Nat Turner driving tour gets federal funds

Published 9:26 am Wednesday, July 28, 2010

COURTLAND—The Virginia Department of Transportation has awarded Southampton County $420,000 in federal funds to help develop a driving tour that would roughly follow the path of Nat Turner and the slave rebellion he led in August 1831.

“We are really excited about it,” Rick Francis, the county clerk and a member of the Southampton County Historical Society, said Monday of the grant award. “This will be a great addition to supplement what we’re trying to do to the Rebecca Vaughan House and to the Heritage Village area.”

The society, historians and county officials envision restoring the Rebecca Vaughan House and using it as a visitors’ center and starting point for both a driving tour of the Southampton Insurrection of 1831 and a walking tour of historic buildings in Courtland.

Southampton will receive the Enhancement Program funds beginning in October, but the county is acting on behalf of the historical society, which will in turn meet a requirement to contribute $105,000 in matching funds toward the project. The funds will be used to develop interpretive signs, a travel brochure and map, and to acquire some easements and build turnouts along local roads.

Francis said he and two other society members, S.V. Camp and Kitty Futrell, are on a committee trying to determine the exact route the driving tour would take. It’s a difficult task because most of the structures from the time of the rebellion no longer stand.

“We are going back through and re-evaluating all of the research on several sites,” Francis said. “We’re trying to confirm and identify the exact locations of some of the houses that up to now have been in question. We know generally where they were, but in order to precisely say ‘there it was’ is a little bit tough.”

Although the precise route of the driving tour is still being determined, Francis said it would traverse mostly paved roads and could be between four and five hours in length. He said a final route could be selected as early as 2011.

“We’re trying to logistically get people there easily with as little back tracking as possible,” Francis said. “I think (visitors) will really be able to get a grasp for the lay of the land and comprehend the amount of ground (Turner) covered in such a short amount of time.”

Turner and more than 70 other slaves and free blacks went on a murderous rampage on Aug. 21 and 22, 1831, killing 55 whites, including women and children. Hundreds of blacks, most of whom had nothing to do with the rebellion, were then slain by whites in reprisal killings over the following weeks.

In November, Boykins-Branchville District Supervisor Carl Faison said the rebellion was an event “the county has overlooked for a long time. It is a potential source of income, and it’s also a segment of our history that we have closed our eyes to. It really needs to be drawn out and (given) the proper interpretation.”

Historian, preservationist and author John Quarstein had added, “This is one of the most powerful pieces of history in Virginia. The seeds of abolitionism are created thanks to the horrible yet meaningful rebellion that Nat Turner led.”

Francis’ great-great-uncle and aunt, Joseph and Sallie Travis, were among the victims. He serves as guide and narrator for an annual bus tour that crisscrosses the heart of the terrain of the rebellion in southwestern Southampton County.

“I get a request for a driving tour at least once every two weeks,” Francis said, adding that many other tour buses visit the area as well. “There’s a lot of interest from people wanting to come here and drive around the sites.”

The Rebecca Vaughan House, which is on both the National and State Registers of Historic Places, was the scene of the last murders of whites from the uprising. The building was moved to its current location in 2004. Interior demolition and cleanup work was performed in 2009, and the house received a new roof earlier this year.

The society plans to expand an existing walking tour of Courtland to include the county courthouse, Mahone’s Tavern, the Rochelle-Prince House, a pauper’s cemetery and the sites where Turner was jailed and executed.