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Am I Related to Slave-Revolt Leader Nat Turner?

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19th-century woodcut depiction of the Southampton insurrectionWikimedia Commons

Dear Professor Gates:

My father, who will be 83 next month, has been doing family research for many years. On his maternal side, the rumor has been that we are related to the famous slave Nat Turner. Could you help us find out? My father’s memory is fading, and so time is running out to solve the mystery and share it with him.

A little background: My father’s maternal grandfather was named Nathan Turner, and he was born in South Carolina. My father’s maternal grandmother was Maria Brown, who we think was the second wife of Nathan. She was born around 1880 and was supposedly much younger than Nathan by many decades and had about 17 children. We think Maria’s mother’s name was Reena Albergotie.

That branch of the family is from the Yemassee-St. Helena part of South Carolina. That is Gullah country, and as a child, I always wondered why my grandmother Ida had a “Jamaican” accent, when she was born in this country.

I understand that Nat Turner lived in Virginia, but I am wondering if a relative of his could have moved to South Carolina at some point. —L. Johnson

It is difficult to say with any certainty whether Nat Turner has any identifiable descendants. As discussed in a previous Tracing Your Roots column regarding the descendants of Nat Turner, there have been many attempts to determine who Turner really was and to identify family members. Many of the claims are unsubstantiated (to wit, Lucy Mae Turner’s claim, which we addressed), making it difficult to connect any living descendants.

As stated in that previous column addressing Nat Turner’s descendants, he spearheaded a rebellion of slaves in Southampton County, Va., in August 1831 that resulted in the deaths of more than 60 people, including slave owners and their families. The uprising led to the execution of Turner and 55 other African Americans by the commonwealth of Virginia for allegedly being involved in the rebellion.

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

As this column has previously noted, because the document itself was not in Turner’s own words, the accuracy of his “confession” is called into question. The narrative is fragmented and disjointed, and there is the question of whose voice is really there.

That being said, in the document Turner is quoted as stating that his father had run away “to other parts of the country.” He also mentioned that he was close to his grandmother, who, along with him, was presumably owned by Benjamin Turner. Beyond that, none of his immediate family members were identified by name; nor is there any mention that Nat Turner had a wife.

With all that in mind, in order to determine whether there is a chance your Turner family was connected to the Nat Turner rebellion, you will first need to find a connection to Southampton County, Va., in 1831. You stated in your question that your Turner family came from the Yemassee and St. Helena part of South Carolina, but you also wondered whether any of their ancestors might have originated in Virginia. Start by gathering as much information as you can about your Turner family in South Carolina to see whether any records might indicate that they originated in Virginia.

What We Know About Your Ancestors in South Carolina

Based on the information you sent, which states that your ancestor Nathan Turner was from the Yemassee and St. Helena area of South Carolina, it seems likely that these ancestors were living in Beaufort County, S.C. Via FamilySearch, we located Nathan and Maria Turner living in Sheldon, Beaufort County, in 1900.

According to this record, Nathan Turner was born in December 1843, 12 years after Nat Turner’s death. Maria was born in August 1867. There were eight children in the household by 1900. The record also states that Nathan and Maria had been married for 13 years and that Maria had 10 children total, but only eight of them were still living. This means that all the children in the household were likely born to her. It can be helpful in searches to note all the children born to a particular couple, since records for them may reveal more about their parents. The record also seems to suggest that everyone in the household was born in South Carolina.

We noted that living directly next door to the Turner family in 1900 was Alfred Brown, who was born in November 1842 and was 57 years old. Perhaps this was Maria’s father, uncle or other close relation. Identifying potential family members of associated families may also help you work backward.

Further down the record is a Matilda Albergotie born in 1890, making her 10 years old, and living in the household of her grandmother Cate Garrott. You mentioned in your question that Maria’s maiden name was Brown and that you believe her mother’s surname was Albergotie. The presence of all three surnames among people living so close to one another confirms that we have likely located a record for the correct Nathan Turner and Maria (Brown) Turner.

