This story appears in the January/February 2017 issue of National Geographic History magazine.
In the Colonies, slavery and resistance were restless bedfellows, as evidenced by several large-scale attempts to end the institution. Denmark Vesey’s 1822 plot in South Carolina, Gabriel Prosser’s 1800 conspiracy in Richmond, Virginia, Toussaint L’Ouverture’s successful liberation of Haiti in 1791, the 1739 Stono Rebellion in South Carolina, and the countless revolts that took place on land and sea, shaped the revolutionary spirit of enslaved African people. Freedom was always on the minds of the enslaved, and Nat Turner was no exception.
Nat Turner’s rebellion came at a crucial time, more than 20 years after the closing of the trans-atlantic slave trade in 1808, which heightened debates around both the morality and sustainability of slavery. By 1831, abolitionists were using the accounts of former slaves to illustrate its horrors, while southern planters, struggling to justify the institution, were claiming enslaved people were content.
Turner and his soldiers were planning an undeniable testimony of their own; a full-scale war against an institution and all who controlled it. Turner’s rebels numbered up to 70 and killed at least 55 whites over the course of two days in August 1831. The rebellion’s impact cannot be understated: It stoked panic all over the slave-holding South, resulting in the brutal lynchings of hundreds of African Americans, most of whom were not associated with Turner or his cause. It also led to stricter regulations in both the enslaved and free black communities, making their limited freedoms even more precious. Southern slaveholders clung more tightly to the institution, even though its inherent faults and frailties were becoming more obvious.
Turner and his soldiers were eventually caught and executed, their remains scattered or buried in unmarked graves in an attempt to blot out their existence. Although many have tried to silence Nat’s story, the rebellion is too compelling to ignore. It is a key moment in the continuous quest for enslaved African Americans to gain the basic human rights denied to them: life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.
Today in Southampton County, several landmarks that existed in Turner’s time still dot the landscape, but the place itself looks very different. Modern roads cut through places where slaves once lived, died, and fought for their freedom, creating historical intersections between the past and the present. It is at these cross- roads—and others like it—that many American stories sit unearthed, and untold. What do we do with the controversial players in our past?
What stands in Southampton that reminds us of this history? It is here that I hope to uncover more about Turner and his band of rebels in an attempt to reassemble this lost history.
Historians know very little about Turner’s life before the rebellion. Fictional works, such as William Styron’s Pulitzer Prize-winning 1967 novel, The Confessions of Nat Turner, reimagined Turner and left a wake of controversy surrounding his depiction. More recently, Nate Parker’s critically acclaimed film, The Birth of a Nation, humanized Turner as a man, a son, a husband, and a father who reaches a breaking point. These works attempt to re-create the 19th century, interface with our collective knowledge of the time, and ignite our historical imaginations. The historical records provide only a skeleton of information, which leaves a blank slate to fill with our own subjective narratives.
Historians face greater narrative challenges than novelists or filmmakers when trying to reconstruct Turner’s life and death. Like the vast majority of enslaved people, Turner’s life history was not recorded or preserved in letters or journals as were the Founding Fathers’. This absence provides steep challenges for scholars, who have very little traditional evidence to consult. Available records provide basic information from wills and inventories, giving researchers small clues as to the names and worth of individuals. Consulting alternative sources—archaeological evidence, material culture, architecture, and oral histories—is key in discerning the details of slave life. These resources are essential in piecing together the experiences of many African Americans.
In Nat Turner’s case, historical records list his name, his owners, and suggest his familial connections. Oral histories can be relied on for general overviews, but they are highly subjective and continuously changing over time. Nat’s most infamous entry into American history is woven through historical newspapers and letters from the era that mention the rebellion. Attorney Thomas Ruffin Gray, a white Southerner, published what he claimed was Nat’s confession given to him as he awaited trial. The Confessions of Nat Turner is considered by many to be the primary source for information on the rebellion, although Gray’s neutrality has rightfully been called into question by historians. Gray was in serious debt, and some believe the book was an attempt to make some quick cash. The Confessions of Nat Turner is one of the only sources that reveals both the details of Nat’s life and his motivation, as interpreted by Gray.
Despite this scarcity of reliable written sources, there is still much to learn about Turner and his army. It is possible this entire story will never be known, but new evidence is shedding light on his life and even his death.
