1831 Reports

Horrid Massacre

What happened in Southampton County on August 21-22, 1831, is fairly well established. What we know about Nat Turner is less so: what motivated him—and how he in turn motivated his followers—is open to speculation. We know that he was born in Virginia on October 8, 1780, that he grew up in Southampton County, that he was married, and that he attempted to run away in 1825 but returned on his own accord. The contemporary reports exhibited here establish most of the Turner tropes that would get recycled again and again over the next 135 years. As Patrick Breen notes, the physical descriptions put out during the two months Turner was missing have motivation to be accurate. Other descriptions of Turner and of what happened during the rebellion might be less reliable as they are mediated by lawyers and journalists who brought their biases to their “authentic” and “impartial” reports. Scholars have debated the extent to which these sources do and do not deviate from the truth. The spectrum of portrayals are both repeated and contradicted in these texts.