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Nat Turner

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Nat Turner

Nat Turner
Born Nat (Turner)
(1800-10-02)October 2, 1800
Southampton County, Virginia
Died November 11, 1831(1831-11-11) (aged 31)
Jerusalem, Virginia
Cause of death
Execution - Hanging
Nationality American
Ethnicity African American
Known for Nat Turner's Slave Rebellion
Spouse(s) Cherry[1]
Part of a series of articles on...

1526 San Miguel de Gualdape
(Sapelo Island, Georgia, Victorious)
c. 1570 Gaspar Yanga's Revolt
(Veracruz, Victorious)
1712 New York Slave Revolt
(New York City, Suppressed)
1733 St. John Slave Revolt
(Saint John, Suppressed)
1739 Stono Rebellion
(South Carolina, Suppressed)
1741 New York Conspiracy
(New York City, Suppressed)
1760 Tacky's War
(Jamaica, Suppressed)
1791–1804 Haitian Revolution
(Saint-Domingue, Victorious)
1800 Gabriel Prosser
(Virginia, Suppressed)
1803 Igbo Landing
(St. Simons Island, Georgia, Suppressed)
1805 Chatham Manor
(Virginia, Suppressed)
1811 German Coast Uprising
(Territory of Orleans, Suppressed)
1815 George Boxley
(Virginia, Suppressed)
1822 Denmark Vesey
(South Carolina, Suppressed)
1831 Nat Turner's rebellion
(Virginia, Suppressed)
1831–1832 Baptist War
(Jamaica, Suppressed)
1839 Amistad, ship rebellion
(Off the Cuban coast, Victorious)
1841 Creole case, ship rebellion
(Off the Southern U.S. coast, Victorious)
1842 Slave Revolt in the Cherokee Nation
(Southern U.S., Suppressed)
1859 John Brown's Raid
(Virginia, Suppressed)

Nat Turner (October 2, 1800 – November 11, 1831) was an African-American slave who led a [3]

In the aftermath, the state quickly arrested and executed 57 blacks accused of being part of Turner's slave rebellion. an estimated 200 blacks were killed by white militias and mobs, often after having been beaten.[4] Turner hid successfully for two months; when found, he was quickly tried, convicted, sentenced to death, and hanged. 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; and required white ministers to be present at all black worship services.

Early years

Born into slavery on October 2, 1800, in Southampton County, Virginia, the boy's name was recorded as "Nat" by his master Benjamin Turner when he was first born, and when Benjamin Turner died in 1810 Nat became the property of Benjamin’s brother Samuel Turner.[5] By the Civil War era, sources referred to him as Nathaniel, and gave him the surname of his master in the white slaveholder custom of the time. Historians also adopted that convention. Turner knew little about the background of his father, who was believed to have escaped from slavery when Turner was a young boy. Turner remained close to his paternal grandmother, Old Bridget, who was also owned by Benjamin Turner. Old Bridget was said to be of the Coromantee, also known as the Akan people, from the area of present-day Ghana. They were known for being resistant to slavery and were involved in revolts. She was captured in Africa at thirteen years of age and shipped to America.[6]

Turner spent his life in Southampton County, Virginia, a plantation area where enslaved laborers made up the majority of the population.[7] He was identified as having "natural intelligence and quickness of apprehension, surpassed by few."[8] 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.[9]

He was deeply religious and frequently had visions which he interpreted as messages from God. These visions greatly influenced his life; for instance, when Turner was 22 years old, he ran away from his owner, but returned a month later after having such a vision. Turner often conducted Baptist services, preaching the Bible to his fellow slaves, who dubbed him "The Prophet". Turner also had influence over white people; in the case of Ethelred T. Brantley, Turner said that he convinced Brantley to "cease from his wickedness".[10]

5 feet 6 or 8 inches high, weighs between 150 and 160 pounds, rather bright complexion, but not a mulatto, broad shoulders, larger flat nose, large eyes, broad flat feet, rather knockkneed, walks brisk and active, hair on the top of the head very thin, no beard, except on the upper lip and the top of the chin, a scar on one of his temples, also one on the back of his neck, a large knot on one of the bones of his right arm, near the wrist, produced by a blow.[11]

