September 27, 1831
THE SOUTHAMPTON TRAGEDY
The following letters from a friend in Southampton, present several new facts and views of the late Insurrection, and are worthy of all reliance. The writer has had the best opportunities of scanning the scenes themselves, as well as the evidence given on the trials of the Banditti:
Jerusalem, Sept. 21st, 1831
Your letter of the 13th was received a few days ago, on my return from Greensville Superior Court.—There has been very little variation in the evidence submitted to the Court, in the course of the trials for the late insurrection, and with the exception of one witness, a woman belonging to Mr. Solomon Parker, there has been nothing elicited that goes to prove a concert, beyond the day before the insurrection broke out. She states, however, that she has heard the subject discoursed about among her master’s slaves, and some of the neighboring ones, for the last eighteen months: and that at a meeting held at the Racoon meeting-house, in May and August last, some eight or ten expressed their determination to unite in the scheme. Several were tried six or eight days ago in this county, upon her unsupported testimony, and were all acquitted: whilst in Sussex, five or six were acquitted upon the the same testimony. She is again to be introduced here, on the trial of three or four others, and may, perhaps, obtain more credit with the Court. She is about 16 or 17 years of age and said to be of very good character. It has been considered that, under our act of Assembly, the testimony of a slave or free negro, unless supported by pregnant circumstances, is insufficient to convict in any case.—You will thus perceive that we have, as yet, had no sufficient reason to believe that there was a “concert or general plan” among the Blacks. I have no doubt, however, that the subject [p. 100] has been pretty generally discussed among them, and the minds of many prepared to cooperate in the design.
How far the exemplary chastisement inflicted upon them, may tend to disconcert and suppress their insurrectionary prospects, it is for time to resolve.
There is one idea gone abroad, in relation to the occurrences here, which I think deserves correction, since it is calculated to produce an impression, that the people of this county, unaided, would not have been able to put down the insurrection. No one is more sensible to the obligations due to our fellow-citizens of other counties, for their decided, prompt, and ready assistance, than myself; yet it is due to truth as well as the just confidence which the people of every county ought to feel in themselves, to state that the insurrection was effectually and completely suppressed by the citizens of the county: —That, as early as Tuesday morning, at day-break, and after the repulse from Dr. Blunt’s house, they were utterly scattered and dispersed and that no attempt was afterwards made to reunite, or to pursue their design. That, in fact, so far from a military force being required for the protection of the county, the citizens, in greater or less numbers, sometimes two or three together only, were riding all through the county on Tuesday; and that all those slaves who were either slain or captured, met with their fate from the local militia, or citizens of the county.
To return to the subject of your inquiries, I am left to believe, from all that I can learn, that Nat Turner has been revolving this plan of mischief and disruption, “in a mind capacious of such things,” for years—Pretending to be divinely inspired, more than four years ago, he announced to the Blacks, that he should baptize himself. From that day until the awful tragedy of the 22d, he has used every means in his power, to acquire an ascendency over the minds of the slaves. A dreamer of dreams and a would-be Prophet, he used all the arts familiar to such pretenders, to deceive, delude, and overawe their minds.—Whether these arts were practiced only in his own immediate neighborhood, or, as some say, were extended to a distance, I have not been able to ascertain, with any certainty. Some allege that he had never left the vicinity of his master’s dwelling, whilst others think that he had even visited the Metropolis of the State in his character of Preacher and Prophet.
Twenty-three of the insurgents have been condemned, thirteen executed, eight commuted, and two, a woman and a man, to be executed on Monday next. Eight or ten yet remain for trial, and three free negroes have been remanded to the Superior Court, for trial. Many of the accused have been discharged—how many I cannot say.
As to the best plan of defense against a similar attempt in the future, this is a subject of great interest, and, as it strikes me, of great difficulty. I observe a writer in your paper has proposed a regular standing force in each county of the State where this population exists, to be well paid, etc. It appears to me that this is not to be thought of. A force of three thousand (and a less number would not answer the purpose) would cost the state more than six hundred thousand dollars per annum. . . . It would be difficult to officer such a corps in a proper manner, or to fill the ranks with other than worthless characters . . . they would soon relax in discipline and in activity, and in the process of time become a nuisance to the State. . . .
Placing this project out of view, I am of opinion that security is to be found only in the rigid enforcement laws, regulating this class of our population, united with humane and just treatment in the owners, and a determination to keep their slaves at home: —in the observance of regular patrols, composed of men of character and discretion, in the formation of volunteer corps who might frequently traverse every part, and produce an impression by the exhibition of a military force always prepared for prompt action. . . .
This you will perceive is a very ill-digested plan, and also that I am, as usual, writing in great haste. Others much better qualified will, I hope, take up the subject, and devise some scheme that will give repose and confidence to the public mind, and prevent the depopulation of our beloved Old Dominion.
P.S. A Volunteer company has been raised here, composed of the most intelligent and respectable gentlemen. . . .
Jerusalem, September 24th, 1831.
There have been three convictions since the date of my letter, upon the evidence of the girl of Solomon Parker, who had been previously repudiated by the Court. If her tale was true, the plot was more extensive than we had previously believed.
Henry Irving Tragle, The Southampton Slave Revolt of 1831: A Compilation of Source Material (Amherst, MA: The University of Massachusetts Press, 1971), 99-101.