Nathanial “Nat” Turner (1800-1831) was a black American slave who led the only effective, sustained slave rebellion (August 1831) in U.S. history. Spreading terror throughout the white South, his action set off a new wave of oppressive legislation prohibiting the education, movement, and assembly of slaves and stiffened proslavery, antiabolitionist convictions that persisted in that region until the American Civil War (1861–65).
He 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 African-American slaves on Benjamin Turner’s plantation and in his Southampton County neighbourhood, 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 slaves in the area. An insurrection was planned, aborted, and rescheduled for August 21,1831, when he and six other slaves killed the Travis family, managed to secure arms and horses, and enlisted about 75 other slaves in a disorganized insurrection that resulted in the murder of 51 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 slaves, 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.