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Charlotte, Ester, and Lucy

Charlotte (?-1831), Ester (?-?), and Lucy (?-Sept. 19, 1831) enslaved women whose roles in the 1831 rebellion initiated by Nat Turner were long ignored and obscured. In the 21st century scholars have reframed that uprising as the “Southampton Rebellion,” highlighting a larger narrative that considers how various members of plantation society—particularly enslaved women and children, and free Black people—participated in the most notorious slave revolt in North American history. Because court proceedings have historically favored information about explicitly violent forms of rebellion, male insurgents like Nat Turner appear in official records more frequently than women. Although women do not often appear in the historical record as violent insurrectionists, historian Vanessa Holden argues that attention should be extended to the distinct ways in which they did rebel. Holden argues that women like Charlotte, Ester, and Lucy experienced the Southampton rebellion within the space of their domestic duties—spaces like kitchens and the yards of the homes where they lived and labored. Holden’s Surviving Southampton: African American Women and Resistance in Nat Turner's Community (2021)takes a gendered look at resistance and identifies how domestic spaces served as the battleground for enslaved women during the rebellion in southeast Virginia. These spaces also enabled resistance that revealed the women’s own desire for freedom or revenge against their oppressors.

As the Southampton Rebellion began on August 21, 1831, Charlotte and Ester both resided and worked on a farm owned by Nathaniel and Lavinia Francis, who was pregnant during the summer of 1831. Ester was a “wedding gift” to Lavinia—a common practice during slavery-- and came to Nathaniel’s estate at the same time her owner arrived. Charlotte, however, was already owned by Nathaniel when Lavinia and Ester arrived. Like many farms in Southampton, the Francis farm was relatively small with Francis owning fifteen enslaved people and hiring out the labor of six free people. Scholars speculate that the small size of the farm necessitated the women’s performance of work that crossed the lines between domestic labor and field labor. They cooked for the farm and possibly also worked at various stages of cotton or tobacco production, Virginia’s staple crops at the time. Nevertheless, Ester would likely have more domestic duties around the home since she had been gifted to Lavinia and likely served her needs and requests directly. 

Charlotte and Ester may not have planned the rebellion, but they nevertheless seized the opportunity to rebel in their own way when the chance presented itself—though their tactics of resistance would ultimately diverge at a crucial moment of life and death. As rebels encroached upon the Francis plantation, they killed the overseer and two white boys but could not find Lavinia. Another enslaved person had already hidden the pregnant Lavinia in the attic, where she had passed out from the summer heat. When Lavinia finally regained consciousness and approached the kitchen where Charlotte and Ester worked, she discovered them arguing over who would take ownership of her belongings. Apparently, Charlotte and Ester believed Lavinia to be dead and had already began to sort out her belongings and prepare dinner in Lavinia’s absence (likely for themselves and the rebels passing through since, to their knowledge, their owners were dead). When Charlotte and Ester finally realized that Lavinia had witnessed their argument over her belongings, they acted spontaneously in their self-interest. Charlotte ultimately knew that what Lavinia had witnessed was incriminating and picked up a nearby knife in an attempt to dispatch her owner and save herself. Ester, on the other hand, perhaps fearful of the consequences of killing a white woman, decided to protect her owner and placed herself between Charlotte and Lavinia. Ester ultimately saved Lavinia, giving her owner the chance to flee by holding Charlotte back.

Lucy, enslaved by John T. Barrow and Mary Barrow, possibly held similar feelings of resentment for her female owner as Charlotte did. Lucy was convicted for attempting to detain Mary Barrow while rebels overtook the Barrow farm. John Barrow stalled the rebels and sent his wife Mary out the backdoor towards safety. As Mary exited the backdoor of her home, Lucy grabbed her by the arm and held her steadfast in the backyard. In the court proceedings that followed the rebellion, officials voiced their belief that Lucy was trying to detain Mary until the rebels caught up with them. Yet, Lucy insisted that she was innocent and did not intend to help the rebels harm Mary. Court documents reveal that Lucy and another enslaved person both tugged Mary’s arms as she tried to flee and that Mary herself remained unsure of Lucy’s motives. It is therefore a reasonable possibility that Lucy was simply trying to free Mary from the other perpetrator so that Mary could make a safe escape. Nevertheless, such a presumption of innocence was rarely afforded Black people in the Virginia courts. 

