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Proclamation Concerning Nat Turner

  • Proclamation Concerning Nat Turner by Governor Floyd, September 17, 1831
  • Proclamation Concerning Nat Turner by Governor Floyd, September 17, 1831
This proclamation naming Nat Turner a fugitive included a description of the revolt leader.
Related documents:
  • Gabriel's Conspiracy Testimony
    Testimony in the Trial of Gabriel, October 6, 1800
  • Song about Henry Box Brown
    Song about Henry Box Brown's Escape from Slavery, 1849
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Proclamation Concerning Nat Turner by Governor Floyd, September 17, 1831

On August 23, 1831, Governor John Floyd received a note from the Southampton County postmaster stating "that an insurrection of the slaves in that county had taken place, that several families had been massacred and that it would take a considerable military force to put them down." At least fifty-five white people, many of them women and children, died before a massive force of militiamen and armed volunteers converged on the region and put down the insurrection. Angry white vigilantes killed dozens of slaves and drove hundreds of free persons of color into exile in the reign of terror that followed.

Early newspaper reports identified the Southampton insurgents as a leaderless mob of runaway slaves that rose out of the Dismal Swamp to wreak havoc on unsuspecting white families. Military leaders and others on the scene soon confirmed that the rebels were not runaways but slaves from local plantations. Reports of as many as 450 participants gave way to revised estimates of perhaps 60 armed men and boys, many of them coerced into joining. The confessions of prisoners and the interrogation of eyewitnesses pointed to a small group of ringleaders, one of which was an enslaved preacher by the name of Nat Turner. Attention focused on Turner; it was his "imagined spirit of prophecy" and his extraordinary powers of persuasion, local authorities reported, that had turned obedient slaves into bloodthirsty killers. Turner's ability to elude capture for more than two months only enhanced his mythic stature.

While Turner remained at large, rumors of a wider slave conspiracy flourished. An abolitionist writer named Samuel Warner suggested that Turner had hidden himself in the Dismal Swamp with an army of runaways at his disposal. State officials took pains to ensure that Turner lived to stand trial by offering a $500 reward for his capture and delivery to jail. On October 30, 1831, Turner surrendered to a local farmer who found him hiding in a cave. Local planter and lawyer Thomas R. Gray interviewed Turner in his jail cell, recorded his "Confessions," and published them as a pamphlet shortly after Turner was tried, convicted, and executed. Turner insisted that God had given him a sign to act, that he had shared his plans with only a few trusted followers, and that he knew nothing of any wider conspiracy extending beyond the Southampton County area. Certified as authentic by six local magistrates and said to be authorized by Turner himself, the "Confessions" became the definitive but controversial source for nearly all subsequent accounts of the event.

Turner's revolt prompted a prolonged debate in the Virginia General Assembly. While many statesmen adhered to the Jeffersonian idea that the ending of slavery was desirable, no coherent plan for eventual abolition emerged. In fact, Virginia's sponsorship of colonization to Africa, a popular solution to the problem, in reality became simply a way to remove free blacks, who were thought to be a bad influence on slaves. Instead of advocating freedom for slaves, some prominent Virginians developed a positive argument for slavery's good based on their readings of the Bible and classical history. As a result of Turner's actions, Virginia's legislators enacted more laws to limit the activities of African Americans, both free and enslaved. The freedom of slaves to communicate and congregate was directly attacked. No one could assemble a group of African Americans to teach reading or writing, nor could anyone be paid to teach a slave. Preaching by slaves and free blacks was forbidden.

For Educators

Questions

1. Where did Nat Turner's Rebellion take place?

2. How many people were killed?

3. What motivated Turner and his followers? What were their goals?

Further Discussion

1. In discussing his motivation to start a revolt, Nat Turner stated that God had given him a sign to act. What was Turner's religious background? Why was religion among African Americans a part of the white response to the rebellion?

2. What was the connection between illiteracy and slavery? Why did southerners take steps to keep African Americans from learning to read and write? What role did literacy among African Americans play in the rebellion?

Links

Learn more in Death or Liberty: Gabriel, Nat Turner, and John Brown (LVA exhibition: January 10, 2000—November 8, 2000)

Lesson Plan: Nat Turner Rebellion

This Day in Virginia: October 31

Suggested Reading

French, Scot. The Rebellious Slave: Nat Turner in American Memory. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 2004.

Santoro, Anthony. "The Prophet in His Own Words: Nat Turner's Biblical Construction." Virginia Magazine of History and Biography 116 (2008): 114–149.

Wolf, Eva Sheppard. Race and Liberty in the New Nation: Emancipation in Virginia from the Revolution to Nat Turner's Rebellion. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 2006.

By the Governor of the Commonwealth of Virginia
A Proclamation
Whereas the slave Nat, otherwise called Nat Turner, the contriver and leader of the late Insurrection in Southampton, is still going at large: Therefore I, John Floyd, Governor of the Commonwealth of Virginia have thought proper, and do hereby offer a reward of five hundred dollars to any person or persons who will apprehend and convey to the Jail of Southampton County, the said slave Nat: and I do moreover require all officers civil and military, and exhort the good people of the Commonwealth to use their best endeavors to cause the said fugitive to be apprehended, that he may be dealt with as the law directs.
Given under my hand as Governor, and under the lesser Seal of the Commonwealth at Richmond, this 17th. day of Septemr: 1831.
John Floyd
Nat is between 30 & 35 years old, 5 feet 6 or 8 inches high, weighs between 150 and 160 lbs. rather bright complexion but not a mulatto-broad shouldered-large flat nose-large eyes-broad flat feet-rather knock-kneed-walks brisk and active-hair on the top of the head very thin-no beard except on the upper lip, and the tip of the chin-a scar on one of his temples produced by the kick of a mule-also one on the back of his neck by a bite-a large knot on one of the bones of his right arm, near the wrist, produced by a blow