Human collateral provided much of the capital for slaveholders to purchase more land and more slaves. This, in addition to enslaved people’s free labor, created much of the 18th century wealth that US growth and development depended upon.

Edward Baptist elucidates how slavery drove capitalism in his book, The Half has Never Been Told: Slavery and the Making of American Capitalism.

This is not hyperbole or exaggeration. A look at slave mortgages, usually found in deed records, starkly illustrate this.

Two Types of Mortgages

Slaveholders securitized their enslaved property in two ways. They took out mortgages on the purchase price of a slave, by putting a percentage down and paying off the purchase price over time. This allowed them to get the slave and start extracting their labor before they finished paying for him or her.

In the image below, I highlighted the enslaved property and also the language where they are essentially mortgaged:

Mortgages of Slaves

The second way is that slaveholders used their enslaved property to get loans. Those loans, as I mentioned above, were used to finance and grow their slaveholding enterprises. In fact, in many cases the slaveholder took out multiple loans using the same enslaved people as collateral.

All of this means that the very bodies of enslaved families solidified their own enslavement.

These instruments had disastrous results for enslaved people. If the slaveholder defaulted on that debt, the result would be a sale of those people.

How to Use These Records

Searching deeds for these records can help those researching enslaved people in two ways. They can help verify or confirm a slaveholder. They can also reveal the names of enslaved people owned during a slaveholder’s lifetime.

Typically, one of the few ways researchers discover those names is when a slaveholder dies before the year 1865 (after the Civil War). In that case, slaves are usually listed in the estate inventory of the deceased.

But in many cases, the slaveholder survived past 1865. How, then, can we connect a person to the set of people he or she claimed ownership of?

Slave mortgages are one kind of source that can provide that critical connection. Other sources include bills of sale, premarital agreements and sometimes tax and guardianship records.

Mason and Rachel Garrett/Garrard

Mason and Rachel Garrett were my third-great grandparents. I have discussed their enslaved roots here before. One of their former owners (and the source of their surname) was William W. Garrard.

He was from Muhlenburg County, Kentucky. William migrated (with his enslaved property) to Lauderdale County, Alabama, then to Decatur and Hardin Counties, Tennessee.

William Garrard made numerous deed transactions, especially when he was the county clerk in Lauderdale County. My research and that of a paid researcher, Patricia Hartley (who did a FANTASTIC job!) revealed that William made at least 11 transactions using his enslaved property as collateral. At least 8 of those documents named my ancestors, Mason and Mary.

William’s Mortgages

It appears that William defaulted on at least two of those debts, and he had numerous court cases that I am still trying to sort out. The value for me a a researcher is that these records allowed me to reconstruct two of his enslaved families.

One of those families was my ancestor, who is referred to as “yellow” Rachel and her husband Mason and their children.

In the 1870 census, “yellow” Rachel and Mason used the surname “Garrett,” and “black” Rachel’s family used the surname “Choat.”

Sadly, there is no trace of several of these family members in 1870. While some probably died, and some perhaps took other surnames,  I suspect that some were sold away because of these mortgages.

Closing Thoughts

Our country was a slave society for more time than we have been a society without slaves. Slaveholders created innovative financial instruments in order to grow and sustain the institution.

In their time, these slave mortgages surely caused inestimable pain and sorrow for the families who were sold because of them.

Today, let’s use them to find our families.




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