Nat Turner’s Rebellion-Early Life-Death & Complex Legacy

On August 21, 1831, Nathanial “Nat” Turner (1800-1831) who was an enslaved man, led his people’s rebellion.

A new wave of harsh legislation was triggered, preventing enslaved people from getting an education, moving around or gathering, after Turner’s actions ended up in the death of up to 200 Black people. The revolt reinforced the region’s anti-abolitionist views, which lasted until the American Civil War (1861–65).

Somewhere around 55 to 65 people were killed by the rebels, which included 51 white people. The rebellion was quickly put down on August 23 at Belmont Plantation, but Turner, on the other hand, stayed in hiding for more than two months.

In the meantime, there was tremendous fear, and militias formed in revenge for the rebels. These local militias and mobs killed a total of 120 African Americans, including both enslaved and free Blacks.

Later 56 more enslaved Black people were killed by the Colony of Virginia who had participated in the revolt. Nat Turner and countless Black people who had not participated in the rebellion were also punished during the hysteria.

Because Turner was literate and educated, as well as a renowned preacher, state governments created new legislation limiting enslaved people’s education, restricting free Black people’s assembly rights and other civil rights, and forcing white pastors to be present at all worship sessions.

Early Life of Nat Turner

Turner was born on Benjamin Turner’s property in Southampton County, Virginia, on October 2, 1800. His mother’s name was Nancy, but details about his father are not well known. Turner’s owner (Benjamin), allowed him to get an education in religion, literature and writing.

People regarded Turner to have a very unique skill as a child because, astonishingly, they said he could recount events that occurred before he was born. According to his later confession, several even noted that he “certainly would be a prophet.” Turner’s mother and grandmother informed him that he “was meant for some tremendous mission.” Turner was a religious man who spent a lot of time reading the Bible, worshipping and fasting.

Turner worked on a variety of plantations over the years. In 1821, he escaped from Samuel Turner, the brother of his former owner. After 30 days of hiding in the forest, Turner came to Samuel’s estate believing he had received a message from God.

After the passing away of Samuel Moore, Thomas Moore took ownership of Turner and later after the death of Thomas Moore, Turner became the slave of his widow. Turner went to work on Travis’ properties when Thomas Moore’s widow married John Travis.

Nat Turner Rebellion

Beginning in February 1831, Turner said that specific environmental factors signaled the start of preparations for a slave rebellion against their enslavers. For instance, there was a solar eclipse on February 12, 1831 which was visible in Virginia and throughout parts of the southeastern United States. He saw the eclipse as a message that it was time to rebel. Turner imagined a Black man’s hand extending across the sun.

Turner had planned to start the rebellion on July 4, 1831, Independence Day, but he became unwell and used the time to plan with his founder.  On August 13, some historians say an air disturbance caused the sun to seem bluish-green, probably due to residual atmospheric debris from an eruption of Mount St. Helens on that particular day. Turner took this as the final warning and initiated his rebellion a week afterward, on August 21.

Six fellow slaves along with Nat Turner started their invasion on August 22nd, 1831. Starting with a few reliable fellow slaves, he soon gathered support of more than 70 enslaved or free Black people. During their violent spree, they took arms and horses from those they killed. They went from door to door, freeing enslaved Africans and killing many White individuals they met. According to some reports, the death toll during this rebellion, mounted to around 55 white men, women and children.

As proper military weapons and firearms were too difficult to obtain and would attract unwanted attention, the rebels relied on knives, hatchets, axes and blunt objects. The rebellions made no distinctions based on age or gender, and they slaughtered all white people who they came across; men, women and children.

Nat Turner admitted to killing one person (Margaret Whitehead), which he did with a fence post blow.

According to historian Stephen B. Oates, Turner directed his squad to “murder all the white people”. As per a newspaper, Turner declared that ‘indiscriminate slaughter was not their intention after they attained a foothold, and was resorted to in the first instance to strike terror and alarm. Women and children would afterwards have been spared, and men also, who ceased to resist”

A few homes were pardoned by the rebellion, because Turner felt the poor White inhabitants ‘thought no better of themselves than negroes.’ Before being crushed by the state troops, the Black insurgents killed around 60 people.