Try to work backward and forward in time as much as you can to identify more records for your Turner family. Sometimes it is helpful to work forward in time in order to work backward, since later records may record birthplaces or other relations. On Ancestry.com (subscription required) we located Maria in the 1910 census still residing in Sheldon, Beaufort, as the head of household. This suggests that Nathan Turner died between 1900 and 1910.

Since Maria (Brown) Turner had not moved, it seems likely that Nathan Turner died in Beaufort County. You could search for a death record for him that might include his parents’ names and a specific place of birth. In South Carolina, statewide death registration began in 1915. If Nathan Turner died after 1915, his death certificate might be included in South Carolina Deaths, 1915-1943, available at FamilySearch. You may also be able to locate death records for some of his children in this collection that might record a birthplace for Nathan Turner.

You can search for birth records for Nathan’s children that might include his birthplace. Via Ancestry.com we located a birth certificate for Nathan and Maria’s daughter Irene, issued Feb. 14, 1942. It records her birth on March 17, 1896, in Sheldon, Beaufort. According to the record, Ned Turner (Nathan Turner) was Irene’s father, and he was deceased by the time this record was issued. He was born in Sheldon, Beaufort. Irene’s mother was Maria Turner, who was living at Gardens Corner, Sheldon, S.C., when the record was issued. Based on this, both Nathan and Maria (Brown) Turner were born in Beaufort County. So far we have not located any records that demonstrate a connection to Southampton, Va.

How Your Family May Have Come by the Surname Turner

You will want to explore some possible explanations for why Nathan Turner had the Turner surname, based on records suggesting that he was born in Beaufort County. If he took the surname of a former owner, you could search for slave owners with the Turner surname in Beaufort County.

In searching the 1860 United States Slave Schedule on Ancestry.com, we noted a slave owner named Reuben R. Turner who owned 70 slaves. He was residing at St. Peter’s Parish in Beaufort. In the 1860 record, there is a 16-year-old male slave in the household who would be the right age to be your Nathan Turner. Reuben Turner was also recorded in the same location in the 1850 Slave Schedule, available on FamilySearch. That year there was a 7-year-old boy about the right age to be your Nathan Turner. These records together seem to suggest that there is a possibility that your Nathan Turner may have been a slave on Reuben R. Turner’s plantation.

You will want to learn more about Reuben R. Turner in order to find records during the period of slavery that might name your Nathan Turner. We located Reuben R. Turner in the 1860 census via Ancestry.com and learned that he was 45 years old that year, placing his birth around 1815 in South Carolina. There was also a young woman in the household, Harriet R. Turner, who was 19 years old, placing her birth circa 1841. We speculated that she might be his daughter. FamilySearch shows that Reuben Turner was also recorded in the same place in 1850 with a wife, Lucy, and a daughter, Harriet. The census records note that Reuben Turner was a planter and was born in South Carolina.

If your Nathan Turner was a slave on Reuben Turner’s plantation, you will want to determine how long Reuben Turner was in Beaufort County in order to determine the likelihood that Nathan Turner was born in that county. There was an R. Turner recorded in the 1840 census living in St. Peter’s Parish in Beaufort, available via Ancestry.com.

Based on the records we located already, it seems likely that this is Reuben Turner. At this date he had four slaves in his household. Your Nathan Turner would not have been born as early as 1840, but it does tell us that Reuben Turner was living in St. Peter’s Parish in Beaufort before his birth. If your Nathan Turner was a former slave in Reuben Turner’s household, it seems likely that he was born in Beaufort.

Having identified a potential slave owner, you have a few options for working backward to determine the likelihood that your Nathan Turner had a connection to Southampton, Va. Search for deeds and account records for Reuben R. Turner that may record the purchase or sale of slaves. You may encounter difficulty because many of the records in Beaufort County prior to 1865 were destroyed. A guide to Beaufort County Genealogy, available through FamilySearch, may help you determine which records are available and how to access them. You could also work to determine whether Reuben R. Turner was any relation to Nat Turner’s slave owner, Benjamin Turner of Southampton, Va., which might help you make a connection to the rebellion.

Good luck! We hope this helps you provide some answers for your father.

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 co-founder 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 Meaghan Siekman, a researcher 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 about researching African-American roots.

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