On September 19, 1831 Lucy became the only woman tried and convicted by the Virginia courts for her role in the Southampton rebellion. Of high consideration during the trial was Mary Barrow’s testimony against Lucy and Lucy’s association with a known rebel named Moses. Both Moses and Lucy were transferred to John Barrow by Barrow’s mother-in-law Rebecca Vaughn. The two shared a room on the Barrow plantation where the militia had found a large cache of cash that Moses had stolen for the rebellion. It was thus assumed that Moses and Lucy were co-conspirators. By the time of Lucy’s trial, Moses had already been executed and his guilty verdict potentially cast a shadow over Lucy’s own trial. Charged with conspiracy to rebel, Lucy was sentenced to death by hanging on September 26th. Abiding by the Virginia law that required the state to compensate owners for the execution of enslaved people involved in capital crimes, the court valued Lucy at $375, which is today’s equivalent of $12,795.

Though Lucy was the only woman convicted and executed by Virginia courts for the Southampton rebellion, Charlotte met an extralegal death for her attempted murder of Lavinia. As the short-lived, Charlotte and Ester sought refuge at Cross Keys where the militia also held suspected rebels as prisoners. After her owner discovers Charlotte, Nathaniel Francis condemns her to death, tying Charlotte to a tree and shooting her multiple times. Neither Charlotte nor the tree she was tied to survived the assault as sources report that even the tree died from sustaining so many bullet holes. Nathaniel takes different approach to Ester, who he thanks for her loyalty—her intentions to take over Lavinia’s belongings apparently forgotten or forgiven. Ester survives the Southampton rebellion unscathed, and so, like most enslaved people in Southampton at this time, a definite date of her death is unknown. 

Though the rebellion only officially lasted from August 21-August 23rd 1831, it was a bloody event with 55 white women, men, and children murdered by its end. Nat Turner remained at large for about six weeks, which resulted in continuing reprisals against enslaved people in Southampton. Adding to the death toll, Virginia courts executed 30 enslaved people, while extralegal killings like that of Charlotte took place throughout the county. In its wake, the Southampton Rebellion sparked much debate amongst Virginia’s legislature as members of the General Assembly began to question slavery’s institution. It would nevertheless be another 30+ years before slavery was legally abolished. 

Online Resources

Patrick H. Breen.



Holden, Vanessa M. Surviving Southampton: African American Women and Resistance in Nat Turner's Community. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2021.


Jada Similton

"The Cook", Slavery Images: A Visual Record of the African Slave Trade and Slave Life in the Early African Diaspora, accessed October 26, 2022, http://slaveryimages.org/s/slaveryimages/item/520

Key Events

October 2, 1800

Nat Turner is born enslaved in Southampton, Virginia.

1800- 1831

Turner is viewed by his contemporaries as an intelligent, well-read, and deeply religious young man. According to his later Confession, he claims to receive visions from God telling him to prepare for a time “when the first should be last and the last should be first.”


Turner interprets a solar eclipse and other atmospheric disturbances as messages from God that he should lead a rebellion to end slavery.

August 21, 1831

Turner and a number of followers begin their rebellion at the home of Joseph and Sally Travis, whose son Putnam was set to inherit Turner. The rebels used everyday tools, like hatchets and axes, to kill the entire family—including their infant child.

August 1831

Rebels kill the overseer and two white boys at the Francis plantation where Charlotte and Ester are both enslaved and work. Charlotte attempts to kill her owner Lavinia Francis, but Ester prevents it.

August 1831

Rebels murder enslaver John T. Barrow at his farm as he attempted to help his wife Mary to safety. Lucy, enslaved by the Barrows, allegedly attempts to detain Mary and prevent her escape.


Charlotte and Ester seek refuge at Cross Keys, a holding site for suspected rebels and white women and children alike.


Nathaniel Francis gruesomely murdered Charlotte for attempting to kill his wife.

September 19, 1831

Lucy is tried for conspiracy to rebel.

September 26, 1831

Lucy is sentenced to death by hanging for conspiring to rebel.

October 30, 1831

Nat Turner, who had remained at large for six weeks, is spotted by a white farmer named Benjamin Phipps.

November 5, 1831

Turner is convicted for "conspiring to rebel and making insurrection” and sentenced to a gruesome death.