Library of Congress, LC-USZC4-4574

I’m tackling some of the biggest myths around slavery in this recent series of posts (see the first one here). Today I’m discussing what I call the paradox of slavery:

“Most slaveholders only owned a few slaves.” That is a true statement.

However, many people have a hard time understanding that even though this statement is true, most enslaved people lived on large plantations.

The generally agreed upon marker of “planter” status is someone who owned more than twenty slaves. In scholarly studies of slavery, twenty is the marker for “large.”

This is one of the reasons why many Confederate soldiers were so angry about the Twenty-Negro Law passed in October 1862. That law exempted from the War any slaveholder who had more than twenty slaves. This was perceived as sparing elite planters while their non-slaveholding brethren fought. But I digress.

A Helpful Analogy

I want to try to explain how it can be true that most slaves were owned by someone with twenty or more slaves.

I’m going to use a smaller analogy to represent this concept. Let’s say 10 people own a total of 536 books.


Although most of the people only own a few books, most of the books are owned by two people. Most of the books are owned by people with large collections of books.

And so it was with slavery. I list some sources at the end of of this post for those interested in reading more.

As Kenneth Stampp notes:
“Only one-fourth of them [slaves] belonged to masters who owned less than ten slaves. Considerably more than half of them lived on plantation units of more than twenty slaves, and one-fourth lived on units of more than fifty…the majority of slaves belonged to members of the planter class.”

Leslie Howard Owens adds:
“The population figures of slavery reveal not only that a relatively small number of planters controlled most of the investment in slave property but that this group was able to shape, far out of proportion to its size, much of the social development and attitudes of a region and to a great extent the nation.”

What Can This Tell Us?

Knowing this should inform our genealogical research. We know that slavery was dynamic and we can’t always collapse all slaves into generalizations. The only constant was the violence and brutality needed to hold it in place.

However, when we know the plantation size, we can draw some tentative conclusions about the enslaved experience.

If they were owned by someone with fewer than five slaves, they may live in the same household(e.g. in an attic or a back room). They may have been passed down through the family.  There is a greater likelihood that they may be rented out or only perform domestic duties. Closer relationships with the slaveholding family were possible.

Those who owned larger numbers of slaves were more likely to live in a separate slave quarter. They hired overseers at higher rates. Their enslaved property was more separated from the slaveholding family. Slaves on larger plantations also have a greater likelihood of finding a spouse on their own plantation.

Knowing the size of the farm/plantation can also suggest what kinds of records we might focus our efforts. With smaller numbers of slaves, the focus will be on probate records, land records, court records, tax records and local church records.

With larger slaveholders, there is a greater likelihood of finding private papers and collections at universities and archives. These are sometimes called planter records.

Hopefully, we are able to find more sources that provide insight into our ancestor’s specific experiences. When we don’t, we can use the accepted scholarly works on the slave experience to draw reasonable conclusions.



Thomas J. Durant and J. David Knottnerus, editors, “The Slave Plantation System from a Total Institution Perspective,” Plantation Society and Race Relations: The Origins of Inequality (Westport, CT: Praeger Publishers, 1999), 23.

Leslie Howard Owens, “Introduction..the Necessity of Bondage,” This Species of Property: Slave Life and Culture in the Old South (New York: Oxford University Press, 1976), 8-9.

John B. Boles, “Black Diversity in a Slave Society,” Black Southerners, 1619-1869 (University Press of Kentucky, 1984), 107.

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