Eventually, the state militia troops, joined by three companies of artillery, were able to suppress the revolt with double the number of the rebels. Turner believed that revolutionary action would assist to educate white folks’ attitudes to the fact of slavery’s inherent brutality. Turner later stated that he wished to create “fear and anxiety” among whites.

They moved forward with the purpose of destroying the city and killing all of its residents in Jerusalem. But they were stopped from their target by a highly armed white militia. The Governor had summoned approximately three thousand militiamen to quell the revolt. After discovering they were severely outnumbered, the insurgents dissolved, and many escaped into the woods and swamps.

Except for Nat Turner, the white militia tracked down and quickly caught or executed the individuals who had engaged in the rebellion. Turner hid in the forests of Southampton County for 2 months.

Death of Nat Turner

Turner was arrested on October 30, 1831. He was represented by attorney Thomas R. Gray, who documented Turner’s statement. During his prosecution, Turner pled not guilty, thinking that his rebellion was the act of God. On November 11, 1831, he was convicted and sentenced to death in Jerusalem, Virginia. Many of his co-conspirators perished in the same way.

Turner’s body was chopped and cooked after his execution, according to Newby-Alexander. The bones were divided, and the fat from the body was used to manufacture soap. Lamp covers and pocketbooks were manufactured from his skin, according to Newby-Alexander.

Many believed his death was made a symbol of warning to other would-be insurgents. Turner’s headless bones were presumably buried in an unmarked grave; He never received an official burial.

The act instilled panic in Southerners, thereby putting a stop to the region’s organized independence struggle. Instead, Southern states adopted even tougher restrictions against Black slaves. Turner’s actions inflamed the Northern abolitionist cause even more. William Lloyd Garrison, a well-known abolitionist, wrote an editorial in his journal The Liberator in defense of Turner.

Turner’s Skull

The former mayor of Gary, Indiana, Richard G. Hatcher wanted to establish a ibrary of civil rights museum for which he was handed over a skull in 2002 that was likely to be Turner’s.

Hatcher gave the skull to two of Turner’s relatives in 2016. Since it is still uncertain whether the skull belongs to Nat Turner, his family has handed over the skull to the Smithsonian Institution for DNA testing to confirm whether the remains are indeed Nat Turner’s. However the family does not intend to keep the skull and wishes to bury it with his progeny; but that is dependent upon whether the results of the match come out as positive.

Aftermath of Rebellion

Furthermore, in order to scare the local African American populace, some of the militia decapitated and staked roughly fifteen captured militants. The white mobs then turned on Blacks who had not taken part in the rebellion as fear spread across the white population.

White mobs killed between two hundred to three hundred African Americans, the vast majority of whom had no relation to the insurrection.

By insisting that individuals who had participated in the insurrection be tried and punished by the state in order to emphasize the supremacy of the law for both blacks and whites, the governor of Virginia attempted to put an end to this vigilante justice.

Following the rebellion, the Virginia state legislature debated abolishing slavery but ultimately voted to strengthen rules restricting slaves’ freedom in the hopes of avoiding new rebellion.

Several slaves were executed in adjacent North Carolina after being wrongly suspected of involvement in Turner’s rebellion. As rumors spread that Blacks in North Carolina were planning their own rebellion, the white mobs killed many enslaved men, while other slaves were captured, convicted, and a few were killed. North Carolina, like Virginia, proposed laws that further restricted the rights of both free and enslaved Blacks.

It was forbidden for enslaved to preach, be “arrogant” to white people, carry a gun, hunt in the woods, live in harmony with a free Black or white person, or even possess animals. These new laws also prohibited whites from teaching enslaved people to read.


Almost two centuries have passed since the time of Turner. Historians, academics and newspapers have all painted him differently; some calling him a hero, some calling him a religious fanatic, and some even calling him a villain. However, Turner, as an African American fighting against racial injustice, became a symbol of the 1960s Black Power movement.

