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Nat Turner: Quick Facts

Larry Slawson received his master's degree at UNC Charlotte. He specializes in Russian and Ukrainian history.

Nat Turner

Nat Turner

Who Was Nat Turner?

  • Birth Name: Nathaniel “Nat” Turner
  • Date of Birth: October 2, 1800
  • Birth Place: Southampton, Virginia
  • Death: 11 November 1831 (31 Years of Age)
  • Cause of Death: Executed by Hanging
  • Nationality: African-American
  • Mother: Nancy
  • Father: Unknown
  • Occupation: Slave (Owned by Benjamin and Samuel Turner)
  • Best Known For: Leader of the Southampton Slave Insurrection (1831)
Artistic portrayal of Turner's capture.

Artistic portrayal of Turner's capture.

Turner's Life

  • Nathaniel “Nat” Turner was born into slavery on October 2, 1800. Although little is known about Turner’s parents, his mother also served as a slave on Benjamin and Samuel Turner’s plantation in Southampton County, Virginia. Turner’s grandmother, known as “Old Bridget,” reportedly came to the United States aboard a slave ship at the age of 13 from Ghana.
  • Historical records indicate that Nat Turner was extremely intelligent, even at a young age. Unwittingly, Turner’s plantation owners helped cultivate this aspect further; allowing Turner to learn how to read and write.
  • According to primary source materials, Nat Turner spent a great deal of his time reading the Bible, as well as preaching to slaves around Southampton. Following the death of his original master, Benjamin, Turner escaped from his plantation for nearly a month, before deciding to willingly come back. Upon returning, Turner claimed to have been given visions by God to lead a slave rebellion; believing himself to be a true prophet of God.
  • Turner used a solar eclipse (12 February 1831) as an opportunity to rouse his fellow slaves to rebellion; claiming that the eclipse was a divine sign from God. Several months later, the Sun once again took on a different shape and color, providing Turner with another “sign” of his divine mission. Numerous newspapers from this time describe how the Sun gave off “a grayish-blue light on the earth” (History). Scientists attribute this to an “atmospheric disturbance” caused by the eruption of Mt. Saint Helens in 1831, nearly 3,000 miles away from Virginia (History). Turner interpreted the solar event, however, as a divine miracle. In response, on the twenty-first of August, Turner and fellow slaves began their revolt with the slaying of numerous white individuals, including the Travis family of Southampton. Within just a few days, the rebels managed to kill over 60 men, women, and children before being put down by local militia groups.
  • Following the insurrection, Turner managed to slip away for nearly two months before being discovered by Benjamin Phipps. At his trial, Turner pleaded “not guilty” to the crime of slave insurrection; claiming that the rebellion was part of a divine act of God.
  • On November 11, 1831, Turner was publicly hanged after being found guilty of the slave rebellion. He was hanged along with several fellow slaves in Jerusalem, Virginia.
  • Turner’s slave rebellion prompted many changes across the South. Newer (and harsher) laws were quickly passed to prevent the radicalization of slaves, such as prohibitions on Black education. Moreover, organized efforts at emancipation in the South were quickly outlawed as well. As a result, public discord and tension between the North and South became even more pronounced in the days, months, and years that followed as the northern abolitionist movement ramped up attacks on slavery; citing the Nat Turner rebellion in their denunciation of slavery and its effects on slaves. Turner also became a central figure in the 1960s “Black power” movement.
  • Turner originally planned to take over the county seat of Jerusalem, Virginia during the slave insurrection. In doing so, Turner hoped to acquire possession of the local armory there. However, Turner and his men were severely outgunned by a local militia in the area.
  • Although only 40–50 slaves participated in the revolt, white mobs avenged the death of their fellow plantation owners by killing nearly 200 African Americans.

"Good communication is the bridge between confusion and clarity."

