Richmond (Virginia) Compiler,
September 3, 1831
The author of the letter from Jerusalem that the Richmond Compiler printed on September 3, 1831, was most likely either defense attorney William C. Parker or Justice James Trezvant. The court appointed Parker to represent several of the enslaved people put on trial in Southampton County. Trezvant frequently served as a member of the panel of justices who presided over each trial.
THE TRAGEDY AT SOUTHAMPTON
This account assumes the epistolary form; for, as it appears from the letter itself, it is in reply to one which was addressed him, for the purpose of obtaining authentic information. . . . It is from the pen of a correspondent who is a resident of Jerusalem, who is acquainted with the hostilities, the scenes and characters he describes—and has had much to do, both in a military and civil capacity; both to arresting and bringing to punishment the banditti, as any other citizens in his county. He is one who may every way be depended upon.
Jerusalem, Aug. 31st, 1831.
Anticipating your desire to be correctly informed of the events which have recently occurred in this county—events which have left a fearful and lasting impression upon the minds and imaginations of the people, I commenced a letter to you on Wednesday last, in which I was interrupted by information then just received that the rebellious slaves were still embodied in the upper part of the county, whither I repaired with a small number of mounted men. Your letter by last night’s mail induces me to regret the more that I did not complete my object. I shall now proceed succinctly to give you the particulars of this atrocious affair, so far as they are within my knowledge.—On Sunday evening, four or five slaves met together at Mr. Travis’ who then resided about 13 miles from this place. It seems that some of the ringleaders had previously prepared, in a remote field concealed from the house, provisions and spirits. To this field they repaired and remained until 11 or 12 o’clock on Sunday night. They then went to Travis’ house which was entered through the upper window by one of his [p. 60] own slaves called Nat Turner, the leader of the band, who opening the outer door the other slaves, consisting of six or seven, rushed in and destroyed, in the most barbarous manner, every human white being in the house, five in number, consisting of men, women and children. This Nat seems to be a bold fellow, of the deepest cunning, who for years has been endevouring [sic] to acquire an influence over the minds of these deluded wretches. He reads and writes with ease, it is said, and has long been a preacher. Superstitious himself, his object has been to operate upon the superstitious hopes and fears of others; and the late singular phenomenon of the Sun, enabled him to fill their minds with the most anxious forebodings, regarding it as an omen from Heaven, that their cause would result prosperously. [T]heir object seems to have been, to produce unusual consternation and dismay, by indiscriminate massacre and it is remarkable, that not a single instance of mercy or pity, or relenting, occurred throughout the whole of their proceedings. In the language of the leader, they determined to “kill and slay as they went,”—in prosecution of this design, and for the purpose of recruiting their forces, they proceeded from house to house in the vicinity of Travis’, until they had murdered about 64 persons, without being encountered.—On the Tuesday morning after the massacre, I saw in one room ten dead persons, women, boys and girls, from helpless infancy to hoary age, of the family of Levi Waller, and some children who were at a schoolhouse near his dwelling.
They were not encountered by any force in their bloody progress until they came to Mr. James W. Parker’s, about four miles from this place, where they were attacked by a party of 16, very few of whom came into action, however.—This first party they repulsed, and were pursuing, when another party, who had dismounted at Parker’s gate for the purpose of forming an ambuscade, and who had no knowledge of the movements of the first party, came up and rescued those in retreat; one of whom had just been knocked from his horse, and was about to be dispatched by the banditti.—The insurgents, after receiving a few raggling [sic] fires, retreated, and were not again seen in force until late on Monday night, when they assembled at Ridley’s quarter, about four miles from Jerusalem; and at day-break on Tuesday, made an attack upon Dr. Blunt’s house, who had assembled one or two neighbors, his overseer and son, he having also armed his slaves, who appeared to be faithful and gave proof in the sequel that they were resolved to stand by their master. From this house they were again repulsed, several of their men being wounded, and have never since been seen in any [p. 61] force. Dispersed, broken in spirits, in utter despair of their cause, they are now only found as wretched fugitives from the punishment they have so justly provoked; and most of them have, in fact, been either killed or are now in jail awaiting the sentence of the law. I suppose not less than thirty have been slain, some of them no doubt innocent; and there are now about forty in jail for trial.