Nat Turner was born on October 2, 1800, to an enslaved woman named Nancy, who was captured from West Africa. His father, presumed to be a slave named Abraham, ran away from the Southampton, Virginia, plantation when Nat was about ten years old, and his fate is unknown. By 1831, Nat Turner and his family had passed through the hands of several different owners. He was born into slavery on the Benjamin Turner plantation and given as a gift, along with his mother and grandmother, to Benjamin’s son Samuel around 1809, and formally willed in 1810. By 1822, Samuel had died, and his widow, Elizabeth Turner, oversaw Nat until she married Thomas Moore, who took formal ownership of Nat in 1823. After Elizabeth’s death, Moore married Sally Francis, who became a widow and then married Joseph Travis, Nat’s last master, although Sally’s 10-year-old son, Putnam, was legally Nat’s owner.
By 1830, Southampton County was home to 6,573 whites, 1,745 free blacks, and 7,756 enslaved African Americans. This majority black county was a typical Virginia slave-holding community, with plantation owners in Southampton possessing on average a dozen or so slaves. The plantation homes themselves were simple, two-story dwellings with modest furnishings and surrounded by acreage consumed by corn, wheat, cotton, and a little tobacco. These houses were relatively small in scale compared to the mansions on the James River, and by no means resembled the iconic plantation homes seen in popular films. Nonetheless, the slave-owning families were wealthy, including Joseph Travis, Nat’s last owner, who lived on 411 acres and had 17 slaves working his property in 1830.
Records show that Nat married an enslaved woman named Cherry who lived on a neighboring plantation, and they had at least one child, a son named Reddick. Nat would have to obtain a pass from his masters to visit his family. If he were caught without one, it would lead to violent punishment or being sold away from his loved ones. Slave patrollers haunted the lands between plantations, waiting to catch a slave walking between properties without a pass. These patrollers were typically lower-class whites, and some abused their power to wrongfully accuse and punish enslaved people. Maintaining a family under these conditions proved challenging for men and women like Nat and Cherry.
According to oral history and the testimony in Confessions, Nat’s family and community believed he was a blessed child. He had particular markings on his body that his grandmother identified as divine. Anecdotes say he knew about past events that were never told to him, and he experienced several visions that solidified his belief that he was chosen by God to fight.
Nat was largely raised by his foremothers, all of whom were African women, who undoubtedly retained much of their cultural roots. Nat was born at the height of the Second Great Awakening, a religious movement that popularized evangelical Protestantism throughout the states. The dominant rhetoric surrounding this movement masked much of the traditional West African religious practices. Enslaved African people worshipped in churches, in prayer houses, and in segregated spaces throughout Nat’s life. They were forced to convert to Christianity, but many resisted, including the significant number of Muslim slaves who occupied the plantation South. The majority of enslaved folks privately practiced a combination of Christianity and West African religions. But one thing was clear: The white slave-owning South wanted obedience through Christianity. It is in this religious landscape where Nat’s story took root.
Nat was deemed a highly intelligent and trustworthy leader. He learned to read, even though literacy among slaves was not widespread, but more common than expected. Many enslaved domestics were taught to read at a basic level in order to maintain a seamlessly functioning household. Those who worked in the fields were less likely to learn, but nonetheless they attempted despite the threat of punishment. Many slaveholders viewed literate slaves as dangerous to the institution of slavery, as literacy could be a doorway to faking passes or reading abolitionist newspapers.
Because Nat could read, he became well versed in the Bible and eventually showed a talent for preaching. Slave owners often relied on the Bible both as justification for, and solace from, their guilt in enslaving fellow human beings. Ignoring portions of the book that focused on liberation of slaves, they often promoted the passages that affirmed slavery; part of the reason literacy was determined to be so dangerous was the possibility of exposure to portions of the Bible that contradicted their narrowly chosen Sunday sermons.
White slaveholders saw Nat’s talents as a way to strengthen the message of “Christian” submission by using a black messenger: hiring him out to preach at neighboring plantations. As Nat preached, his perception sharpened, as the abuse he witnessed further rendered slavery an unnecessary evil, and undoubtedly inspired much reflection. Nat was trusted, he was literate, and he was becoming more aware of the hypocritical world he lived in. His faith in God, his visions, and his West African cultural knowledge afforded him a unique confidence in his destiny.
