Nat Turner was a black mystic who led an insurrection against white families in Southampton County, Virginia, on August 22, 1831. Turner’s was the most famous of the southern slave insurrections because of its bloodiness and the fear it instilled in southern whites.
The son of slave parents, Nat was born on October 2, 1800, on Benjamin Turner’s plantation near Jerusalem in Southampton County, Virginia. He attended prayer services and Sunday chapel at his Methodist master’s insistence, and as a youth, he played alongside white children. He demonstrated a superior intelligence, teaching himself to read and write, and even read and studied the Bible with his master’s encouragement.
Several events changed his life dramatically. Shortly after his father escaped to the North, Nat and his mother, Nancy, were loaned to master Benjamin’s son, Samuel. In 1810 the elder Turner died, leaving Nat and his mother the property of Samuel Turner, a strict taskmaster who insisted that his slaves obey him. In 1812 Nat was devastated when he was put to work in the fields. No longer could he play, associate with white children, or follow intellectual pursuits.
Nat became increasingly despondent. In 1812 he escaped the plantation but returned on his own after a month of hiding, claiming that “the Spirit” had instructed him to do so. He took a wife, Cherry, shortly thereafter. In 1822 Samuel Turner died, and Nat and Cherry were sold to separate masters in Southhampton County. Although Nat was able to visit Cherry and have children by her, he was not able to have the family life he desired. His new master, Thomas Moore, demanded even more labor of him. As he grew unhappier, Nat turned to Scripture for guidance.
In his Confessions (1831), Nat stated that religion became the dominant motivating factor in his young adult life. He recalled that as a youth, other slaves deemed him a “prophet” because he described events that had occurred before his birth. His role as a prophet and mystic increased through early adulthood, and in 1825, he had a vision in which “white spirits and black spirits engaged in battle” appeared beneath a darkened sun as “blood flowed in streams.” Shortly thereafter, he claimed to see angels in the sky, blood on the corn in the fields, and symbols on tree leaves.
Proclaiming himself a Baptist preacher, Turner described his visions to slave congregations at Sunday prayer meetings that he conducted. He emphasized the approach of Judgment Day, when God would raise the slave above the master. Preparing for his own role on Judgment Day, he gathered a small following of slaves and free blacks to assist him, telling them, “I am commissioned by Jesus Christ and act under his direction.”
Turner continued laboring on weekdays and preaching on Sundays. In 1827 a white overseer asked Turner to baptize him. When local churches refused to allow Turner the use of an altar for the ceremony, he used a nearby pond. He did not forget the insult white church leaders had extended him, and his disillusionment grew. In 1828 he had another vision, which he also described in his Confessions, “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 shall be last and the last should be first.”
This vision, combined with a chain of circumstances in Turner’s life, moved him toward insurrection. Upon telling his master, Thomas Moore, that slaves would be free “one day or other,” he was thrashed for insubordination. When Moore died later that year, Nat became the property of the deceased’s nine-year-old son until Moore’s widow remarried in 1829 and Joseph Travis became Turner’s new master. Turner did the work expected of him to gain Travis’s “greatest confidence” and thereby be permitted to continue preaching and waiting for a sign from God. In February 1831 a solar eclipse was the first sign Turner needed to proceed with plans for insurrection. A second occurred August 13 when the sun grew dim and a black spot appeared on its surface.
In the early hours of Monday, August 22, Turner and six followers quietly entered Joseph Travis’s house. Armed with axes, they killed all five whites in the home, including an infant in its cradle. From the Travis farm, Turner and his followers moved from house to house, killing whites as they went. Attracting followers and weapons on the way, they soon numbered nearly sixty men mounted on horseback and armed with axes, swords, guns, and clubs. They killed a total of fifty-five white men, women, and children.
News of the insurrection spread quickly. Confrontations with armed bands of whites resulted in the death of many of Turner’s men and the dispersal of the rest. By Sunday, August 28, federal troops, militia, and armed bands of whites had killed or captured all but a handful of the insurrectionists, including Turner. He had evaded capture for nearly six weeks by hiding in a dugout under some fence rails. Finally found and captured on October 30, Turner recited his Confessions, an explanation of his actions, to attorney Thomas Gray on November 1. He was tried, found guilty, and sentenced to death on November 5, 1831, and hanged six days later.
Nat Turner’s insurrection shocked and frightened Virginians. Because of the insurrection, Virginia’s legislature held its last serious debate on ending slavery in 1832, and Virginia and most southern states eventually passed strict laws to police their slave populations and prevent insurrections. Believing that abolitionism had somehow caused the uprising, most southerners also abandoned the cause of emancipation in the aftermath of Turner’s insurrection.
See also: Virginia’s Slavery Debate.
Related Credo Articles
(1800-1831) A slave and lay preacher from Southampton County, Virginia, who was recognized for his mystical religious powers, Nat Turner...
(10/2/1800–11/11/1831) Memoir We know him chiefly through his “ Confessions. ” Although Turner had learned to read and write at an early...
In 1831, Nat Turner led one of the most famous and bloody slave rebellions in North American history. Turner had been born a slave in...