The Reckoning of Nat Turner

Following his hanging, the body was beheaded and skinned by local physicians. Skinned.

Nat Turner was executed on November 11, 1831. His death was intended to signal an end to further resistance by those held in bondage, however, Turner’s slave revolt served as a catalyst for debate over the viability of slavery and the disposition of free blacks.

The Benign Trail

For years before the arrival of Levi and Catherine Coffin in October of 1826, the yet unincorporated village of Newport, Indiana had seen the passage of fugitive slaves making their way north. With a large Quaker population, many, like the Coffins, having come from the slave state of North Carolina, those seeking shelter while on their journey to Canada found food, shelter in the town’s barns and sheds and little enforcement of laws prohibiting the assisting of escaping slaves.

Joining others in the community, the Coffins opened their doors to freedom seekers. All indications of the times suggest a state of salutary neglect in the enforcement of both state and federal fugitive slave laws as well as denominational prohibitions. For the first five years of the Coffins’ tenure in what is now Fountain City, Indiana, their active participation in the Underground Railroad provided no serious opposition or sanctions. This situation changed radically in the fall of 1831.


CREDIT: “Horrid massacre in Virginia,” 1831(?). Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress. Reproduction Number LC-USZ62-38902.

The historical events that occurred in Southampton County, Virginia beginning on the night of August 21, 1831 are well documented. The complex interpretation of the events commonly known as Nat Turner’s Revolt continues 181 years afterwards. Balancing innocent deaths against the incidental participation of those for whom slavery was an accepted institution defies simple analysis. Fifty-seven white civilians, largely women and children – to include infants – were brutally slaughtered. Retaliations and retribution followed.

Turner’s armed followers numbered around fifty fellow slaves. Fifty-six were officially tried and executed for the revolt, while over two hundred African-Americans, both free and in bondage, were summarily killed with complete impunity by enraged white mobs. These victims played no part in the revolt and were guilty of no more than being the fantastic objects of rage and racial hysteria. While the statistics will forever confound attempts to fairly portray a measured sense of justice or culpability, the aftermath of the uprising can explain many national developments of the 1830s.

The Die is Cast

It is not without respect that I compare the shockwaves of anxiety Turner’s slave insurrection spread across the country with those felt immediately after 9-11. As black populations grew in size within the slave states, the specter of even more spectacular acts of violence against whites grew to unreasonable proportions. In the South, legislatures responded to the uprising with laws that severely restricted the movement of slave as well as free persons of color.

In the months following Turner’s hanging and mutilation, the Virginia Legislature narrowly voted down a proposal to end slavery in 1832 by a margin of 58 for and 73 opposed. Though that measure failed, Virginia established some of the most restrictive slave laws of the region. Further south, states such as Louisiana and Mississippi eased interstate slave trade restrictions to accommodate their own growing overdependence upon slaves while also satisfying the desire of more northern slave states who sought to greatly lessen their slave and free black populations.

During the 1835 construction of a new state constitution, North Carolina included a provision that required newly manumitted persons to forevermore depart the state within 90 days of receiving their freedom. Though this law did not apply to free blacks already living in the state, it was clear that opportunities for any free person of color were rapidly disappearing save but colonization efforts that did relocated some to Liberia.

An Unwelcomed Diaspora – continued in next post

In the second part of this article, Free Blacks leave their native slave states for an uncertain future in Indiana, a state that had already enacted laws to discourage African-Americans. In doing so, this influx of people began to forever change the makeup of Indiana’s Underground Railroad.


2 responses to “The Reckoning of Nat Turner”

  1. The National Parks Service actually has a pretty good web site on the UGRR. I don’t live that far from Boston and last month I had an opportunity to visit the refurbished African Meeting House on Beacon Hill. The history of the place with Frederick Douglass and William Lloyd Garrison speaking there many times in the early days of the abolitionist era. The site below has links to all the UGRR designated places on the NPS/National Historical site roster.

    Many other links to various aspects of the movement including the Levi Coffman home for those interested. Just finished “All on Fire” a few weeks ago and the Nat Turner incident was a catalyst in expanding the subscription list to Garrison’s LIBERATOR.

    1. Paul, thank you for you comments. Douglass, while still a fugitive, spoke in Indiana in 1842, visiting the Coffins when he spoke in nearby Richmond, Indiana. At that time, Douglass worked for Garrison’s American Abolitionist Society. In Richmond, a center of Quaker activity, a pro-slavery crowd booed and egged Douglass and the white speakers from the stage. Weeks later, in Pendleton, Indiana, about 20 miles northeast of Indianapolis, Douglass and other speakers were pelted with brick bats and driven from that stage. Douglass, a big man, was seized and beaten by a mob and had to be rescued by others to prevent serious injury or death. So much for Indiana being of one mind over the issue of slavery.

      I’m very familiar with the National Parks Service impressive UGRR site. I was surprised to learn that the National Underground Railroad Freedom Center in Cincinnati, during their initial capital campaign, did very little to dispel the notion that they were part of the the National Parks Service’s Underground Railroad Network to Freedom, a fact that caused bad blood by the many conductor sites and the NPS towards what was then a private museum undertaking.

      According to sources working at the NPS at the time, several members of Congress didn’t support funding for NPS program after learning that Oprah Winfrey had generously donated millions to the private campaign with the similar name. The Cincinnati site is quite impressive, though it was poorly managed almost to the brink of closure. Earlier this year, Cincinnati’s Museum Center rescued the Freedom Center by merging it into their system of several other well-run museums.

      I thought that you’d find these tidbits of interest. Again, I always appreciate your participation on this blog!