Turner was proclaimed as a prophet by his fellow black slaves on the plantation. In early 1828, Turner was convinced that he "was ordained for some great purpose in the hands of the Almighty."[12][13] While working in his owner's fields on May 12, Turner

"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."[14]
Turner was convinced that God had given him the task of "slay[ing] my enemies with their own weapons."[14] 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.[14]

Beginning in February 1831, Turner came to believe that certain atmospheric conditions were to be interpreted as a sign that he should begin preparing for a rebellion against the slave owners. On February 11, 1831, an annular solar eclipse was seen in Virginia. Turner interpreted this as a black man's hand reaching over the sun, and he took this vision as his sign. He first planned the rebellion for July 4, Independence Day. He postponed it for more deliberation between him and his followers, and due to illness. On August 13, there was another solar eclipse, in which the sun appeared bluish-green (possibly from debris deposited in the atmosphere by an eruption of Mount Saint Helens). Turner took this occasion as the final signal, and about a week later, on August 21, he began the rising.


Turner started with a few trusted fellow slaves. “All his initial recruits were other slaves from his neighborhood”.[15] The neighborhood had to find ways to communicate their intentions without giving up their plot. Songs may have tipped the neighborhood members on movements. “It is believed that one of the ways Turner summoned fellow conspirators to the woods was through the use of particular songs.”[16] 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 blacks.[17]

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.[18] The rebellion did not discriminate by age or sex, until it was determined that the rebellion had achieved sufficient numbers. Nat Turner only confessed to killing one of the rebellion's victims, Margret Whitehead, whom he killed with a blow from a fence post.[18]

Before a white militia was able to respond, the rebels killed 60 men, women, and children.[19] They spared a few homes "because Turner believed the poor white inhabitants 'thought no better of themselves than they did of negros.'"[20][21] Turner also thought that revolutionary violence would serve to awaken the attitudes of whites to the reality of the inherent brutality in slave-holding, a concept similar to 20th-century philosopher Frantz Fanon's idea of "violence as purgatory".[22] Turner later said that he wanted to spread "terror and alarm" among whites.[23]

Capture and execution

Nat Turner captured by Mr. Benjamin Phipps, a local farmer

The rebellion was suppressed within two days, but Turner eluded capture by hiding in the woods until October 30, when he was discovered by a farmer named Benjamin Phipps, where he was hiding in a hole covered with fence rails. While awaiting his trial, Turner confessed his knowledge of the rebellion to his defense attorney, Thomas R. Gray, who went on to write the Confessions of Nat Turner.[24] On November 5, 1831, he was tried for "conspiring to rebel and making insurrection", convicted and sentenced to death.[25] Turner was hanged on November 11 in Jerusalem, Virginia. His body was flayed, beheaded and quartered.[26] Turner received no formal burial; his headless remains were either buried unmarked or kept for scientific use. His skull is said to have passed through many hands, last being reported in the collection of a planned civil rights museum for Gary, Indiana, despite calls for its burial.[27]

In the aftermath of the insurrection there were 45 slaves, including Turner, and five free blacks 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.[28]

Soon after Turner's execution, a local lawyer, Thomas Ruffin Gray, took it upon himself to publish The Confessions of Nat Turner, derived partly from research done while Turner was in hiding and partly from jailhouse conversations with Turner before trial. This work is the primary historical document regarding Nat Turner.


In total, the state executed 56 blacks suspected of having been involved in the uprising. But in the hysteria of aroused fears and anger in the days after the revolt, white militias and mobs killed an estimated 200 blacks, many of whom had nothing to do with the rebellion.[29]

Before Nat Turner's Revolt, there was a small but ineffectual antislavery movement in Virginia,[30] largely on account of economic trends that made slavery less profitable in the Old South in the 1820s and fears among whites of the rising number of blacks, especially in the Tidewater and Piedmont regions. The push for abolition in 1831 represented the interests of Herrenvolk democracy and white male suffrage. Enraged poor whites condemned the slave-owning aristocracy for endangering their families and retaining an unfair advantage in elections as a result of the 3/5 clause. Most of the movement's members, including acting governor John Floyd, supported resettlement of blacks to Africa for these reasons. The enlightenment thinking of Virginia's forefathers played little part in the Emancipation's Debates of 1831-2. Considerations of white racial and moral purity also influenced many of these anti-slavery Virginians. These concerns illustrated that Virginia position towards slavery was no longer "apologetic".

