By Nathan Mars
Above: The Rebecca Vaughn House as it now stands. Tim Talbot.
For my cultural artifact, I’ve chosen the Rebecca Vaughn house, situated in Southampton County, Virginia. Geographically, Southampton County is in the southeastern corner of Virginia, to get a bit of a perspective on the location. This house was like many others of the time, except that it was the site of the last killing of a white during Nat Turner’s Rebellion. I’ll give a bit of background on the house and the family that lived there later, but first a bit of an explanation of Nat Turner and his rebellion.
Nat Turner was a black slave in Southampton County Virginia and believed that he was something special. Fellow slaves had considered him a prophet from a young age because of his intuition and intelligence, and he claimed to have visions where the Spirit talked to him (PBS.org). In these visions, he believed he was being told that the end was near and he was to defeat his oppressors, freeing the slaves. When there was a solar eclipse early in 1831, Turner believed it was a sign that the time to rebel was near, so he set up a plan with a tight group of fellow slaves on how to overthrow the whites. Nat Turner quite literally believed all the slaves of the South would rally to his side, and he would lead them to victory over the white slaveholders.
In August of 1831, Nat Turner and his followers attacked the house of a white slaveholder and killed all the whites inside, taking any guns, food, and alcohol they could find. Several slaves were also recruited, and this band repeated the same process over and over, killing all the whites and taking all the goods. Exact numbers vary, but between 30 and 60 black slaves eventually joined the group that ended up killing around 55 whites. Rebecca Vaughn’s house was the last house to be attacked before the county militia and vigilantes caught up to the rebellion and scattered the rebels. Eventually there were court proceedings, and Nat Turner and 54 others were executed by the State (PBS.org). A few others were acquitted, but around 200 more blacks, both slave and free, were killed by angry whites following the failed rebellion.
Interestingly, in the months that followed, the Virginia Legislature seriously considered emancipating the slaves (Root). There were three main groups in the ensuing debate, those being whites who wanted to increase control over slaves, those who wanted to gradually free blacks, and those that wanted to immediately free the slaves and banish all blacks from Virginia. Some in this last group proposed sending the blacks to Liberia or some other colonization project, where it would be difficult for blacks to come back and stir up trouble or kill more whites. In the end, it was decided to take no further action, as the debate had become gridlocked with no side having enough support to pass a measure. Repression of slaves would only grow in the coming decades though, until the end of the Civil War saw the emancipation of slaves.
But back to the house itself, and the family that lived in it. Rebecca Vaughn was a widow whose husband had died about 15 years earlier, and at the time of the rebellion she lived with her two sons. Rebecca Vaughn also had two daughters, but they had already married and were living elsewhere in Southampton County. Interestingly, one of her daughters was married to the man who would be chosen to defend Nat Turner in court (VDHR). The house itself was built somewhere around 1790-1800, and was still standing in its original location until it was moved in 2004 to a public piece of land to be preserved and placed on the National Register of Historic Places (ACC). The original builder is unknown, although members of the Vaughn family had been living on the property since the early 1700s. When the house was raided, Rebecca Vaughn ran up to her upstairs bedroom, where she begged through a window for her life. She implored them to take whatever they wished and leave, but the blacks refused. She was soon after shot by some of Nat Turner’s men while on her knees praying in her room.
While I’m not directly connected to the Vaughn house personally per se, I do think that the events surrounding it are very important and are often ignored. It’s easy to forget about a slave rebellion that ended within a few days and only involved a few dozen men on each side, but the rebellion was one of only a few real attempts by African Americans to revolt and overthrow the system of slavery that oppressed them. Slaves certainly resisted in many different ways, but this was one of the few times slaves were able to make an overt act of rebellion to try to grasp freedom for all slaves.
Also though, Nat Turner’s Rebellion was indicative of the greater divide between whites and blacks at the time. Black slaves wanted liberty no matter how it came, and ruthlessly killing any and all whites was a perfectly rational decision in the minds of some slaves considering how ruthless white slaveholders were. Not all slaves in the region rallied to Nat Turner’s side, but some did. In the minds of these slaves, slaves had been treated terribly by their masters and many slaves had died because of the ruthlessness of their masters, so killing the masters that killed was no issue.
