Nat Turner

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Nat Turner
Nat Turner captured.jpg
Discovery of Nat Turner (c. 1831–1876)
Born(1800-10-02)October 2, 1800 [1]
DiedNovember 11, 1831(1831-11-11) (aged 31)
Cause of death Execution by hanging
Known for Nat Turner's slave rebellion

Nat Turner (October 2, 1800 – November 11, 1831) was an enslaved African-American preacher who led a four-day rebellion of both enslaved and free black people in Southampton County, Virginia, beginning August 21, 1831. The rebellion caused the death of approximately 60 white men, women, and children. Whites organized militias and called out regular troops to suppress the uprising. In addition, white militias and mobs attacked blacks in the area, killing an estimated 120 men, women, and children, [2] [3] many of whom were not involved in the revolt. [4]


The rebels went from plantation to plantation, gathering horses and guns, freeing and recruiting others along the way. During the rebellion, Virginia legislators targeted free blacks with a colonization bill, which allocated new funding to remove them, and a police bill that denied free blacks trials by jury and made any free blacks convicted of a crime subject to sale into slavery and relocation. [5]

In the aftermath, the state tried those accused of being part of Turner's slave rebellion: 18 were executed, 14 were transported out of state, and several were acquitted. [6] Turner hid successfully for two months. When found, he was tried, convicted, sentenced to death, hanged, and possibly beheaded. [7] Across Virginia and other Southern states, state legislators passed new laws to control slaves and free blacks. They prohibited education of slaves and free blacks, restricted rights of assembly for free blacks, withdrew their right to bear arms (in some states), and to vote (in North Carolina, for instance), and required white ministers to be present at all black worship services. They also made criminal the possession of abolitionist publications by either whites or blacks. [8]

Early years

Born into slavery on October 2, 1800, [1] in Southampton County, Virginia, Turner was recorded as "Nat" by Benjamin Turner, the man who held his mother and him as slaves. When Benjamin Turner died in 1810, Nat was inherited as property by Benjamin's son Samuel Turner. [5] For most of his life, he was known as "Nat", but after the 1831 rebellion, he was widely referred to as "Nat Turner". [9] Turner knew little about the background of his father, who was believed to have escaped from slavery when Turner was a young boy. [10]

Turner spent his entire life in Southampton County, a plantation area where slaves comprised the majority of the population. [11] He was identified as having "natural intelligence and quickness of apprehension, surpassed by few." [12] He learned to read and write at a young age. Deeply religious, Nat was often seen fasting, praying, or immersed in reading the stories of the Bible. [13]

Turner's religious convictions manifested as frequent visions, which he interpreted as messages from God. His belief in the visions was such that when Turner was 22 years old, he ran away from his owner; he returned a month later after claiming to have received a spiritual revelation. Turner often conducted services, preaching the Bible to his fellow slaves, who dubbed him "The Prophet". Turner garnered white followers such as Etheldred T. Brantley, whom Turner was credited with having convinced to "cease from his wickedness". [14]

In early 1828, Turner was convinced that he "was ordained for some great purpose in the hands of the Almighty." [15] While working in his owner's fields on May 12, Turner said later that he

heard a loud noise in the heavens, and the Spirit instantly appeared to me and said the Serpent was loosened, and Christ had laid down the yoke he had borne for the sins of men, and that I should take it on and fight against the Serpent, for the time was fast approaching when the first should be last and the last should be first. [16]

Joseph Dreis wrote: "In connecting this vision to the motivation for his rebellion, Turner makes it clear that he sees himself as participating in the confrontation between God's Kingdom and the anti-Kingdom that characterized his social-historical context." [17] He was convinced that God had given him the task of "slay[ing] my enemies with their own weapons." [16] Turner said: "I communicated the great work laid out for me to do, to four in whom I had the greatest confidence" – his fellow slaves Henry, Hark, Nelson, and Sam. [16]

Annular sun eclipse on February 12, 1831 SE1831Feb12A.gif
Annular sun eclipse on February 12, 1831

Beginning in February 1831, Turner claimed certain atmospheric conditions as a sign to begin preparations for a rebellion against slaveowners. On February 12, 1831, an annular solar eclipse was visible in Virginia. Turner envisioned this as a black man's hand reaching over the sun. [18] He initially planned the rebellion to begin on July 4, Independence Day. Turner postponed it because of illness and to use the delay for additional planning with his co-conspirators. On August 7 there was another solar eclipse, in which the sun appeared bluish-green, possibly the result of lingering atmospheric debris from an eruption of Mount St. Helens in present-day Washington state. Turner interpreted this as the final signal, and about a week later, on August 21, he began the uprising. [19]


