Born on October 2, 1800, in Southampton County, Virginia, Nat Turner was only a young boy when people heard him describing events that had occurred before he was born. An intelligent child, he was soon labeled as a prophet and became deeply religious.
In 1821, Turner ran away from his master, Samuel Turner, but came back after a month because he had a vision in which he was told to return. After his master died the following year, Nat Turner was sold to a man named Thomas Moore. In 1830, Turner was moved to the home of Joseph Travis, the new husband of Thomas Moore’s widow. His official owner, Putnum Moore, was still a child.
During this time Turner continued to have visions, seeing lights in the sky and interpreting them through prayer. He took a solar eclipse as a sign to stage an insurrection. On the night of August 21, 1831, Turner and six of his men met in the woods to make plans. They snuck out to the Travis household in the middle of the night, killing the entire family as it slept. They continued going from house to house, killing the white people they encountered. Turner’s force eventually consisted of more than 40 slaves, most of them traveling on horseback.
On the afternoon of August 22, Turner started marching towards Jerusalem, the closest town. But by then, word of the rebellion had gotten out to the whites, and they were confronted by a group of militia. Turner and his men attempted to attack another house, but several of the rebels were captured. The remaining force then fought state and federal troops in a skirmish in which one slave was killed and many escaped, including Turner. In the end, the rebels killed at least 50 people.
Nat Turner hid in several different places near the Travis farm before he was captured on October 30. His “confession,” dictated to Thomas R. Gray, was taken while he was imprisoned in the county jail. On November 5, Turner was tried in the Southampton County Court and sentenced to death. He was hanged, and then skinned, on November 11.
In total, the state executed 55 people and banished many more. The state reimbursed the slaveholders for their slaves. But in the hysterical climate that followed Turner’s revolt, close to 200 black people—many of whom had nothing to do with the rebellion—were murdered by white mobs. Slaves as far away as North Carolina were accused of having a connection with the revolt and were subsequently executed.
Nat Turner’s background
Nat Turner was an enslaved American who had lived his entire life in Southampton County, Virginia, an area with predominantly more blacks than whites. After the rebellion, a reward notice described Turner as:
5 feet 6 or 8 inches high, weighs between 150 and 160 pounds, rather “bright” [light-colored] complexion, but not a mulatto, broad shoulders, larger flat nose, large eyes, broad flat feet, rather knockneed, 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.
Turner was highly intelligent, and learned how to read and write at a young age. He grew up deeply religious and was often seen fasting, praying or immersed in reading the stories of the Bible. According to researcher Anthony Kaye, Turner saw himself as a leader of something special. “His neighbors’ faith was never enough for Turner. When he finally came around to their way of thinking, he went them one better: Not only was he touched by God, but He also had some purpose to achieve through Turner.” He frequently had visions, which he interpreted as messages from God. These visions greatly influenced his life. For instance, when Turner was 21 years old he ran away from his owner, Samuel Turner, but returned a month later after becoming delirious from hunger and receiving a vision that told him to “return to the service of my earthly master.” In 1824, while working in the fields under his new owner, Thomas Moore, Turner had his second vision, in which “the Saviour was about to lay down the yoke he had borne for the sins of men, and the great day of judgment was at hand.” Turner often conducted Baptist services, and preached the Bible to his fellow slaves, who dubbed him “The Prophet.”
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