After 31 years as a slave, a decade of preaching, and a lifetime of slavery’s brutality, Nat Turner made a choice that forever changed the direction of the United States. He spent years planning his revolt, inspired by tales of Prosser, Vesey, and others. Records show that he was outspoken in his beliefs that blacks should be free, and that freedom would be theirs one day; an opinion for which he was whipped in 1828.
In February 1831, Nat witnessed a solar eclipse, which he interpreted as a sign from God to carry out his plan. It is rumored that Nat wanted to revolt on July 4th, likely inspired by his affirmative visions and the events of the American Revolution from just 55 years previous. Patrick Henry’s heroism and famous words “Give me liberty or give me death” were spoken by whites every year on the 4th of July, and overheard by the enslaved. Nat’s plan to organize an army for the 4th fell short, as sources say he became nervous and abandoned the plot at that time.
By August, however, his plan began to solidify, and in the night hours of August 21, 1831, Hark Moore, Henry Porter, Nelson Edwards, Sam Francis, Will Francis, and Jack Reese met in the woods, roasted a pig, drank brandy, and waited for Nat to arrive. Turner showed up: sober, determined, and courageous. They were to risk all they knew, all that they loved, to fight to end the institution of slavery as they knew it. Turner’s story is shared with the rebels who fought by his side, who all gave their life to try to gain freedom. These soldiers have descendants, too, and a legacy to be defined alongside Turner.
Armed with conviction and minimal weapons, they marched to Joseph Travis’s house, where Nat Turner’s owners lived, and started their war in the depths of the night. By the end of two days, Nat and his group of rebels, which had grown to over 70 people, proceeded throughout the county on their way to Jerusalem, Virginia, and killed approximately 55 whites, including women and children.
The rebellion was put down, the rebels were captured—many killed without trial—but Nat Turner escaped into the woods and successfully hid for two months. Some say he had help from the neighboring Nottaway Indians, others say his loyal friends and family risked their own safety to bring him food. Nat chose to stay in Southampton, and while patrols were heightened, one must wonder if he was planning a resurgence. But on October 30, Turner was found hiding in the woods and taken to Jerusalem, where he was swiftly sentenced to death by hanging. It was during his short stay in the county jail cell where Thomas Gray took down his confessions.
On Friday, November 11, 1831, Nat Turner was hanged at high noon. The November 14, 1831, Norfolk Herald reported that:
“He betrayed no emotion, but appeared to be utterly reckless in the awful fate that awaited him and even hurried his executioner in the performance of his duty! Precisely at 12 o’clock he was launched into eternity.”
In the aftermath of the revolt, Virginia and North Carolina experienced a rash of violence against blacks. White vigilantes took it upon themselves to strike fear into the black communities by murdering dozens of innocent African Americans. The Richmond Whig reported:
“... It is with pain that we speak of another feature of the Southampton Rebellion; for we have been most unwilling to have our sympathies for the sufferers diminished or affected by their misconduct. We allude to the slaughter of many blacks, without trial, and under circumstances of great barbarity ...”
Terror ran through both black and white communities: Whites feared more rebellions, blacks feared more unjust killings. The rebellion inspired the Virginia Slavery Debate that occurred during the 1831-32 sesson of the House of Delegates, and is considered one of the first significant strides toward the Civil War. Nat Turner’s rebellion, one of the most significant events of the 19th century, forced the nation to confront slavery. However, it remains a little-taught story because the rebels’ actions are among the most controversial in American history.
Much of the demonization of Turner and his soldiers comes from their murder of women and children. Such drastic measures are cumbersome to digest when revisiting this controversial chapter in America’s collective history, as are the 246 years of systematic cruelty toward enslaved men, women, and children. In the eyes of enslaved people, children were not innocent bystanders, but active beneficiaries in the system of slavery: They could own slaves, inherit wealth, possess power, and encompass white supremacist ideologies. Enslaved children and women were not given the freedom or innocence of their white counterparts. This hypocrisy undoubtedly fed into the perceived righteousness of the rebels. Slave-owning children represented the future of the institution, and a never-ending cycle of abuse. Nat’s story is one of action spurred on by desperation and determination, one that complicates polarized thinking.
