Finding the Bones of Nat Turner, American Rebel

Nat Turner’s 1831 rebellion struck fear throughout the slaveholding South, which sought to quash his legacy. Historians are making new discoveries about the enslaved preacher and his rebels in an effort to reclaim his story.

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.

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