seven years’ indenture, stood up to address the gathering, the discussion quickly turned violent. At first, there was only talk of refusing to work.

According to what Friend himself said, he and another conspirator named William Cluton told the group of servants that they would find about 40 of them and give them guns. They also said that they would be the ones to lead the group as they moved forward, shouting “God help us!” 

“Who would be for Liberty and freed from bondage?”.

After that, Isaac Friend continued his testimony by stating that the slaves had further claimed, “We believed enough (servants) would come to us, and that we would travel through the land and kill everyone who made any protest, and that we would either be free or die for it!”

This gathering of about forty indentured servants from York County, Virginia, led by firebrands Isaac Friend and William Cluton, became known as the York County Conspiracy and produced the first ever documented labor stoppage and organized uprising in American history. They did this by using words and phrases that echoed the independent spirit that would embody the movement behind the American Revolution more than a century later, such as “Liberty,” “Freedom“, and “Be Free or Die For It.”

In the end, however, and likely the reason why the York County Conspiracy is largely forgotten about today in American history textbooks in contrast to many other, more famous, uprisings and rebellions, is the fact that nothing came of the York County indentured servants conspiracy despite all of its revolutionary American rhetoric.

William Cluton and Isaac Friend were two of the people involved in the plot who were quickly caught and put in jail.

Cluton and Friend thought they would be executed by hanging.

York County did an investigation into what led up to the plot, which was a legal move that was decades ahead of its time in terms of how kind it was to the accused and how humane it was.

First, John Parkes, a worker employed by Major Goodwin as an overseer on the plantation, stated in court that the employees under his care “were quite well content till William Cluton made it clear that servants ought by the habit of their nation to have meat three times a week.”

Here, Parkes, who is currently employed as the county colonial government’s overseer, accuses William Cluton of being involved in a conspiracy while at the same time attesting to the other employees’ good behavior. It must be kept in mind that Parkes might have been attempting to place the blame on an obnoxious employee in order to save himself from prosecution for failing to put an end to the impending insurrection before it started.

The York County Conspiracy of 1661: The History of America's First Uprising
A 17th Century Hearing in Colonial Virginia

Even Isaac Friend himself did not refute his admission, made under oath before the court, that he had spoken of insurrection, weapons, freedom, liberty, and murder. He might have used such language when they were all together, Friend acknowledged.

Friend argued in court that he essentially became engrossed in the moment and, despite openly admitting to advocating for violence, he resolutely maintained that “he had not truly intended to lead a rebellion.”

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Isaac Friend believed he would die at the conclusion of his hearing, but the court ultimately had a different opinion.

The court criticized Parkes for failing to take great care of and have a more vigilant eye upon Isaac Friend, his servant, who appears to have a tumultuous and unquiet temperament.

Isaac Friend was a participant in the York County Indentured Servant Conspiracy but received no punishment. However, William Cluton (or Clutton, depending on the historical record), however, was not so fortunate.

According to the accusation, the court said that Cluton had made “mutinous and seditious statements.”

When other people, like overseers and other servants, vouched for William Cluton’s good character, the court also let him go.

Years before any movement on behalf of American colonists seeking liberty and independence had begun to take shape, the York County Conspiracy of 1661 took place in colonial America. It did, however, occur at a time when the British government was working with other nations throughout Europe to reform and regulate the laws governing indenture and servitude.

By the 1660s and the end of the 17th century, many people believed that the contractual provisions of indentured servitude, which frequently included the right of overseers and employers to subject their servants to corporal punishments like whippings, beatings, and lack of food, should be changed to be more humane.

Throughout the 1660s and 1670s, laws were passed that limited the types and severity of punishments that could be meted out to a servant for any offense, as well as the length of time a person could be held in indenture. By the start of the 18th century, the servitude of women and children had also been severely reduced.

By the end of the 17th century, people’s views on slavery were becoming more progressive and reformist. The court hearing that came out of the York County Conspiracy of 1661 was just one example of this.

Of course, at the time, this shift toward compassion and forbearance only extended to men, women, and children who were white and from Europe.

The York County Conspiracy of 1661: The History of America's First Uprising
Enslaved Africans Brought to the Virginia Colony

The white British and European reformers of that era also weren’t enlightened enough to give non-Europeans basic human rights. They didn’t care about helping white indentured servants, but they kept Africans and native Americans in chattel slavery.

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Indentured white men and women worked on plantations in the south of the United States until about 1650. After that, slaves from Africa were brought to our shores in chains and forced to work and die for England’s growing North American colonies.

Though the York County Conspiracy in Virginia in 1661 may not have truly embodied freedom as we know it today, in that it excluded anybody whose skin wasn’t white, and though indentured servitude was replaced by the even more evil of slavery in America, it is still feasible to believe that when Isaac Friend, William Cluton, and the other forty-odd conspirators raised the call, “Who Will Be For Liberty and Free From Bondage?” they meant it.

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