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.
I am an engineer by day, but my true passion lies in genealogy. I have been a researcher, writer, lecturer and teacher for over twenty years. This blog is where I share family history methods, resources, tips and advice, with an emphasis on slave research, slavery and its aftermath. This lifelong quest has helped me to better know my family’s past. I’ve taken back– reclaimed– some of that lost memory, especially that of my enslaved ancestors. I hope you’ll sign up to receive my posts—if you do, you’ll get a free PDF with some of my favorite tips! And please do share posts that interest you.
In the class I taught, “The African American Experience,” I mentioned that the vast majority of Southerners owned NO slaves. Most of my students were in disbelief, as even here in Kentucky, they simply assumed that ALL whites owned slaves. In my county in 1860, the largest slave owner owned 35 slaves, and by the time we get to the 10th largest, we were down to 6 slaves.
So this article helps reinforce what I taught — most slaves were owned by a very few number of slave owners.
Another great post! Since a vast majority of enslaved people from large plantations did not take the last enslaver’s surname, your analogy can add to the fact that most enslaved people did not take the last enslaver’s surname.