Am I Related to Nat Turner?

Tracing Your Roots: Researching a link to the man behind a slave rebellion.

 
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American slave Nat Turner is shown being discovered in a wooded area of Virginia by a white man carrying a gun, 1831.

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“Recently I was told that my grandmother's family line was linked to Nat Turner. I have done some research, but I am unable to get beyond my great-great-grandmother Gertrude Turner in Virginia. I just wanted to know if the Turner family has done a family tree and where Gertrude Turner is on it. I know Gertrude married a Curry in Virginia in the late 1800s. Thank you for any assistance. —Kasaundra Echols

Nat Turner spearheaded a rebellion of slaves in Southampton County, Va., in August of 1831 that resulted in the death of more than 60 people, including slave owners and their families. As a result of this uprising, Turner was hanged and 55 other African Americans were executed by the Commonwealth of Virginia for allegedly being involved in the rebellion.

Identifying the Descendants of Nat Turner

Although Turner is a well-known figure in African-American history, the details of his personal life and family history are much less clear. Among historians, there is disagreement about the marriage of Turner and any children born out of that marriage. It is believed that Turner had a wife, but her name and how many children they had are widely disputed.

Some accounts show that they had at least one son, named Redric, while others state that they had more than one child. One of the earliest written accounts of the Turner rebellion published in a newspaper states that his wife, who was owned by a man named Mr. Reese, received a severe punishment for her husband’s actions.

The Confessions of Nat Turner is a document that was frequently used in the past to study Turner’s life and family. Thomas Gray, a Virginia lawyer, crafted this document based on jail-cell interviews with Turner following his capture months after the insurrection.

In the interviews, Turner is quoted speaking about his parents, mentioning that both his mother and father told him that he was intended to live for some great purpose. Later in the account, he states that his father had run away “to other parts of the country.” He also mentions that he was close to his grandmother, who, with him, was presumably owned by Benjamin Turner, but none of his immediate family members were identified by name in this document. Nor does it mention that Nat Turner had a wife.

It is important to note that because the document itself was not in Turner’s own words, the accuracy of his “confession” is called into question. I have, in fact, noted in the past that “We have a very fragmented, disjointed narrative, which purports to be the confessions, and there is the question of whose voice is there.” 

In the years after the rebellion, many attempts were made by writers and historians to find out exactly who Turner was, with each effort mentioning various alleged family members. In 1955 Lucy Mae Turner, a poet born in Zanesville, Ohio, published an article titled “The Family of Nat Turner, 1831-1954,” which details the life and struggle of the Turner family after his execution. The narrative is centered on Turner’s purported son Gilbert, and a woman named Fannie was called Turner’s wife.

The author, Lucy Turner, claimed to be the granddaughter of Nat Turner and the daughter of Gilbert. While is it true that Lucy was Gilbert’s daughter, if one looks at Gilbert’s death certificate, as reported by Lucy herself, one sees that his parents were listed as John Turner of Virginia and Mary Moore of North Carolina. It also shows that he was born circa 1834, well after the death of Nat Turner. Although there can be errors in vital records, this does not support the claim that Lucy Turner was the granddaughter of Nat Turner.