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Nat Turner was an African-American slave who organized a slave rebellion in Southampton County, Virginia. His slave rebellion caused a retaliation on black people in the area and harsher laws enacted by the government of Virginia to restrict the rights of slaves and free blacks.

Early Life and Visions

Nat Turner was born a slave in Southampton County, Virginia on October 2, 1800. Benjamin Turner owned him and his mother and documented the boy’s name as “Nat”. In 1810, Benjamin Turner died and his slaves became the property of his brother, Samuel Turner.[1] Turner did not know his father who supposedly ran away from slavery when he was young. He spent his whole life in the same county filled with slave plantations and was known to have “natural intelligence and quickness of apprehension, surpassed by few.”[2][3]

Nate Turner’s religious sentiments and high intelligence combined to fuel his anti-slavery sentiments and garner him loyal support.

Nate Turner became extremely religious at a young age as well, fasting and praying often. He experienced his first vision in 1821 after running away from his plantation. He returned thirty days later because he experienced a vision making him “return to the service of [his] earthly master.” When Samuel Turner died in 1822, Thomas Moore purchased Nat. In 1853, he had another vision "... while laboring in the field, I discovered drops of blood on the corn, as though it were dew from heaven, and I communicated it to many, both white and black, in the neighborhood; and then I found on the leaves in the woods hieroglyphic characters and numbers, with the forms of men in different attitudes, portrayed in blood, and representing the figures I had seen before in the heavens.”

He had a third vision on May 12, 1828, where he “…heard a loud noise in the heavens, and the Spirit instantly appeared to [him] 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... I should arise and prepare myself and slay my enemies with their own weapons.”[4]

Thomas Moore too died in 1830 and Turner moved with his widow to Joseph Travis’s household when she remarried. He remarked that Travis treated him kindly and he had no personal qualms against Travis.[5]

Nat Turner’s Slave Rebellion

Although Joseph Travis treated Nat Turner kindly, Turner could not ignore his spiritual calling to fight his slave owner enemies when the signs presented themselves.

In February of 1831, came the instigating moment that led to the Turner slave rebellion. On the 11th, the annular solar eclipse appeared over Virginia and he took it as a sign of his third vision. He believed it now the time to fight his enemies, the slave owners, and joined with his friends, Hank, Sam, Nelson, and Henry, to plan a rebellion on July the 4th. They could not follow through when Turner fell sick. He received another sign on August 13 when the sun turned blue-green due to atmospheric disturbances.

On August 21, 1831, Turner and six other slaves met and at 2am they entered the Travis house and killed everyone inside. They continued on from the Travis plantation killing owners and liberating slaves along the way. Eventually, they amassed over 40 slaves with many using horses. Around noon they began a march towards the next closest town, Jerusalem. A white militia group met them on the way and his forces scattered. They tried to regroup the next day, but failed to overtake another plantation and lost some rebels to capture. The Turner slave rebellion fell apart completely when facing federal and state troops. They killed more than 50 white people during their brief uprising.[6]

Execution of Nat Turner

Nat Turner hid in the woods until his discovery by a farmer, Benjamin Phipps, on October 30, 1831. Thomas Ruffian Gray recorded all of Turner’s knowledge regarding the rebellion and then complied them into a book. Gray documents Nate Turner confessions regarding the rebels use of axes, knives, hatches, and other silent instruments to conceal the attacks at first.

Turner also confessed that they killed all the white people they encountered, sparing only a few houses, including men, women, and children. He only admitted to the killing of one person himself, Margret Whitehead.[7] The Southampton County Court tried and sentenced Nat Turner to execution on November 5. On November 11, they hanged Turner and skinned him to scare off other possible rebels.[8]

Aftermath of the Slave Uprising

Following the slave uprising, the Southampton County Court tried five free blacks and 45 rebel slaves. They acquitted 15 slaves and convicted 30. The court then hanged 18 slaves and sold 12 outside of Virginia. They acquitted four out of five free blacks and hanged the last.[9] Gray published his collection of interviews with Nat Turner with embellishments from the research he conducted while Turner hid after the slave rebellions soon after Turner’s execution.[10]

Mass hysteria gripped the area after the rebellion. White mobs and militias organized and killed almost 200 black people within a few days, even though many did not participate in the revolt.[11] Nat Turner’s slave rebellion caused widespread fear and caused regression for the emancipation movement by reinforcing the idea of slavery being a positive necessity. The government of Virginia then introduced more laws limiting the rights of both free blacks and slaves, including ones attacking their ability to assemble, even to teach writing or reading, paying someone to teach a slave, or preaching by free blacks and slaves.[12]

References

Bibliography

Bisson, T., & Davenport, J. (2004). Nat Turner: Slave Revolt Leader. Philadelphia: Chelsea House Publishers.

Gray, T. R. (1831). The Confessions of Nat Turner, the Leader of the Late Insurrections in Southampton, Va. Baltimore, Maryland: Lucas & Deaver.

PBS. (1998, October). Nat Turner’s Rebellion - 1831. PBS - Africans in America.

Footnotes

  1. White, D. G. (2012). Freedom on My Mind: A History of African Americans with Documents, Vol. 2: Since 1865. Boston: Macmillan Higher Education.
  2. Drewry, W. S. (1900). The Southampton Insurrection. Washington, D.C.: The Neale Company.
  3. Bisson & Davenport, 2004
  4. PBS, 1998
  5. PBS, 1998
  6. PBS, 1998
  7. Gray, 1831
  8. PBS, 1998
  9. Gordon III, W. L. (2009). The Nat Turner Insurrection Trials: A Mystic Chord Resonates Today. United States: BookSurge Publishing.
  10. Gray, 1831
  11. PBS, 1998
  12. The Library of Virginia. (2006). Nat Turner Rebellion. Education at the Library of Virginia.

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