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Nat Turner

NAT TURNER (1800–1831)

Governor's Office, Letters Received, John Floyd, Record Group 3, Library of Virginia.

Little is known for certain about Nat Turner's life. He was born probably on October 2, 1800. Nat Turner's mother, who may been born in Africa, was owned by Benjamin Turner of Southampton County, from whom Nat Turner probably took his surname. The identity of Turner's father is unknown, but he may have been a slave of Benjamin Turner who ran away early in Nat Turner's life. Nat Turner grew into a deeply religious man, and he may have had religious "visions" later in his life. Turner had a wife, but the couple had different owners and her identity is unknown.

Benjamin Turner died in 1810, a year after he had lent Nat Turner, his mother, and other slaves to his son Samuel Turner. In 1821 Nat Turner ran away but he returned on his own within a month. Samuel Turner died in 1822, and Nat was sold to Thomas Moore. By 1830, Thomas Moore had died and Nat was officially owned by Moore's young son Putnam. They lived with Moore's widow and her new husband, Joseph Travis, who acted as Turner's master. In February 1831 Turner interpreted an eclipse of the sun as an awaited sign from God that he should lead a slave rebellion. He began telling other slaves of his plans. A final sign came to Turner in mid-August and on August 21 Turner led six men to the Travis household where they killed all the white people at the residence. The rebels continued through the neighborhood killing white people and adding African Americans to their number, eventually amassing a group of about sixty men and boys. During the next two days the group became disorganized and was finally defeated by white militia members and a contingent of state and federal troops. Before the end of the uprising, a total of between fifty-five to sixty whites had been killed. A few slaves escaped and went into hiding, including Nat Turner. Media attention focused on Turner; it was his "imagined spirit of prophecy" and his extraordinary powers of persuasion, local authorities reported, that had turned obedient slaves into bloodthirsty killers. Turner's ability to elude capture for more than two months only enhanced his mythic stature.

While Nat Turner remained at large, rumors of a wider slave conspiracy flourished. State officials took pains to ensure that Turner lived to stand trial by offering a $500 reward for his capture and delivery to jail. On October 30, 1831, Turner surrendered to a local farmer who found him hiding in a cave. Turner was arrested, tried, and sentenced to death. While the rebellion leader awaited execution, Thomas R. Gray, a white lawyer, interviewed Nat Turner in his jail cell. Gray later published The Confessions of Nat Turner (1831), which has become controversial because some historians believe that Gray embellished or fabricated much of the information. After being sentenced to death, Turner was hanged on November 11, 1831, at the Southampton County gallows. After he was hanged, Turner's body was beheaded and probably skinned and dissected. The site of his grave is unknown.

Suggested Reading:

French, Scot. The Rebellious Slave: Nat Turner in American Memory. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 2004.

Santoro, Anthony. "The Prophet in His Own Words: Nat Turner's Biblical Construction." Virginia Magazine of History and Biography 116 (2008): 114–149.

Related Links:

Learn more in Death or Liberty: Gabriel, Nat Turner, and John Brown (LVA exhibition: January 10, 2000—November 8, 2000)