Turner started with a few trusted fellow slaves. "All his initial recruits were other slaves from his neighborhood". [20] The neighborhood men had to find ways to communicate their intentions without giving up their plot. Songs may have tipped the neighborhood members to movements. "It is believed that one of the ways Turner summoned fellow conspirators to the woods was through the use of particular songs." [21] The rebels traveled from house to house, freeing slaves and killing the white people they found. The rebels ultimately included more than 70 enslaved and free men of color. [22]

Because the rebels did not want to alert anyone to their presence as they carried out their attacks, they initially used knives, hatchets, axes, and blunt instruments instead of firearms. [23] The rebellion did not discriminate by age or sex, and members killed white men, women, and children. [24] Nat Turner confessed to killing only one person, Margaret Whitehead, whom he killed with a blow from a fence post. [23]

Before a white militia could organize and respond, the rebels killed 60 men, women, and children. [25] They spared a few homes "because Turner believed the poor white inhabitants 'thought no better of themselves than they did of negros.'" [25] [26] Turner also thought that revolutionary violence would serve to awaken the attitudes of whites to the reality of the inherent brutality in slave-holding. Turner later said that he wanted to spread "terror and alarm" among whites. [27]

Capture and execution

The rebellion was suppressed within two days, but Turner eluded capture by hiding in the woods until October 30. He was discovered by farmer Benjamin Phipps while hiding in a hole covered with fence rails. While awaiting trial, Turner confessed his knowledge of the rebellion to attorney Thomas Ruffin Gray, who compiled what he claimed was Turner's confession. [28] On November 5, 1831, Turner was tried for "conspiring to rebel and making insurrection", convicted, and sentenced to death. [29] [30] Turner was hanged on November 11 in Jerusalem, Virginia. His body was flayed and beheaded as an example to frighten other would-be rebels. [7] [31] Turner received no formal burial; his headless remains were possibly buried in an unmarked grave.

In 2002, a skull said to have been Turner's was given to Richard G. Hatcher, the former mayor of Gary, Indiana, for the collection of a civil rights museum he planned to build there. In 2016, Hatcher returned the skull to two of Turner's descendants. If DNA tests confirm that the skull is Turner's, they will bury it in a family cemetery. [32]

Another skull said to have been Turner's was contributed to the College of Wooster in Ohio upon its incorporation in 1866. When the school's only academic building burned down in 1901, the skull was saved by Dr. H. N. Mateer. Visitors recalled seeing a certificate, signed by a physician in Southampton County in 1866, that attested to the authenticity of the skull. The skull was eventually misplaced. [33]

In the aftermath of the insurrection, 45 slaves, including Turner, and five free blacks were tried for insurrection and related crimes in Southampton. Of the 45 slaves tried, 15 were acquitted. Of the 30 convicted, 18 were hanged while 12 were sold out of state. Of the five free blacks tried for participation in the insurrection, one was hanged while the others were acquitted. [34] At least seven slaveowners sent legislative petitions for compensation for the loss of their slaves without trials during or immediately after the insurrection. They were all rejected. [35]

Soon after Turner's execution, Thomas Ruffin Gray published The Confessions of Nat Turner. His book was derived partly from research Gray did while Turner was in hiding and partly from jailhouse conversations with Turner before trial. This work is considered the primary historical document regarding Nat Turner, but some historians believe Gray's portrayal of Turner is inaccurate. [36]


In total, the state executed some 55 black people suspected of having been involved in the uprising. In the hysteria of aroused fears and anger in the days after the revolt, white militias and mobs murdered an estimated 120 black people, many of whom had nothing to do with the rebellion. [2] [3]

The fear caused by Nat Turner's insurrection and the concerns raised in the emancipation debates that followed resulted in politicians and writers responding by defining slavery as a "positive good". [37] Such authors included Thomas Roderick Dew, a College of William & Mary professor who published a pamphlet in 1832 opposing emancipation on economic and other grounds. [38] In the period leading up to the American Civil War, other Southern writers began to promote a paternalistic ideal of improved Christian treatment of slaves, in part to avoid such rebellions. Dew and others believed that they were civilizing black people (who by this stage were mostly American-born) through slavery.



