Nathaniel “Nat” Turner (October 2, 1800 – November 11, 1831) was an American slave who led a slave rebellion in Virginia on August 21, 1831 that resulted in 562 deaths among their victims, the largest number of white fatalities to occur in one uprising in the antebellum southern United States. He gathered supporters in Southampton County, Virginia. Turner’s killing of whites during the uprising makes his legacy controversial. For his actions, Turner was convicted, sentenced to death, and executed. In the aftermath, the state executed 56 blacks accused of being part of Turner’s slave rebellion. Two hundred blacks were also beaten and killed by white militias and mobs reacting with violence. Across Virginia and other southern states, state legislators passed new laws prohibiting education of slaves and free blacks, restricting rights of assembly and other civil rights for free blacks, and requiring white ministers to be present at black worship services
At birth, Turner’s master recorded only his given name, Nat, although he may have had a last name within the slave community. In accordance with common practice, the whites referred to him by the last name of his owner, Samuel Turner. This practice was continued by historians.
Turner spent his life in Southampton County, Virginia, a predominantly black area.3 After the rebellion, a reward notice described Turner as:
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 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.4
Turner had “natural intelligence and quickness of apprehension, surpassed by few.”5 He learned 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.6 He frequently experienced visions which he interpreted as messages from God. These visions greatly influenced his life; for instance, when Turner was 23 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, and in the case of Ethelred T. Brantley, Turner said that he was able to convince Brantley to “cease from his wickedness”.7
By early 1828, Turner was convinced that he “was ordained for some great purpose in the hands of the Almighty.”8 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.”9 Turner was convinced that God had given him the task of “slay[ing] my enemies with their own weapons.”9 Turner “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.9
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 12, 1831, an annular solar eclipse was seen in Virginia. Turner saw this as a black man’s hand reaching over the sun, and he took this vision as his sign. The rebellion was initially planned for July 4, Independence Day, but was postponed for more deliberation between him and his followers, and 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 a week later, on August 21, he began the rebellion.