He was born on October 2, 1800, and grew up on the Turner Plantation in Rosa Swamp, Southampton County, Virginia. He was named Nathaniel – Hebrew for Gift of God – but everyone knew him as Nat. His mother, a spirited girl named Nancy, had been captured in Africa and brought to Norfolk and the slave auction block. His father – whose name is unknown – fled Rosa Swamp and ran north never to be seen again. Nat was raised by his father’s mother, Old Bridget, on a slave diet of corn mush and bacon fat. He went to work in the fields at the age of 12 rising at dawn to milk the cows and slop the hogs and then on to the endless cycle of plowing, planting, hoeing, grubbing and harvesting Turner’s corn, cotton and tobacco fields.

As a young man, Nat was about 5’7”, slender but broad-shouldered, a little knock-kneed, with a deep-colored complexion and bright eyes. He married a girl named Cherry, who was a slave at the nearby Reese plantation. The couple had two children – a boy and a girl – that lived with Cherry. From time to time Nat would be permitted to visit them.

Even as a toddler, young Nat impressed everyone with his quick mind and keen perception. He could read and write at an early age, and many of the Turner slaves believed he had a great destiny before him. As a Methodist, Nat’s owner, Benjamin Turner, encouraged the boy to study the Bible and took him to church where he would sit in the back with the other slaves during sermons and scripture readings that reminded them of their need for patience, obedience to their masters and acceptance of their lot in life as God’s will. Yet, the Turner slaves would return home to worship in a church of their own fashioning where the Bible told a different story – one that condemned slavery and urged resistance to it.

Nat was a serious youth. He never drank. He pursued knowledge and read whatever books he could get his hands on. He studied the Bible and discovered passages that condemned slavery and told the story of Moses leading the Israelites out of bondage to the Promised Land. He spent his free time in his cabin or in the woods in prayer, meditation and fasting. The Holy Spirit spoke to him and showed him visions in the sky. The other slaves began to gather around him in the evenings and he would tell them what he saw.

Nat began to preach and share his powerful sermons and visions with his new slave congregation. He was the prophet they sought as he traveled throughout Southampton County preaching in Jerusalem (now Courtland), Cross Keys and Bethlehem Crossroads. Ironically, Nat was considered innocuous by the local slave owners – after all, he was a good worker, he did not drink, and he had proven himself to be honest and trustworthy.

One day, Nat created a sensation by baptizing a white man - an overseer at a nearby plantation - by the name of Etheldred T. Brantley. Brantley got himself into some sordid trouble that no one would speak of and found himself shunned by the white plantation owners. Yet, Nat ministered to the man, fasting and praying with him for nine days and then baptizing Brantley first, and himself second in Pearson’s Mill Pond.

rebecca vaughan house

The Rebecca Vaughan House is the only remaining family home that witnessed the bloodshed of Nat Turner's Insurrection. It is presently undergoing restoration by the Southampton County Historical Society.

The following year Nat had his most powerful vision – the Holy Spirit appeared to him and told him that it was now time when ‘the first should be the last and the last should be the first’ and he should slay his ‘own enemies with their own weapons.’ Nat kept this vision to himself until February of 1831 when a solar eclipse occurred and he took it as a sign that the time had come to fulfill his duty. He gathered trusted men from his congregation and plotted an uprising. He began calling himself ‘General Nat,’ and his other top generals included Hark Travis, Nelson Williams, Sam Francis and Henry Porter. Nat drew them a battle map with berry juice and made a list of additional possible recruits.

On August 13th of that same year, an atmospheric disturbance caused the sun to change colors and then a black spot to appear over it. Nat declared that it was a black hand across the sun commanding them to arise and take action. On Sunday, August 21st Nat’s generals shared a roast pig and apple brandy in the woods at Cabin Pond. Afterward, Nat appeared in the woods and announced that evening they would ‘kill all the white people.’

After midnight, Nat’s army set out by torchlight. Their first stop was the Travis farm, where Nat himself was enslaved. Armed with stolen guns, axes, swords and farm implements, they entered the home, went upstairs, and hacked and beat Joseph and Sally Travis and their two children to death in their beds. With his owner Joseph and Joseph’s heirs now dead, Nat was a free man.

The rebels’ systematic path of destruction subsequently took them through the farms of the Turner, Whitehead, Porter, Francis, Edwards, Barrow, Williams, Parker, Vaughan, Waller, Blunt, Ridley, and Harris families. Only the Reese farm was spared – possibly because Nat’s wife and children resided there. At each farm, the families were hacked and beaten to death, the rebels looted the property for weapons and supplies, and they were joined by more rebels – some on horseback - before they were finally subdued two days later by Federal troops and Virginia militias. Nearly 60 white men, women and children lay dead.

Reprisals against the slaves of Southampton County were swift. Many were rounded up and tortured for information, including Nat’s wife Cherry. Many were accused of complicity and executed without trials. Others were killed by white mobs and militia men. Nearly 200 enslaved men, women and children lay dead. Yet, Nat Turner’s Insurrection was a portent of far worse bloodshed to come for a nation that was divided against itself along the lines of black and white, enslaved and free. The bloodshed in Southampton County in 1831 was but a drop compared to the carnage of the Civil War that commenced in Manassas thirty years after Nat’s rebellion.

For two months after his insurrection, Nat hid out in a hole in the ground under a fence at the Phipps farm about a mile and a half away from the Travis farm. Phipps discovered the hideout on his rounds, and with the rebel in his sights, ordered him to surrender. Nat Turner was hanged on November 11, 1831 in Jerusalem (now Courtland), Southampton County, Virginia.

Pictured at the top: A lonely marker in a cotton field along Route 35 in Southampton County bears the inscription: 'On the night of 21-22 August 1831, Nat Turner, a slave preacher, began an insurrection some seven miles west with a band that grew to about 70. They moved northeast toward the Southampton County seat, Jerusalem (now Courtland), killing about 60 Whites. After two days militiamen and armed civilians quelled the revolt. Turner was captured on 30 October, tried and convicted, and hanged 11 November; some 30 blacks were hanged or expelled from Virginia. In response to the revolt, the General Assembly passed harsher slave laws and censored abolitionists.'

History courtesy of and many thanks to Stephen B. Oates, The Fires of Jubilee: Nat Turner's Fierce Rebellion, HarperCollins Kindle Edition, and Thomas Wentworth Higginson, ‘Nat Turner’s Insurrection’, The Atlantic, August 1861 Issue.