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". Such authors included Thomas Roderick Dew, a William and Mary College professor who published a pamphlet in 1832 opposing emancipation on economic and other grounds.[31]

Fears of uprisings polarized moderates and slave owners across the South. Municipalities across the region instituted repressive policies against blacks. Rights were taken away from those who were free. The freedoms of all black people in Virginia were tightly curtailed. Socially, the uprising discouraged whites' questioning the slave system from the perspective that such discussion might encourage similar slave revolts. Manumissions had decreased by 1810. The shift away from tobacco had made owning slaves in the Upper South an excess to the planters' needs, so they started to hire out slaves. With the ending of the international slave trade, the invention of the cotton gin, and opening up of new territories in the Deep South, suddenly there was a growing market for the trading of slaves. Over the next decades, more than a million slaves would be transported to the Deep South in a forced migration as a result of the domestic slave trade.

In terms of public response and the toll of white lives, slaveholders in the Upper South and coastal states were deeply shocked by the Nat Turner Rebellion. While the 1811 German Coast Uprising in Louisiana involved a greater number of slaves, it resulted in only two white fatalities. Events in Louisiana, newly annexed by the United States in the Louisiana Purchase, did not receive as much attention in those years as uprisings in the Upper South and Low country of the Carolinas. These events had historical connections among families since colonial times. In regards to his status, Turner is regarded as a hero by many African Americans and pan-Africanists worldwide.

Nat Turner became the focus of historical scholarship in the 1940s, when historian, Herbert Aptheker published the first serious scholarly work on instances of slave resistance in the antebellum South. Aptheker wrote that the rebellion was rooted in the exploitative conditions of the Southern slave system. Based on his research in libraries and archives throughout the South, he found roughly 250 similar instances of uprisings, although none reached the scale of Nat Turner's Revolt.



Nat Turner remains an "enigmatic and controversial figure", according to former University of Massachusetts Amherst history professor Stephen B. Oates. He fought the just anti-slavery cause, but his murders of women and children in the 21st century are often classified as war crimes or terrorism. (Of course, slaves could define their treatment by whites as another kind of terrorism.) African Americans in the antebellum period and up to today have generally regarded Turner as a hero of resistance, who made slave-owners pay for the hardships they had caused so many Africans and African Americans to suffer.[20] 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." He believed that "only a cataclysmic act could convince the architects of a violent social order that violence begets violence."[22]

In the period soon after the revolt, whites did not try to interpret Turner's motives and ideas.[23] Ante-bellum slave-holding whites were shocked by the murders and had their fears of rebellions heightened; Turner's name was "a symbol of terrorism and violent retribution".[20]

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".[32] After the Civil War, historians who opposed slavery tended to sympathize with Turner for his resistance. 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”.[23]

In literature and film

  • The Narrative of the Life of Henry Box Brown, a slave narrative by an escaped slave, refers to the rebellion.
  • Harriet Ann Jacobs, also an escaped slave, refers to Turner in her novel, Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl, believed to be the first by an African American and published in after its discovery.
  • The Confessions of Nat Turner (1967), a novel by William Styron, won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction in 1968.[35] It prompted much controversy, with some criticizing a white author writing about such an important black figure. Several critics described it as racist and "a deliberate attempt to steal the meaning of a man's life."[36] There were cultural discussions about how different peoples interpret the past and whether any one group has sole ownership of any portion.
  • In response to Styron's novel, ten African-American writers published a collection of essays, The Second Crucifixion of Nat Turner (1968).[37]
  • The movie Goodbye Uncle Tom (1971) ends with an unidentified man's fantasy re-enactment of Styron's novel.
  • Nat Turner's Rebellion is featured in Episode 5 of the 1977 TV miniseries Roots. It is historically inaccurate, as the episode is set in 1841[38] and the revolt took place in 1831.
  • Nat Turner: A Troublesome Property, a film by African-American director Charles Burnett, was released in 2003.[39]
  • In 2007 cartoonist and comic book author Kyle Baker wrote a two-part comic book about Turner and his uprising, which was called Nat Turner.[40]
  • In early 2009, comic book artist and animator Brad Neely created a Web animation entitled "American Moments of Maybe", a satirical advertisement for Nat Turner's Punchout! a video game in which a player took on the role of Nat Turner.[41]
  • The Letter Writer by Ann Rinaldi is a historical novel that is set against Nat Turner's uprising.
  • Turner is the subject of the novel, The Resurrection of Nat Turner, Part 1: The Witnesses: A Novel (2011) by Sharon E Foster and its sequel.
  • Turner is the subject of the novel, L'Ange noir by Catherine Hermary-Vieille.
  • Turner is a character in the novel, Up Jumps the Devil, by Michael Poore.

