Who was Nat Turner?
Nat Turner is hard to describe in a few sentences. Depite the large number of documents that mention the rebel leader, accurate, verifiable information about him remains elusive. Thomas Gray’s Confessions of Nat Turner may provide us with a glimpse of Nat Turner's voice. But the words purported to be Turner's were recorded by a white Virginian, rendering their authenticity uncertain. This page provides a general overview of Nat Turner’s life. It declares no definitive truths, but merely points to the available information that suggests elusive truths about the man behind the myth.
What were Turner’s beliefs?
According to the Confessions, Nat Turner was born on October 2, 1800, in Southampton County, Virginia. He learned to read at an early age. As a young man, Turner was considered intelligent, disciplined, and extremely pious. According to historcial sources, Nat believed he was a Christian prophet destined to fulfill a holy purpose.
“As it had been said of me in my childhood by those by whom I had been taught to pray, both white and black, and in whom I had the greatest confidence, that I had too much sense to be raised, and if I was, I would never be of any use to any one as a slave. Now finding I had arrived to man's estate, and was a slave, and these revelations being made known to me, I began to direct my attention to this great object, to fulfil the purpose for which, by this time, I felt assured I was intended.”
Who were his owners?
1) Benjamin Turner
Benjamin Turner was Nat Turner’s master from the time Nat was born in 1800 to around 1807. After Benjamin's son Samuel G. Turner, married in 1809, Benjamin informally transferred several of his slaves to Samuel, including Nat, his mother Nancy, his grandmother Lydda, and his alleged wife Cherry. After Benjamin Turner's death in 1810, the transfer was legalized in his will.
“I give and bequeath unto my loving son Samuel Turner the following negroes, Sam, Nancy, Lidda, Natt, Drew, Chary, Miner, Elick which he has got in his procession to him and his heirs forever.”
2) Samuel G. Turner
Samuel owned Nat Turner for the next fifteen years. After Samuel died in 1822, Nat remained in the hands of Samuel’s widow, Elizabeth Turner, for about a year.
3) Thomas Moore
There is no official documentation of the transfer of ownership of Nat Turner from Elizabeth Turner to Captain Thomas Moore. Moore legally owned Nat Turner from 1823 until Moore's death in 1827 at the age of thirty-five. Although he left no will, Moore's estate went to his widow Sarah (“Sally”) Moore, who was about twenty-six years old when Moore died. Nat Turner remained under Sally's control until she remarried in 1830. Sally likely hired one or more overseers in the three years after her first husband died.
Historian David Allmendinger suggests that the beating Nat Turner received, mentioned in the Richmond Whig in the wake of the revolt, may have occurred at the hands of Thomas Moore.
“I have been credibly informed that something like three years ago, Nat received a whipping from his master, for saying that the blacks ought to be free, and that they would be free one day or other.”
4) Putnam Moore
In 1830, Sally Moore married Joseph Travis. Travis served as Nat's master from this point on. In the eyes of the law, however, Nat was owned by Putnam Moore, Sally’s ten-year-old son.
“Since the commencement of 1830, I had been living with Mr. Joseph Travis, who was to me a kind master, and placed the greatest confidence in me; in fact, I had no cause to complain of his treatment to me.”
Who was Nat Turner’s family?
Nat Turner’s ownership can be easily traced. But when it comes to his family, there is only guesswork and circumstantial evidence.
On January 12, 1793, Benjamin Turner acquired four enslaved people. The first name listed on the deed was Lidia, later also referred to as "Lidda" or "Lydia." Lidia had been born born around 1757. In about 1807, when she was transferred to the farm of Benjamin's son, Samuel G. Turner, Lidia would have been around fifty years old. She disappeared from the historical record after being listed in the inventory of Samuel's estate on March 4, 1822. The inventory recorded her monetary value as zero.
Lidia may have been Nat Turner's grandmother, on either his mother's or his father's side.
"My grandmother, who was very religious, and to whom I was much attached--my master, who belonged to the church, and other religious persons who visited the house, and whom I often saw at prayers, noticing the singularity of my manners, I suppose, and my uncommon intelligence for a child, remarked I had too much sense to be raised, and if I was, I would never be of any service to any one as a slave."
Two of the other slaves who came into Benjamin Turner's holdings in January of 1793 were listed as Abraham and Anne. Anne later appeared in Benjamin's will as "Nancy." She may have been Nat Turner's mother. Abraham may have been his father. Around 1807, when he was about thirty-one, Abraham became separated from Nancy and Lidia. Nat Turner’s father ran away soon after Benjamin Turner's death in 1810. No information about Abraham following his escape has emerged.
