Nathanial “Nat” Turner (1800-1831) was an enslaved man who led a rebellion of enslaved people on August 21, 1831. His action set off a massacre of up to 200 black people and a new wave of oppressive legislation prohibiting the education, movement, and assembly of enslaved people. The rebellion also stiffened proslavery, anti-abolitionist convictions that persisted in that region until the American Civil War (1861–65).
Turner was born on the Virginia plantation of Benjamin Turner, who allowed him to be instructed in reading, writing, and religion. Sold three times in his childhood and hired out to John Travis (1820s), he became a fiery preacher and leader of enslaved Africans on Benjamin Turner’s plantation and in his Southampton County neighborhood, claiming that he was chosen by God to lead them from bondage.
Believing in signs and hearing divine voices, Turner was convinced by an eclipse of the sun (1831) that the time to rise up had come, and he enlisted the help of four other enslaved men in the area. An insurrection was planned, aborted, and rescheduled for August 21,1831, when he and six others killed the Travis family, managed to secure arms and horses, and enlisted about 75 other enslaved people in a disorganized insurrection that resulted in the murder of an estimated 55 white people.
Afterwards, Turner hid nearby successfully for six weeks until his discovery, conviction, and hanging at Jerusalem, Virginia, along with 16 of his followers. The incident put fear in the heart of Southerners, ended the organized emancipation movement in that region, resulted in even harsher laws against enslaved people, and deepened the schism between slave-holders and free-soilers (an anti-slavery political party whose slogan was ‘free soil, free speech, free labor, and free men’) that would culminate in the Civil War.