Nathaniel "Nat" Turner was an enslaved American who had lived his entire life in Southampton County, Virginia, an area with predominantly more blacks than whites. After the rebellion, a reward notice described Turner as:
5 feet 6 or 8 inches high, weighs between 150 and 160 pounds, rather "bright" [light-colored] complexion, but not a mulatto, broad shoulders, larger flat nose, large eyes, broad flat feet, rather knockneed, walks brisk and active, hair on the top of the head very thin, no beard, except on the upper lip and the top of the chin, a scar on one of his temples, also one on the back of his neck, a large knot on one of the bones of his right arm, near the wrist, produced by a blow.
Turner was highly intelligent, and learned how to read and write at a young age. He grew up deeply religious and was often seen fasting, praying or immersed in reading the stories of the Bible. He frequently had visions, which he interpreted as messages from God. These visions greatly influenced his life. For instance, when Turner was 21 years old he ran away from his owner, Samuel Turner, but returned a month later after becoming delirious from hunger and receiving a vision that told him to "return to the service of my earthly master." In 1824, while working in the fields under his new owner, Thomas Moore, Turner had his second vision, in which "the Saviour was about to lay down the yoke he had borne for the sins of men, and the great day of judgment was at hand." Turner often conducted Baptist services, and preached the Bible to his fellow slaves, who dubbed him "The Prophet."
Turner also had an influence over white people. In the case of Ethelred T. Brantley, Turner said that he was able to convince Brantley to "cease from his wickedness." By the spring of 1828, Turner was convinced that he "was ordained for some great purpose in the hands of the Almighty." While working in his owner's fields on May 12, Turner "heard a loud noise in the heavens, and the Spirit instantly appeared to me and said the Serpent was loosened, and Christ had laid down the yoke he had borne for the sins of men, and that I should take it on and fight against the Serpent, for the time was fast approaching when the first should be last and the last should be first."
In 1830, Joseph Travis purchased Turner and became his master. Turner later recalled that Travis was "a kind master" who had "placed the greatest confidence in me." Despite the decent treatment received from Travis, Turner eagerly anticipated God's signal to start his task of "slay[ing] my enemies with their own weapons." Turner witnessed a solar eclipse on February 11, 1831 and was convinced that this was the sign from God. Following in the steps of the late Denmark Vesey, he started preparations for a rebellion against the white slaveholders of Southampton County by purchasing muskets. Turner "communicated the great work laid out [for me] to do, to four in whom I had the greatest confidence" – his fellow slaves Henry, Hark, Nelson and Sam.
Turner started with a few trusted fellow slaves, but the insurgency ultimately numbered more than 70 enslaved and free blacks, some of whom were mounted on horseback. On August 13, 1831, an atmospheric disturbance made the sun appear bluish-green. Turner took this as the final signal, and began the rebellion a week later on August 21. The rebels traveled from house to house, freeing slaves and killing all the white people they encountered.
Because the rebels did not want to alert anyone, they discarded their muskets and used knives, hatchets, axes, and blunt instruments instead of firearms. (The latter also would have been more difficult for them to collect.) Historian Stephen B. Oates states that Turner called on his group to "kill all the white people." A contemporary newspaper noted, "Turner declared that 'indiscriminate slaughter was not their intention after they attained a foothold, and was resorted to in the first instance to strike terror and alarm.'" The group spared a few homes "because Turner believed the poor white inhabitants 'thought no better of themselves than they did of negroes.'"
The rebels spared almost no one whom they encountered. A small child who hid in a fireplace was among the few survivors. The slaves killed approximately sixty white men, women and children before Turner and his brigade of insurgents were defeated. A white militia with twice the manpower of the rebels and reinforced by three companies of artillery eventually defeated the insurrection.