In music

Nat Turner is referred to in the following songs:

See also


  1. ^ Bisson, Terry. Nat Turner: Slave Revolt Leader. Philadelphia: Chelsea House Publishers, 2005.
  2. ^ Gray White, Deborah (2013). Freedom on my mind: A history of African Americans. New York Bedford/St. Martin's. p. 225. 
  3. ^ American History: A Survey — Brinkley
  4. ^ Oates, Stephen B. (1990) [1975]. The Fires of Jubilee: Nat Turner's Fierce Rebellion. New York, New York: HarperCollins Publishers Inc. p. 126.  
  5. ^ Gray White, Deborah (2013). Freedom on my mind: A history of African American. New York: Bedford/ St. Martin's. p. 225. 
  6. ^ William Stryon (1993), pp. 128-9
  7. ^ Drewry, William Sydney (1900). The Southampton Insurrection. Washington, D. C.: The Neale Company. p. 108. 
  8. ^ Bisson, Nat Turner: Slave Revolt Leader (2005), p. 76.
  9. ^ Aptheker (1993), p. 296.
  10. ^ 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. 
  11. ^ Description of Turner included in $500 reward notice in the National Intelligencer (Washington, DC) on September 24, 1831, quoted in Aptheker, American Negro Slave Revolts, p. 294.
  12. ^ Gray (1831), p. 9.
  13. ^ Rothman, Adam. Slavery. Accessed 2 June 2011.
  14. ^ a b c Gray (1831), p. 11.
  15. ^ Kaye, Anthony (2007). "Neighborhoos and Nat Turner". Journal of the Early Republic 27 (Winter 2007): 705–720. 
  16. ^ Nielson, Erik (2011). "'Go in de wilderness': Evading the 'Eyes of Others' in the Slave Songs". The Western Journal of Black Studies 35 (2): 106–117. 
  17. ^ Ayers, de la Tejada, Schulzinger and White (2007). American Anthem US History. New York, New York: Holt, Rhinehart and Winston. p. 286. 
  18. ^ a b Gray, Thomas Ruffin (1831). The Confessions of Nat Turner, the Leader of the Late Insurrections in Southampton, Va. Baltimore, Maryland: Lucas & Deaver. 
  19. ^ Oates, Stephen B. (1990 [1975]) The Fires of Jubilee: Nat Turner's Fierce Rebellion, New York: HarperPerennial ISBN 0-06-091670-2.
  20. ^ a b c Oates, Stephen (September 1973). "Children of Darkness". American Heritage Magazine 24 (3). Retrieved 2009-02-21 (archived). 
  21. ^ Bisson, Nat Turner: Slave Revolt Leader (2005), pp. 57-58.
  22. ^ a b James H. Harris (1995). Preaching liberation. Fortress Press. p. 46. 
  23. ^ a b c William L. Andrews; ed. Vincent L. Wimbush (2008). "7". Theorizing Scriptures: new critical orientations to a cultural phenomenon.  
  24. ^ Gray, Thomas (1993). "The Confessions of Nat Turner". American Journal of Legal History 03: 332–361. 
  25. ^ Southampton County Court Minute Book 1830-1835, pp. 121-123.
  26. ^ Gibson, Christine (November 11, 2005). "Nat Turner, Lightning Rod". American Heritage Magazine. Retrieved 2009-04-06 (archived). 
  27. ^ French, 279-281.
  28. ^ Walter L. Gordon, III, The Nat Turner Insurrection Trials: A Mystic Chord Resonates Today (Booksurge, 2009) at 75, 92.
  29. ^ "Africans in America/Part 3/Nat Turner's Rebellion". Retrieved 2010-08-21. 
  30. ^ "1831 Nat Turner leads slave rebellion". Retrieved 2014-12-02. 
  31. ^ "Alfred L. Brophy, Considering William and Mary's History with Slavery: The Case of President Thomas R. Dew". Retrieved 1 July 2012. 
  32. ^ Higginson, Thomas Wentworth. "Nat Turner's Insurrection: An account of America's bloodiest slave revolt, and its repercussions". The Atlantic. The Atlantic Monthly Group. Retrieved 20 October 2013. 
  33. ^ Asante, Molefi Kete (2002). 100 Greatest African Americans: A Biographical Encyclopedia, Amherst, NY: Prometheus Books. ISBN 1-57392-963-8.
  34. ^ "The Trust for Public Land Celebrates Groundbreaking at Nat Turner Park". Retrieved 2010-08-21. 
  35. ^ "The Pulitzer Prizes | Fiction". Retrieved 2010-08-21. 
  36. ^ Ebony – Google Books. Retrieved 2010-08-21. 
  37. ^ "Dr. Molefi Kete Asante – Articles". Retrieved 2010-08-21. 
  38. ^ “”. "Roots – disc 3-1, part 1". YouTube. Retrieved 2010-08-21. 
  39. ^ "Nat Turner: A Troublesome Property (2003)", IMDb.
  40. ^ "Kyle Baker's Nat Turner #1". Retrieved 2010-08-21. 
  41. ^ "Brad Neely – American Moments of Maybe – Video, listening & stats at". 2008-11-21. Retrieved 2010-08-21. 
  42. ^ "Video About Reef The Lost Cauze – Nat Turner". Retrieved 2010-08-21. 


