“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.
The fact that little is known about the family of such a prominent figure in history highlights some of the biggest challenges in researching African-American genealogy before the Civil War. A dearth of reliable documents pertaining to the families of enslaved African Americans makes it a challenge to trace the relatives of Turner and what happened to them after his death.
Is Your Family Connected to Nat Turner?
Taking into account all of the unconfirmed information about Turner’s immediate family, finding definitive documentation linking your ancestors to Turner will be difficult. In light of this, you can still continue to research your own family to see if there is any association with Southampton County. Even if you cannot prove that you are a direct descendant of Turner, if you find that your ancestors were in Southampton County, it is possible that there is some association with him.
Like many slaves in the pre-Civil War South, Turner’s surname was that of his owner, Benjamin Turner. Benjamin died in 1810, but in his will, Nat Turner and eight other slaves were left to his son, Samuel. After the death of Samuel in 1822, Nat was sold to Thomas Moore. To determine if your ancestors were also once slaves for the Benjamin Turner family, you will want to try and trace your family back from your known relative Gertrude Turner.
First, try to find a marriage record for Gertrude Turner and the man with the surname “Curry” to see if perhaps it lists her birthplace and her parents’ names. If you are unable to find a marriage record, a death record may also contain this information, depending on where and when she died.
The website FamilySearch.org has an index of marriages recorded in Virginia counties from 1785 to 1940. Although this collection contains many records, it may not be complete, and therefore it would also be useful to know approximately where Gertrude was living in the late 1800s so you can narrow your search for a marriage record.
You will also want to search for records of Gertrude in the census. The 1870 census was the first year after the Civil War that all African Americans were enumerated. Finding a record of Gertrude in this year will give you an indication of where she was living after the abolition of slavery. If she was living near Jerusalem in Southampton County, it is possible that there was an association with the Turner family farm.
The 1880 census lists not only the birthplace of the person enumerated but also the birthplace of his or her parents. If you are able to find an 1880 census record for Gertrude, you can confirm whether or not her parents were born in Virginia, which will give you an indication of whether there could be a relation to Nat Turner.
Could You Start a DNA Surname Project?
In recent years, DNA testing has been used to help us learn more about our ancestors and family connections to overcome some of the obstacles in the paper trail for African-American genealogy. One way this is done is through DNA surname projects. These projects are done by comparing Y-DNA tests of people with the same surname to see if they can find a distant common ancestor through genetic markers.
Y-DNA tests can be done only on males, and for the purpose of a DNA surname project, the male must have the surname that is being researched and it must be a direct male line, without any female ancestors. For example, a new surname project could be started for male African Americans who have the surname “Turner” who believe they are descendants of Nat Turner. Comparing the DNA of these people and finding similarities in their DNA could help identify descendants of Turner.
Since the earliest Turner ancestor you found was female, a surname project may not be useful to your research; however, it may help others looking to verify their connection to Nat Turner. The website Family Tree DNA has more information about Surname Projects.
Henry Louis Gates Jr. is the Alphonse Fletcher University Professor and founding director of the Hutchins Center for African and African American Research at Harvard University. He is also the editor-in-chief of The Root. Follow him on Twitter and Facebook.
Send your questions about tracing your own roots to TracingYourRoots@theroot.com.
This answer was provided in consultation with researchers from the New England Historic Genealogical Society. Founded in 1845, NEHGS is the country’s leading nonprofit resource for family history research. Its website, AmericanAncestors.org, contains more than 300 million searchable records for research in New England, New York and beyond. With the leading experts in the field, NEHGS staff can provide assistance and guidance for questions in most research areas. They can also be hired to conduct research on your family. Learn more today.