Nat Turner’s Rebellion was the last real attempt at a slave revolt in the United States, and laws were enacted following it to make sure an event like it never occurred again (VDHR). Whites were scared for the next thirty years that another slave revolt would occur, and so any and all laws to lessen the chance of an uprising were passed. The ideal of rising up to defeat the white slaveholders was an idea that had to be present in the minds of many African Americans at the time, but Nat Turner’s Rebellion was the last slave revolt to occur within the US. The Vaughn House is important, then, because it is the last standing building of the conflict, and I’d say the conflict is important to me because of the symbolic meaning of it. Slaves tried to fight for their freedom, and though they failed, they gave it a shot.
I don’t agree with Nat Turner and the band’s method of kill all whites and take no prisoners, but the desire to rise up and be free to make your own decisions is an ideal that links many, if not all, people. One other important aspect that the house symbolizes to me though is that to defeat evil, one cannot become evil. I think this idea ought to resonate with all people black, white, or whatever. It’s a reminder that even if you have great intentions, you shouldn’t just suspend morals to achieve your goals, no matter how noble they may be. Nat Turner was considered by some both then and now to be a leader that struck a great blow for African American freedom, but it came at a cost.
One of the interesting aspects of Nat Turner’s Rebellion that I noted was that the revolting slaves did not burn houses down, but rather killed the white occupants, took any provisions they could find, recruited slaves, and left. This allowed the Vaughn house to survive the incident, and still be standing today. In class we learned that a common form of resistance by slaves was to burn buildings to cause monetary harm to their masters (Pittman, “Slavery and Resistance”), but in this case, if the masters were dead, there was hardly any point in causing them monetary damage.
To this day there is a debate in Southampton County of whether or not to preserve Rebecca Vaughn’s house (Rushing). Many see the house as a reminder of the rebellion, but the rebellion still is a sore spot among many in the community. Some believe the house represents tensions between whites and blacks, and it’s time to move on from a time when a band of blacks killed dozens of whites. Some in the area are descended from those involved in the insurrection, and they simply wish to move on with their lives. However, there are also many who believe that history must be preserved, and as the Vaughn House is the last standing home from the rebellion, it should survive on to teach others about the past. I think I would fall more into the latter group, but I can certainly see how others might just want a reminder of a sore time to go away. It’s a tough topic, especially as some see Nat Turner as a great revolutionary and others see him as a mass murderer, but it’s an important topic for people to face. What once was just another house has now become one of the last artifacts of a slave revolt that shaped much of the South for decades.
In effect, the Vaughn House is one of the last symbols of Nat Turner’s Rebellion, which was a huge event in the history of the South. To me, the house is important because it symbolizes the desire to be free and have choice in life, yet the importance of not becoming evil to defeat evil. Terrible events went on during all of Nat Turner’s Rebellion, but it still is a symbol of the desire to be free.
“Africans In America: Nat Turner’s Rebellon”. PBS.org. PBS, n.d. Web. 19 November 2015.
Allmendinger, David F. Nat Turner and the Rising in Southampton County. Baltimore: John Hopkins University Press, 2014. Web.
Pittman, LaShawnDa. “Slavery and Resistance”. University of Washington. Savery Hall, Seattle, WA. November 2015. Lecture.
“Rebecca Vaughn House Final Nomination”. Virginia Department of Historic Resources (VDHR). Commonwealth of Virginia, 8 February 2006. PDF. 19 November 2015
Root, Erik S. “The Virginia Slave Debate of 1831-1832”. Encyclopedia Virginia. Virginia Foundation for Humanities, 23 September 2015. Web. 19 November 2015.
Rushing, Keith. “Southampton’s Painful Past: Slice Of Rebellion Preserved”. Daily Press. Daily Press, 11 February, 2005. Web. 19 November 2015.
Talbot, Tim. “Rebecca Vaughn House”. Photograph. Random Thoughts on History. Blogspot.com, 30 April 2015. Web. 19 November 2015.
“The Rebecca Vaughn House”. Archaeological Consultants of the Carolinas (ACC). ACC, n.d. Web. 19 November 2015.