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American Slave, Leader of a Slave Revolt (1800-1831)

In the most important and best-documented slave insurrection in Southern history, Nat Turner, son of an African-born slave mother in Southampton County, Virginia, led an uprising of sixty or seventy slaves.  As his remarkable confession indicates, he was a precocious youth and became a preacher motivated by mystical voices to fulfill a dream to liberate his people.  He admitted that his own master, Joseph Travis, was a kind person, yet he and his family were the first to be slaughtered.  At least 51 were murdered the night of the uprising, August 21, 1831.  The details are given in the Confessions below.  This event took on the special significance to Southerners because the Southern press had reported insurrections in at least a half dozen places in the Caribbean or West Indies and one in North Carolina.  (There is no proof of concerted conspiracy between Turner and the principals of the Carolina episode, however.) 

Following the massacre, the community tracked down suspects and killed an undetermined number, and the Court ordered sixteen executed and many more jailed.  Nat Turner went to the gallows, saying that he had nothing to add to his confession.  The Nat Turner insurrection shocked the South and led most slave-state legislatures to pass stringent codes for policing.  The flourishing emancipation movement in the South began to falter, Southerners came to believe that the revolt was connected with the rise of abolitionism, specifically with the publication of "Garrison's Liberator" in that same year of 1831, but this has never been proved.  More tangible is the fact that Southerners never quite recovered from the fear of incipient slave insurrections despite the wordy reassurances of Thomas R. Dew and the proslavery propagandists that there was nothing to fear.  

Revised: July 18, 2013.