The court has commenced proceeding[s] to-day, and already sentenced one to be hung on Monday next. They will go on as rapidly as possible, but I think ten or twelve days will elapse before they can get through even with those that are now apprehended, and others are brought in daily, either of known guilt or under strong suspicion.
If my intelligence was confined to this place, I should say, that there was no general concert—but from examinations which have taken place in other counties, I fear the scheme embraced a wider sphere than I had at first supposed. Only one free negro was in arms with them, and no white persons. Several free negroes, however, have been taken up under strong suspicion of having been engaged in the conspiracy. Their arms consisted of a few firelocks, and such others as “fury administered.” I write to you in great haste, as my military duties, and my duties in Court, require all my attention.
There was not more than one runaway slave known to be among them; and their apparent force never exceeded forty or fifty. Could I have been correctly informed of their numbers when they were at Ridley’s quarter, we could in all probability destroyed or taken the most of them. I was informed about one o’clock on Monday night, that they were there with a force of about 200—and I had then under my orders here about 60 men. A great number of families had fled hither for protection, and there were three roads by which they might have approached this place, which was certainly their object if they had considered themselves strong enough. My first impulse was to have attacked them with 30 or 40 men, but those who had families here were strongly opposed to it, and as I might have missed them in my approach who had a house at stake.
The names of the families slain were Travis’, Salathiel Francis’, Whitehead’s, Reese’s, Waller’s, Mrs. Vaughan’s, Jacob Williams’, all but himself, and William William’s.
The leader of the band Nat. or Gen. Cargill as he styled himself, has not yet been taken. The free negro, Billy Artis, is wounded, and still lurking about the neighborhood. He will no doubt be taken, and I hope the fanatic and desperate leader cannot [p. 62] escape. They robbed the houses of all the money they could find, and perhaps acquired from eight hundred to a thousand dollars in all, part of which has since been recovered.
(It is said they had so far organized themselves as to fix the pay of the General, say $10 a day, 5 to the paymaster, Henry, whose skull is in the possession of one of the surgeons of the detachments who visited Jerusalem, and $1 to each private per day.)
(Dispatches were received by the Governor last evening, stating that four of the prisoners had been tried and condemned, on Wednesday and Thursday. Two of them were recommended for reprieve and transportation and two (Daniel and Moses) were ordered for execution on Monday next. ((The act of Assembly says “there shall be 30 days at least between the time of passing judgment and the day of execution, EXCEPT in cases of conspiracy, insurrection, or rebellion.”)) ). [parentheses as in original]
We are sorry to learn that a paper signed by a few names in Southampton, should have been addressed to the President of the United States requesting the continuance of some of the U.S. troops in that quarter. We may not be able to judge of the necessity of the time—but we had hoped that with a Governor as energetic as the present Chief Magistrate has proved himself in these trying moments; with a General so much on the alert; and with Citizens ready to stand by each other, as all the Citizens of Virginia are, we might have been able to dispense with the future services of the regular troops.
Some rumors are still afloat but we know not on what authority they rest, and we hope they are very much exaggerated, as, of a deposit of guns, pistols and knives, being found in Nansemond,--though a late letter from that county says all alarm has subsided. Yet we now and then hear of a suspected slave being taken up in Nansemond and Surrey—and we have a report of a patrol going upon an estate in Prince George—and upon the overseer pointing out five whom he suspected, shooting two who were attempting to make their escape, and securing the other three and throwing them into jail.—On the whole, while we see little room for danger, we ought still to be vigilant and on the alert!
From Henry Irving Tragle, The Southampton Slave Revolt of 1831: A Compilation of Source Material (Amherst, MA: The University of Massachusetts Press, 1971), pp. 59-62.