“His mother, Nancy, is said to have been imported directly from Africa, and to have been so wild that at Nat’s birth she had to be tied down to prevent her from murdering him. She later developed into a useful and faithful servant. His father was also very high spirited, and ran away when Nat was a boy, and was never recaptured.”
Historical sources suggest that Nat Turner had a wife. The most likely person is an enslaved woman named Cherry. A slave listed as "Chary" appeared in Benjamin Turner’s will in 1810. A slave named Cherry, appraised at $175, appeared a decade and a half later in the 1826 inventory of Joseph Reese.
“We know that Nat Turner's young wife was a slave; we know that she belonged to a different master from himself; we know little more than this, but this is much... There is, indeed, one thing more which we do know of this young woman: the Virginia newspapers state that she was tortured under the lash, after her husband's execution, to make her produce his papers: this is all.”
According to some sources, Nat Turner and his wife had a son named Riddick. No sources at the time, even the Confessions, mention that Nat Turner had a child. An enslaved boy named Riddick is listed in the 1826 inventory of Joseph Reese Sr. William Drewry in his book Southampton Insurrection, published in 1900, is the earliest source to make a connection between Riddick and Nat Turner.
“Nat’s son, Redic [Riddick], survived him and proved to be a worthy and highly respected slave, much like his father in ability, but not fanatical.”
What was Nat Turner's role in the rebellion?
Nat Turner conceived of the revolt and planned it along with his close circle of fellow conspirators. He began the rebellion by striking his master, Joseph Travis, on the head with a sword. The blow, however, failed to kill Travis, who was then dispatched by Will Francis.
For most of the uprising, Turner observed and directed the activities of the rebels. Riding behind the fast-moving force responsible for launching the attacks at the various farms, Turner usually arrived after the violence had been completed. He killed only one person, Margaret Whitehead, by hitting her with a fence rail after his sword again proved ineffective.
For a full account of Turner's activities during the rebellion, see Thomas Gray, The Confessions of Nat Turner.
What ultimately happened to Nat Turner?
By Tuesday, August 23, 1831, the rebellion was scattered and on its way to collapse. Nat would spend the next nine weeks in hiding as the most wanted man in the state. Within that period most of the rebels were hunted down or killed in fighting. Nat eventually ended up near Cabin Pond and the farm of Nathaniel Francis. On October 15, 1831, a slave apparently caught sight of Nat in the woods and informed the town. Twelve days later Nathaniel Francis would see the rebel and open fire on him, yet he missed and shot Nat’s hat instead. It was not until October 30 that Nat was discovered by a local nonslaveholding white man named Benjamin Phipps and surrendered willingly.
“As to his being a coward, his reason as given for not resisting Mr. Phipps, shews the decision of his character. When he saw Mr. Phipps present his gun, he said he knew it was impossible for him to escape as the woods were full of men; he therefore thought it was better to surrender, and trust to fortune for his escape.”
Nat went to trial on November 5 and was executed on November 11. Between his capture and his trial, the rebel leader spoke at length with local attorney Thomas R. Gray. Soon after Turner's execution, Gray published his version of this conversation in pamphlet form as The Confessions of Nat Turner.
Shortly after his death, wild rumors circulated about Nat Turner's remains. The truthfulness of these rumors is very much in doubt.
"His body was given over to the surgeons for dissection. He was skinned to supply such souvenirs as purses, his flesh made into grease, and his bones divided as trophies to be handed down as heirlooms. It is said that there still lives a Virginian who has a piece of his skin which was tanned, that another Virginian possesses one of his ears and that the skull graces the collection of a physician in the city of Norfolk.”
"General Nat sold his body for dissection, and spent the money on ginger cakes."
"For a rumor which arose after the execution, that he was compelled to sell his body in advance, for purposes of dissection, in exchange for food... Nat Turner would hardly have gone, through the formality of selling his body for food to those who claimed its control at any rate."
Although his rebellion was short-lived, Nat Turner’s legacy has lived on into the modern era.
“Was not Christ crucified?”
Information about Nat Turner partly based on David F. Allmendinger, Nat Turner and the Rising in Southampton County (Baltimore: John Hopkins University Press, 2014), 11-24, 63-66, 102-104, 197-198, and 241-242.