Weapons of Work: Firearms and the Pre-Emancipation Black South

Antwain K. Hunter
A printed engraving of an Black man with white hair and beard holding a gun and peering out from behind some vines in a swamp.

David Hunter Strother, “The Dismal Swamp,” in Harper’s New Monthly Magazine, vol. 13, no. 76 (New York: Harper & Brothers, 1856), 453. Courtesy of the Library Company of Philadelphia.

My forthcoming book—A Precarious Balance: Firearms, Race, and Community in North Carolina, 1729–1865—explores Black people’s quotidian experiences with firearms. In it, I frame firearms as tools of labor. While firearms’ destructive potential is painfully obvious, they have been and continue to be used in a range of applications—tools of war, protecting livestock and other property, hunting for food, or killing predators for bounties. These myriad uses prompted enslavers to extract armed labor out of the people they enslaved, making the gun an insightful window into enslaved people’s lives and labors.

The North Carolina General Assembly barred both free and enslaved Black people from a wide range of activities and privileges, including unfettered firearm use, via a series of laws between 1715 and 1861.[1] These gun laws were centered on oversight on armed enslaved people as they wielded these practical but deadly tools that were heavily imbued with racialized socio-cultural power.[2] The legislature sought to balance white people’s benefiting from using armed Black labor with efforts to protect them and their property.

In the early 1790s, enslavers in Brunswick and New Hanover Counties used enslaved people’s armed labor to protect their property, sometimes at the expense of other planters’ property. Absentee planters armed their slaves to “distroy [sic] the Cattle + Hoggs [sic]” that trampled their standing crops.[3] Other enslavers used armed enslaved people’s labor in less meddlesome ways. David’s enslaver armed him to shoot wolves in 1771, for which his enslaver collected a bounty. In the late 1850s, Ned and Hannibal’s enslaver illegally armed them to guard his store.[4] Further, enslavers made use of this armed labor to feed the people they enslaved. Thinking about his youth, Alex Woods remembered that his enslaver, “ʼlowed my father to hunt wid a gun.” His father “wus a good hunter” who “killed deer and turkey. All had plenty..”[5]Resultingly, the Woodses’ enslaver did not have to purchase or raise meat for their community. Other enslaved people recounted how they “stole de guns” and went hunting when their enslavers were away.[6] Whether sanctioned or not, his armed labor sustained community.

Free people of color are also integral to this armed-labor discussion. After 1841, the Assembly required them to get gun licenses from their county courts. Many focused on their labor in this application—when William Calvin requested a license, he explained that he needed a gun “to shoot hawks, crows, +c.” This would have resonated with other farmers who struggled with threats to their poultry, livestock, and crops.[7] Local governments and individual white people also relied on free Black people’s armed labor. In 1828, the Raleigh constable hired Cooley Wiggins to shoot unlicensed dogs in the street, which was “a duty that few like to undertake.”[8] In 1841, Willis Herring applied for a license and was supported by a white neighbor who told the court that “as he does me some benefit by destroying the Vermin around my fields I would rather he could retain his gun.”[9] Both the public and private sectors made use of free Black North Carolinians’ armed labor.

Firearms hold a complicated place in the American sociopolitical landscape but a historical examination of armed labor is illuminating. Enslavers’ reliance on Black people’s armed labor, despite the dangers, highlights the full scope of their labor appropriation. Enslavers, the courts, and the Assembly all struggled to safely control Black people’s armed labor but more importantly, Black people used it for themselves, via paid labor and subsistence hunting. Their armed labor—legal and illicit—helped to sustain their communities.