At different times, and by different people, Turner has been interpreted as a religious fanatic, a cold-blooded killer, a hero, and a freedom fighter. In October 2016, the world was reintroduced to Nat Turner in the film The Birth of a Nation, where he reaches his tipping point after witnessing brutality after brutality at the hands of white slaveholders. He breaks free and takes a stand. Because of this film, Nat Turner entered American consciousness again, but this time as a contested hero. This film has also done something unique by causing scores of conversations about Nat’s history, which ultimately connected the Turner descendants to National Geographic, all with an interest in further exploration.
As a scholar of slavery in Virginia and a consultant on the film The Birth of a Nation, I found myself in search of more concrete answers about Nat’s life. As a historical archaeologist, I often read the written records for clues to the answers buried in the earth. My work on the film piqued my own curiosity about Nat, and I found myself in Southampton County on a rainy September day in 2016, standing alongside the Turner family and a film crew from National Geographic.
Local history in Southampton is incredibly rich. Families have lived there, alongside each other for generations, which makes for incredible oral history and a complicated legacy. Several people noted that just off the main road lie the unmarked sites of Nat’s execution—the “hanging tree”—and of the graves of Nat and his rebels.
No grave marker exists for Nat Turner, nor for his fellow soldiers. The rebels were caught, tried, and executed in different places, and their scattered remains lie under unmarked soil. Nat Turner’s burial is somewhat mysterious, both in detail and in location. According to historical accounts, Nat Turner’s body was dismembered, his head removed, and his skin used to make keepsakes. Oral history tells of a coin purse and a lampshade made from Turner’s skin, as well as a patch of dried skin nailed to a wooden plank that has been circulating in private collections for the past 185 years. Nat Turner’s skull is no exception, which, until recently, was held in a private collection in Gary, Indiana. Harvesting out body parts as relics was commonplace for notorious criminals, and is tethered to burial legends associated with Turner’s interrment. The rest of his remains, whether whole or dismembered, could lie in a potter’s field adjacent to the hanging tree.
In September 2016, I stood near the rumored burial site: a narrow road near a railroad crossing. The plot was heavily covered with vines and brush, and garbage littered the roadside. With help from the James River Institute for Archaeology, National Geographic, the Southampton County clerk Rick Francis (a descendant of both survivors and victims of the Turner rebellion), and the blessings and presence of several Turner descendants, I began the quest to find these rebels, acknowledge their contributions, and eventually repatriate them to a respectful place.
To signify the importance of this moment, we poured libations with Haitian rum directly on the ground of the first test unit of the presumed graveyard. At first, our efforts turned up roadside debris and gravel, but then we started to find some ceramics, typical of those from the 19th century. Digging continued, and within minutes, shovel hit bone. Excavation halted, and the findings were packed up and sent to the Smithsonian for analysis. After testing, the bones were confirmed to be human, a discovery that takes us closer to the chance to recover these lost Americans and give them a reburial befitting the freedom fighters that they were. Work at the site will continue, and hopefully a fuller story will be told. Standing there, at the crossroads, 2016 touched 1831, and the cracks in the story began to seal.
At its heart, Nat Turner’s rebellion is a story about fear; fear of a lifetime of slavery versus fear of rebellion. These factors drove this episode in ways unthinkable to the uninvolved, but which invite investigation and judgment from those displaced by location or time. American freedom fighters are deemed heroic: The United States was born out of rebellion, but the notion of liberty has resonated differently depending on who fights for it. Is all liberty treated equal? Was Nat Turner also a freedom fighter? If the past is everything that happened before now, and history is what we choose to remember, what is the history of Nat Turner? What is his legacy? How will it change with the evidence that lies under the crossroads in Southampton?
On October 7, 2016, National Geographic and members of the Turner family again found themselves at an important place: Gary, Indiana. Nat Turner’s presumed skull was handed over after 185 years of residing in the hands of personal collectors. In an emotional transaction, Turner’s skull was finally in the possession of his family. While extensive DNA testing is underway, the ceremonial gesture is nonetheless a moment of restorative justice. His bones, some scattered beneath the soil, are coming together as a result of a film, a family, and a moment unmatched by any other in our collective pasts. What will come of this is still unknown, but the bones are speaking and giving us answers to an American mystery.