The massacre of blacks after the rebellion was typical of the pattern of white fears and overreaction to blacks fighting for their freedom; many innocent blacks were killed in revenge. African Americans have generally regarded Turner as a hero of resistance, who made slaveowners pay for the hardships they had caused so many Africans and African Americans. [25]

James H. Harris, who has written extensively about the history of the black church, says that the revolt "marked the turning point in the black struggle for liberation." According to Harris, Turner believed that "only a cataclysmic act could convince the architects of a violent social order that violence begets violence." [39]

In the period soon after the revolt, whites did not try to interpret Turner's motives and ideas. [27] Antebellum slaveholding whites were shocked by the murders and had their fears of rebellions heightened; Turner's name became "a symbol of terrorism and violent retribution." [25]

In an 1843 speech at the National Negro Convention, Henry Highland Garnet, a former slave and active abolitionist, described Nat Turner as "patriotic", saying that "future generations will remember him among the noble and brave." [40] In 1861 Thomas Wentworth Higginson, a northern writer, praised Turner in a seminal article published in Atlantic Monthly . He described Turner as a man "who knew no book but the Bible, and that by heart who devoted himself soul and body to the cause of his race." [41]

In the 21st century, writing after the September 11 attacks in the United States, William L. Andrews drew analogies between Turner and modern "religio-political terrorists". He suggested that the "spiritual logic" explicated in Confessions of Nat Turner warrants study as "a harbinger of the spiritualizing violence of today's jihads and crusades." [27]

