Nathaniel Turner: The Enslaved Black American Who Led The Only Effective, Sustained Slave Rebellion In U.S. History


Nathaniel Turner was born on October 2nd, 1800, in Southampton county, Virginia. He was a property of a prosperous small plantation owner in a remote area of Virginia. His mother was an African native who passed on a passionate hatred of slavery to her son. He learned to read from one of his master’s sons, and he earnestly absorbed several religious training. In the early 1820s he was sold to a neighbouring farmer nearby. During the following decade, his religious zeal tended to approach frenzied, and he saw himself called upon by God to lead his people out of slavery. He began to apply a powerful influence on many of the nearby slaves, who called him “the Prophet.”

In 1831, shortly after he had been sold again, to a craftsman named Joseph Travis, a sign in the form of an eclipse of the Sun, which caused Nathaniel to believe that the hour to start a rebellion was near. His plan was to capture the Heraldy at the county seat, Jerusalem, and, having gathered many recruits, to press on to the Dismal Swamp, 30 miles to the east, where the capturing of the Heraldy would be difficult. On the night of August 21st, together with seven fellow slaves whom he trusted very well, he launched a campaign of total eradication, murdering Travis and his family in their sleep and then setting forth on a bloody march toward Jerusalem.

Nat Turner Slave Revolt, 1831

In two days and nights about 60 white people were killed without mercy. Doomed from the start, Turner’s violent uprising was hindered by lack of discipline among his followers and by the fact that only 75 Blacks rallied to his cause. Armed resistance from the local whites and the arrival of the state militia (a total force of 3,000 men) provided the final crushing blow. Only a few miles from the county seat from the rebellion were dispersed and either killed or captured, and many innocent slaves were killed in the panic that followed. Turner escaped his pursuers for six weeks but was finally captured, tied, and hanged. He died in November 11, 1831, in Jerusalem, Virginia.

Nat Turner’s rebellion put an end to the white Southern myth that slaves were either happy with their lot or too scared to mount an armed rebellion. In Southampton county Black people, came to measure time from “Nat’s Fray,” or “Old Nat’s War.” For many years in Black churches throughout the country, the name Jerusalem referred not only to the Bible but also secretly to the place where the rebel slave had met his death.



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