  • Nat Turner biography, part of the Africans in America series Website from PBS.
  • "Nat Turner: A Troublesome Property"
  • Digital Library on American Slavery

Further reading

  • Herbert Aptheker. American Negro Slave Revolts. 5th edition. New York: International Publishers, 1983 (1943).
  • Herbert Aptheker. Nat Turner's Slave Rebellion. New York: Humanities Press, 1966.
  • Alfred L. Brophy. "The Nat Turner Trials". North Carolina Law Review (June 2013), volume 91: 1817-80.
  • Scot French. The Rebellious Slave: Nat Turner in American Memory. Boston: Houghton Mifflin. 2004.
  • William Lloyd Garrison, "The Insurrection", The Liberator (September 3, 1831). A contemporary abolitionist's reaction to news of the rebellion.
  • Walter L. Gordon III. The Nat Turner Insurrection Trials: A Mystic Chord Resonates Today (Booksurge, 2009).
  • Thomas R. Gray, The Confessions of Nat Turner, the Leader of the Late Insurrections in Southampton, Va. Baltimore: Lucas & Deaver, 1831. Available online.
  • William Stryon, The Confessions of Nat Turner, Random House Inc, 1993, ISBN 0-679-73663-8
  • Stephen B. Oates, The Fires of Jubilee: Nat Turner's Fierce Rebellion. New York: HarperPerennial, 1990 (1975).
  • Brodhead, Richard H. "Millennium, Prophecy and the Energies of Social Transformation: The Case of Nat Turner," in A. Amanat and M. Bernhardsson (eds), Imagining the End: Visions of Apocalypse from the Ancient Middle East to Modern America (London, I. B. Tauris, 2002), 212-233.
  • Kenneth S. Greenberg, ed. Nat Turner: A Slave Rebellion in History and Memory. New York: Oxford University Press, 2003.
  • Junius P. Rodriguez, ed. Encyclopedia of Slave Resistance and Rebellion. Westport: Greenwood Press, 2006.

External links

  • Works by Nat Turner at Project Gutenberg
  • The Confessions of Nat Turner, the Leader of the Late Insurrection in Southampton, Va. Baltimore: T. R. Gray, 1831.
  • Nat Turner: A Troublesome Property, California Newsreel
  • Nat Turner's Rebellion, Africans in America,
  • Jessica McElrath, Nat Turner's Rebellion,
  • (1831)The Confessions of Nat TurnerThomas Ruffin Gray, online edition
  • "Nat Turner: Lightning Rod" on the American Heritage website.
  • Interview with Sharon Ewell Foster regarding her recent research on Turner, The State of Things, North Carolina Public Radio, August 31, 2011.
  • Nat Turner Unchained an independent feature film about the Nat Turner revolt.
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