Legacy and honors

In literature, film and music

See also


  1. 1 2 T.R. Gray (1999) [1831]. "Nat Turner, 1800?-1831. The Confessions of Nat Turner, the Leader of the Late Insurrection in Southampton, Va". Baltimore: University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. "CONFESSION" paragraph 2. Archived from the original on 2018-07-04. Retrieved 2018-07-14. I was thirty-one years of age the 2d of October last [Nat reported in Nov 1831].
  2. 1 2 Breen, Patrick H. (2015). The Land Shall Be Deluged in Blood: A New History of the Nat Turner Revolt. Oxford University Press. pp. 98, 231. ISBN   978-0199828005.
  3. 1 2 Breen 2015, Chapter 9 and Allmendinger 2014, Appendix F are recent studies that review various estimates for the number of slaves and free blacks killed without trial, giving a range of from 23 killed to over 200 killed. Breen notes on page 231 that "high estimates have been widely accepted in both academic and popular sources".
  4. Brinkley, Alan (2008). American History: A Survey (13th ed.). New York City: McGraw-Hill Education. ISBN   978-0073385495.
  5. 1 2 Gray White, Deborah (2013). Freedom on My Mind: A History of African Americans. New York Bedford/St. Martin's. p. 225.
  6. Greenberg, Kenneth S., Nat Turner: A Slave Rebellion in History and Memory, 2003, p.71.
  7. 1 2 Some sources claim Turner was beheaded or decapitated; see: "Inside the Quest to Return Nat Turner's Skull to His Family". October 13, 2016 [Oct 7]. paragraph 7. Archived from the original on 2018-07-10. Retrieved 2018-07-14.
  8. "Education from LVA: Deed of Manumission". Retrieved 2019-12-18.
  9. Greenburg 2003, pp. 3–12. According to Greenburg, the trial transcript refers to him on first mention as "Nat alias Nat Turner" and subsequently as "Nat". Thomas Ruffin Gray's The Confessions of Nat Turner, which purports to be Turner's confession and account of his life leading up the rebellion, was the most influential source of the name by which he is known, Greenburg writes.
  10. Greenburg 2003, p. 18.
  11. Greenburg 2003, p. 278.
  12. Bisson, Nat Turner: Slave Revolt Leader (2005), p. 76.
  13. Aptheker (1993), p. 296.
  14. Gray, Thomas Ruffin (1831). The Confessions of Nat Turner, the Leader of the Late Insurrections in Southampton, Va. Baltimore, Maryland: Lucas & Deaver. pp. 7–9, 11.
  15. Gray (1831), p. 9.
  16. 1 2 3 Gray (1831), p. 11.
  17. Dreis, Joseph (November 2014). "Nat Turner's Rebellion as a Process of Conversion: Towards a Deeper Understanding of the Christian Conversion Process" (Vol. 12 No. 3): 231. Retrieved 10 December 2014.Cite journal requires |journal= (help)
  18. Allmendinger Jr., David F. Nat Turner and the Rising in Southampton County. Baltimore, MD, Johns Hopkins University Press, 2014. – pp. 21–22.
  19. Allmendinger 2014, pp. 97–98.
  20. Kaye, Anthony (2007). "Neighborhoods and Nat Turner". Journal of the Early Republic. 27 (Winter 2007): 705–20. doi:10.1353/jer.2007.0076.
  21. Nielson, Erik (2011). "'Go in de wilderness': Evading the 'Eyes of Others' in the Slave Songs". The Western Journal of Black Studies. 35 (2): 106–17.
  22. Ayers, de la Tejada, Schulzinger and White (2007). American Anthem US History. New York, New York: Holt, Rhinehart and Winston. p. 286.
  23. 1 2 Gray, Thomas Ruffin (1831). The Confessions of Nat Turner, the Leader of the Late Insurrections in Southampton, Va. Baltimore, Maryland: Lucas & Deaver.
  24. Francis Simkins and Charles Roland, A History of the South (New York: Alfred Knopf, 1971), 126; Philip Leigh The Confederacy at Flood Tide (Yardley, Pa.: Westholme Publishing, 2016), 193
  25. 1 2 3 4 Oates, Stephen (October 1973). "Children of Darkness". American Heritage . 24 (6). Archived from the original on 2016-08-20. Retrieved July 17, 2016.
  26. Bisson, Nat Turner: Slave Revolt Leader (2005), pp. 57–58.
  27. 1 2 3 William L. Andrews; ed. Vincent L. Wimbush (2008). "7". Theorizing Scriptures: New Critical Orientations to a Cultural Phenomenon. Rutgers University Press. pp. 83–85.CS1 maint: extra text: authors list (link)
  28. Gray, Thomas (1993). "The Confessions of Nat Turner". American Journal of Legal History. 03: 332–61.
  29. Archived 2017-11-11 at the Wayback Machine Archived 2017-11-11 at the Wayback Machine Southampton Co., VA, Court Minute Book 1830-1835, p. 121-23
  30. Archived 2016-08-25 at the Wayback Machine Archived 2016-08-25 at the Wayback Machine "Proceedings on the Southampton Insurrection, Aug-Nov 1831"
  31. French 2004, 278–279
  32. Fornal, Justin (October 7, 2016). "Inside the Quest to Return Nat Turner's Skull to His Family". 7=National Geographic . Archived from the original on 2016-12-20. Retrieved December 4, 2016.
  33. Ortiz, Andrew (December 21, 2015) [October 2003]. "Skullduggery". Indianapolis Monthly . Archived from the original on 2017-09-30. Retrieved March 20, 2017.
  34. Walter L. Gordon, III, The Nat Turner Insurrection Trials: A Mystic Chord Resonates Today (Booksurge, 2009) pp. 75, 92.
  35. "Slavery & Rebellion in Nat Turner's Virginia · Transcribe". Archived from the original on 2018-11-07. Retrieved 2018-11-07.
  36. Fornal, Justin (October 5, 2016). "Nat Turner's Slave Uprising Left Complex Legacy". 7=National Geographic . Archived from the original on 2016-12-20. Retrieved December 4, 2016.
  37. "Virginia Memory: Nat Turner Rebellion". Virginia Memory. Archived from the original on 2014-12-15. Retrieved December 10, 2014.
  38. Brophy, Alfred L. (2008). "Considering William and Mary's History with Slavery: The Case of President Thomas R. Dew" (PDF). William & Mary Bill of Rights (Journal 16): 1091. Archived (PDF) from the original on 2014-02-09. Retrieved 1 July 2012.
  39. James H. Harris (1995). Preaching Liberation. Fortress Press. p. 46.
  40. Henry Highland Garnet, A Memorial Discourse (Philadelphia: J. M. Wilson, 1865), pp. 44–51.
  41. Higginson, Thomas Wentworth (2011-11-07). "Nat Turner's Insurrection: An account of America's bloodiest slave revolt, and its repercussions". The Atlantic. The Atlantic Monthly Group. Archived from the original on 2013-10-20. Retrieved 20 October 2013.
  42. Asante, Molefi Kete (2002). 100 Greatest African Americans: A Biographical Encyclopedia, Amherst, NY: Prometheus Books. ISBN   1-57392-963-8.
  43. "The Trust for Public Land Celebrates Groundbreaking at Nat Turner Park". Archived from the original on 2013-02-15. Retrieved 2010-08-21.
  44. Trescott, Jacqueline; Trescott, Jacqueline (16 February 2012). "Descendants of Va. family donate Nat Turner's Bible to museum". The Washington Post. Archived from the original on 2017-04-22. Retrieved 28 March 2017.
  45. Kevin Cherry. Summary of "Dred". Archived 2012-05-31 at the Wayback Machine Archived 2012-05-31 at the Wayback Machine Documenting the American South. University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.
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Further reading