[1] In 1715, the Assembly encouragedAfter 1741, planters could arm the people they enslaved only with their county court’s permission, and in 1753 the court required that these enslavers also be bound for the armed person’s “good and honest behavior.” In the late 1820s, the Assembly barred anyone from supplying slaves with “fire-arms, powder or shot, or lead” without their enslavers’ consent, but the reaction to Turner’s rebellion made all of the earlier regulations moot. In the winter of 1840–41 they moved further and required free people of color to be licensed by their county court before they could carry a weapon. In February, 1861, a few months before North Carolina seceded, the Assembly repealed the antebellum laws that had allowed the county courts to issue firearm licenses to free people of color (Session Laws of North Carolina, 1715–1716[Ch. XLVI, Sec. IX], 63. Session Laws of North Carolina, 1729 [Ch. 5, Sec. 7], 35–36. Session Laws of North Carolina, 1741 [Ch. 24, Sec. 40], 64. Session Laws, 1753 [Ch. 6, Sec. 1], 103-104. Session Laws of North Carolina, 1828-29 [Ch. XXXII, Secs. I, II, and III], 19. Session Laws, 1831–1832 [Ch. XLIV, Sec. 1], 34. Session Laws of North Carolina, 1840–1841, [Ch. XXX, Sec. I], 61–62. Session Laws of North Carolina, 1860–1861 (Ch. 34 Secs. 1 and 2). For more on these laws, see Antwain K. Hunter, “‘A Nuisance Requiring Correction…’: Antebellum North Carolina’s Race-Based Firearm Laws, Black Mobility, and White Property,” North Carolina Historical Review 93, no. 4 (Oct. 2016) [page span?].

[2] The social constructions around firearms lead historian Nicholas Proctor to call them the “talisman of white manhood” (Nicholas Proctor, Bathed in Blood: Hunting and Mastery in the Old South [Charlottesville, VA, 2002], 44).

[3] New Hanover County Petition, Race, Slavery, and Free Blacks, North Carolina, 1791, Reel 4, Frame 00185.

[4] Charles Eaton bounty (May 1771), in folder Bounties for scalps of wolves and wild cats, undated, 1762–1786 (broken series), in Miscellaneous Records, 1722, 1747–1920, Granville County Records, NCDAH. Hamilton C. Jones, Reports of Cases at Law Argued and Determined in the Supreme Court of North Carolina From December Term, 1858, to August Term, 1859, Inclusive. Vol. VI. (Salisbury, NC, 1859), 57–58. Ned and Hannibal’s enslaver continued arming them despite the law to the contrary because their armed labor was valuable to him. He was not alone in this—even during the Civil War, more than three decades after the law had been passed, other enslavers continued to rely on enslaved people’s armed labor (William Tripp to Araminta Tripp, Jan. 5, 1863, William Henry Tripp and Araminta Guilford Tripp Papers, Southern Historical Collection, University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill).

[5] Interview with Alex Woods. “Ex-Slave Story,” The Library of Congress, Born in Slavery: Slave Narratives from the Federal Writers Project, 1936–1938. North Carolina Narratives, Vol. XI, Part 2, 418.

[6] Interview with George Rogers. “George Rogers Ex-Slave Story,” The Library of Congress, Born in Slavery: Slave Narratives from the Federal Writers Project, 1936–1938. North Carolina Narratives, Vol. XI, Part 2., 225.

[7] William Calvin petition, Randolph County, Records of Slaves and Free Persons of Color, Crim Act, 1788–1869; Misc, “C-S” (?), no date, 1825–1887, NCDAH. Hillsborough Recorder (Hillsboro, NC) Mar. 13, 1845. For more on free Black North Carolinians’ firearm use, see Antwain K. Hunter, “‘In the Exercise of a Sound Discretion, Who, of This Class of Persons, Shall Have a Right to the License…’: Family, Race, and Firearms in Antebellum North Carolina,” Journal of Family History 44, no. 4 (Oct. 2019), 392–412.

[8] Raleigh Register, and North-Carolina Gazette (Raleigh, NC), July 29, 1828. Newbern Sentinel (, NC) May 31, 1828.

[9] Willis Herring’s petition (August Term 1841) in folder Petition of Willis, a free man of color, to use a gun, 1841, Slaves and Free People of Color, no date, 1783-1869, Wayne County Records, NCDAH. 1840 U.S. Census, population schedule, Newhope District, Wayne County, North Carolina, page 207, image 904, Benajah Herring, digital image, via ancestry.com, accessed July 1, 2015, http://ancestry.com. The white neighbor—Benajah Herring—had previously enslaved Willis Herring, who was also known as “Free Willis.” Willis Herring had purchased his freedom in the early 1820s (Benajah Herring’s petition [April Term 1823] via the DLAS, Race, Slavery, and Free Blacks, Series II, Part D [Greensboro, NC: University Libraries, University of North Carolina at Greensboro, 1993], PAR: 11382014, accessed June 30, 2015).

11 October 2023

About the Author

Antwain K. Hunter is assistant professor of history at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

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