Many have criticized Turner’s indiscriminate massacre of men, women, and children in order to attain this goal. Scot French, a historian, told The New York Times, “To accept Nat Turner and place him within the pantheon of American revolutionary heroes is to sanction violence as a means of social change. He has a kind of radical consciousness that to this day troubles advocates of a racially reconciled society. The story lives because it’s relevant today to questions of how to organize for change.”

Book and the Movie

Confessions of Nat Turner was a 1967 Pulitzer Prize-winning novel written by William Styron and centered around Turner.

Nate Parker directed, scripted, and starred in The Birth of a Nation, a 2016 film based on Turner’s story and revolt. At the 2016 Sundance Film Festival, the film received both the Audience Award and the Grand Jury Prize.

Reception and Interpretations of Turner’s Rebellion

The immediate reactions to Nat Turner’s rebellion varied greatly. White enslavers and their supporters denounced the uprising as a horrifying act of brutality, instilling dread and a desire for more control over enslaved communities.

To discredit Turner’s cause, certain newspapers and magazines painted him as a crazed and violent zealot. In contrast, some abolitionists viewed the rebellion as a symbol of resistance against the oppressive institution of slavery, highlighting the brutal conditions that prompted such actions.

Scholarly interpretations of Turner’s rebellion have evolved. Earlier historians tended to emphasize the violence of the insurrection and to see it as an isolated, chaotic occurrence. Recent analyses, however, have concentrated on the underlying causes of the uprising, such as the brutal treatment of enslaved people and the pervasive racism of the time. Some scholars have also explored Turner’s religious motivations and the rebellion’s impact on the wider abolitionist movement.

Nat Turner’s rebellion has been the subject of numerous cultural representations and artistic depictions. The uprising is romanticized in books like William Styron’s “The Confessions of Nat Turner” and Kyle Baker’s graphic novel “Nat Turner.”

Additionally, the uprising has been the subject of movies like Nate Parker’s “The Birth of a Nation.” These artistic interpretations vary in their perspectives on Turner and the rebellion, presenting different narratives and exploring the complexities of his actions and motivations.

Significance and Historical Impact

Nat Turner’s rebellion played a significant role in heightening tensions over slavery and fueling debates on its abolition. The uprising exposed the ugly realities of slavery and dispelled the illusion that enslaved people were content. White enslavers were terrified and used even tougher measures to preserve power out of fear of repeat rebellion. The rebellion brought the issue of slavery to the forefront of public consciousness, forcing individuals and lawmakers to confront the moral and ethical implications of enslavement.

Turner’s rebellion had a lasting impact on the trajectory of the United States and the fight for emancipation. The insurrection emphasized the glaring divisions between the slave-owning South and the free North, contributing to rising inter-sectional tensions.

The gradual shift towards calls for abolition was brought on by fears of slave uprisings and the conviction that slavery could not be maintained under the current rule. The rebellion also inspired enslaved individuals seeking freedom and contributed to the Underground Railroad and other escape efforts.

Nat Turner’s rebellion left a powerful legacy of resistance against racial injustice. It disproved the idea of passive acceptance of slavery and showed the agency and tenacity of those held as enslaved people in their quest for freedom.

Turner’s uprising served as an example of the tenacity and bravery of individuals who fought against oppression, inspiring later generations of abolitionists and civil rights campaigners. The rebellion continues to be invoked in the ongoing struggle for racial justice, reminding society of the importance of acknowledging and confronting systemic racism and fighting for equal rights for all individuals.


Who was Nat Turner and what did he do?

Nat Turner is remembered as a thirty-year-old Virginia rebel who led a deadly revolt that resulted in the deaths of fifty-five whites, the majority of whom were women and children.

What did Nat Turner do to end slavery?

He staged an uprising against enslaved people. Nat Turner’s rebellion strengthened anti-slavery sentiments among Southern whites and resulted in additional harsh legislation limiting slave education, transportation and assembly.

What happened to Nat Turner?

Turner died in the town of Jerusalem. Six days after his arrest, he was tried and convicted of “plotting to rebel and making terrorism.” Turner was sentenced to death and hung from a tree on November 11, 1831.


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