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The Southampton Insurrection of 1831
By Nancy E. Sheppard

SHI31 imageThe early nineteenth century was a time of possible change within our infantile nation. While many states had started to move away from the institution of chattel slavery, it was still alive and well within the Commonwealth of Virginia. This form of slavery, which dehumanized the enslaved blacks and relegated them to the level of property and animals, was debated in Richmond. Proponents called for emancipation and some even went so far as to advocate to send freed blacks to a colony in Africa. The fundamental problem therein was that very few blacks in the country were born in Africa. Still, they suffered a brutal existence since birth. Aside from the tortuous life they endured and the dehumanization of their being, they were not allowed to enter into legal marriages and were forced to stand by while slaveowners did unthinkable things to their brothers and sisters. Generations of living in this degrading manner caused lifetimes of pain, vengeance, and brutality towards an institution that told them that their very lives were not worthy of being recognized as human.

It was this world that Nat Turner was born into in Southampton County on October 2, 1800. From an early age, his fellow slaves recognized him as having something "different” about him. His owner, Benjamin Turner, allowed Nat to be taught how to read, write, and tutored in matters of religion. Nat was positively enthralled by his studies; showing great promise, intellect, and an unparalleled understanding of Biblical teachings. As he grew, he showed promise as a natural orator and intellectual, spending his Sundays preaching to fellow slaves in Reverend Whitehead’s churchyard at Barnes Methodist Church. Initially, Nat turned to the Bible for guidance regarding the enslavement of his people. He thought the Bible was trying to say that it was God’s way to keep them subservient to their masters. He spent considerable time fasting and praying; living a life that seemed to be in line with Christian teachings.

In 1821, Nat ran away from his master, but returned after only thirty days at "the spirit’s urging.” The following year, he was sold to Thomas Moore. He married and had a child with his wife. But his wife and son were soon ripped away from him, taken to live on the farm of Piety Reese.

During this time, Nat had a series of visions that led him to change his stance on the place of slavery within his society. He reported that the Holy Ghost came to him, showing him a great war between blacks and whites. He saw drops of blood on cornstalks and hieroglyphs upon the leaves telling him they were not to serve the masters of this world. He was convinced it was his manifest destiny to overthrow the slave masters and unite all people – black and white. A series of atmospheric phenomenon led him to be more convinced than ever. This once pious, passive man was to take up arms and lead his people to freedom and unification.

In 1830, Nat was moved to the farm of Joseph Travis (the new husband of the widow of Thomas Moore). There, he confided in several fellow slaves of the prophecies he had. Together, they made a plan to lead an insurrection in Southampton County, freeing the slaves and uniting all people together. Though their first chosen date was thwarted by illness, the new date was set for August 21, 1831.

Check out next week’s Yorktown Crier-Poquoson Post for Part 2!


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