— Nat Turner

Quotes From Turner

  • “I had a vision—and I saw white spirits and Black spirits engaged in battle, and the sun was darkened—the thunder rolled in the Heavens, and blood flowed in streams. And I heard a voice saying, ‘Such is your luck, such are you called to see, and let it come rough or smooth, you must surely bear it.” —Nat Turner
  • “Having soon discovered to be great, I must appear so, and therefore studiously avoided mixing in society, and wrapped myself in mystery, devoting my time to fasting and prayer.” —Nat Turner
  • “Good communication is the bridge between confusion and clarity.” —Nat Turner
  • “It was unexpected. That’s just how it was. I don’t believe they were faster than us. I don’t believe they had more heart or dedication. It just fell on their side. That’s the reality of it.” —Nat Turner
Depiction of the rebellion

Depiction of the rebellion

His Lasting Impact

In his short lifespan, Nat Turner forever changed American history; setting the stage for violent confrontation between the North and South only thirty years later during the American Civil War. Through this brutal uprising, Turner managed to forever change the American psyche, as abolitionists and slaveholders alike used the rebellion as a means to further their own agendas. To this day, scholars continue to explore the life of Turner; unraveling new clues and facts about the famous slave leader. Only time will tell what new information can be learned about the life of Nat Turner and his followers.

Suggestions for Further Reading

Baker, Kyle. Nat Turner. New York, New York: Harry N. Abrams, 2008.

Gray, Thomas Ruffin. The Confessions of Nat Turner. 1831.

Greenberg, Kenneth S. Nat Turner: A Slave Rebellion in History and Memory. New York, New York: Oxford University Press, 2004.

Oates, Stephen B. The Fires of Jubilee: Nat Turner's Fierce Rebellion. New York, New York: Harper Perennial, 2016.

Works Cited

Articles/Books: Staff. "Nat Turner." 2009. Accessed August 18, 2018.

"Nat Turner." Wikipedia. August 18, 2018. Accessed August 18, 2018.

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

Questions & Answers

Question: What was the name of Nat Turner's child?

Answer: Scholars have been unable to determine (with certainty) whether or not Nat Turner had children. However, it is believed that Turner and his wife, Cherry Turner, may have had 1-3 kids throughout their marriage. Historians believe that one of these children was a slave named Riddick. Again though, this is only speculation and cannot be confirmed due to the lack of primary sources on this matter.

Question: What was Nat Turner's biggest achievement?

Answer: Nat Turner's greatest achievement was that he helped accentuate tensions between the North and South during the Antebellum Era. Through his rebellion, Turner's actions helped to galvanize the abolitionist movement into action against Southern slaveholders (even though his rebellion had ended in complete failure). In doing so, he unknowingly set the stage for Civil War nearly thirty years later, as the issue over slavery became increasingly contentious in the years and decades that followed Turner's insurrection. Without Nat Turner (or his rebellion), Civil War between the North and South may have been delayed for some time.

Question: Why where 200 slaves indiscriminately killed instead of the 50 actual participants of the revolt?

Answer: Southerners during this time were outraged that their slaves had rebelled in such a manner. To ensure that a revolt of this magnitude would never happen again, local militias decided to make an example of the rebellion by indiscriminately killing blacks that resided in the area. In doing so, they hoped that fear would keep other slaves from participating in future rebellions. Many historians believe that this murderous repression served to galvanize Northern abolitionists into action against slavery; thus, paving the way for the American Civil War only a few decades later.

© 2018 Larry Slawson


Cheryl E Preston from Roanoke on February 28, 2020:

Another excellent story. I’m sharing it with my grandson.

Larry Slawson (author) from North Carolina on April 26, 2019:

So glad it helped you out! Thanks for reading :)

Anonymous on April 26, 2019:

I read this for a school project and it helped me ALOT! Thanks, Owlcation

Liz Westwood from UK on August 19, 2018:

This is an inspiring and informative article.

Ronald E Franklin from Mechanicsburg, PA on August 18, 2018:

Interesting article. I've often wondered how, in the face of occurrences such as the Nat Turner rebellion, many slaveholders were able to deceive themselves into believing that slaves were happy in their bondage.

Robert Sacchi on August 18, 2018:

Good detail on some facts of Turner's life. From what I remember an freelance journalist interviewed Nat Turner in prison. I understand there is some controversy as to the accuracy of what the journalist wrote. What are your thoughts on this?

Nathan Bernardo from California, United States of America on August 18, 2018:

Interesting read. I read Frederick Douglass' autobiography awhile back and found it captivating. It's amazing to me how people in their positions do what they do. It's evidence that people can go against the status quo and know they're right, that there is something in them to break free of what is obviously wrong. Douglass' case he was able to make it to the North and keep doing his work.