NAT TURNER: A Troublesome Property

Slave Rebellions

About Nat Turner

Historical drawing of Nat Turner in coat and hatHistorical painting of Turner in

the woods, planning the revolt with his menHistorical drawing of armed slaves attacking white slave owners

Born on October 2, 1800, in Southampton County, Virginia, Nat Turner was only a young boy when people heard him describing events that had occurred before he was born. An intelligent child, he was soon labeled as a prophet and became deeply religious.

In 1821, Turner ran away from his master, Samuel Turner, but came back after a month because he had a vision in which he was told to return. After his master died the following year, Nat Turner was sold to a man named Thomas Moore. In 1830, Turner was moved to the home of Joseph Travis, the new husband of Thomas Moore's widow. His official owner, Putnum Moore, was still a child.

During this time Turner continued to have visions, seeing lights in the sky and interpreting them through prayer. He took a solar eclipse as a sign to stage an insurrection. On the night of August 21, 1831, Turner and six of his men met in the woods to make plans. They snuck out to the Travis household in the middle of the night, killing the entire family as it slept. They continued going from house to house, killing the white people they encountered. Turner's force eventually consisted of more than 40 slaves, most of them traveling on horseback.

On the afternoon of August 22, Turner started marching towards Jerusalem, the closest town. But by then, word of the rebellion had gotten out to the whites, and they were confronted by a group of militia. Turner and his men attempted to attack another house, but several of the rebels were captured. The remaining force then fought state and federal troops in a skirmish in which one slave was killed and many escaped, including Turner. In the end, the rebels killed at least 50 people.


Painting of Nat Turner being hanged to death
Nat Turner hid in several different places near the Travis farm before he was captured on October 30. His “confession," dictated to Thomas R. Gray, was taken while he was imprisoned in the county jail. On November 5, Turner was tried in the Southampton County Court and sentenced to death. He was hanged, and then skinned, on November 11.

In total, the state executed 55 people and banished many more. The state reimbursed the slaveholders for their slaves. But in the hysterical climate that followed Turner’s revolt, close to 200 black people—many of whom had nothing to do with the rebellion—were murdered by white mobs. Slaves as far away as North Carolina were accused of having a connection with the revolt and were subsequently executed.

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