The Southern States
"Master used to say that if we didn't suit him he would put us in his pocket quick -- meaning that he would sell us,"
- former slave William Johnson
For the 3.9 million African American slaves counted in the census of 1860, life was brutal. Each day promised ceaseless toil, threats or punishment, and the looming, nightmarish possibility of being sold away from beloved family members and friends. Even those slaves who accepted their situation without complaint, who had kind owners, or who were given lighter work duties suffered from the absence of self-determination, the possibility of freely choosing the course of their own lives.
Coffles of slaves traveled across the South, headed to market, with the men or the more resistant chained together in pairs or bound with ropes. In the marketplace, slaves endured assessments of their physical capabilities and their psychological makeup as traders and buyers haggled over prices. Mississippi River slave trader John White recorded many of his transactions in the New Orleans slave market.
Ledger of John White
Matilda Selby, 9, $400.00 Sold to Mr. Covington, St. Louis, $425.00
Brooks Selby, 19, $750.00 Left at Home -- Crazy
Fred McAfee, 22, $800.00 Sold to Pepidal, Donaldsonville, $1200.00
Howard Barnett, 25, $750.00 Ranaway. Sold out of Jail, $540.00
Harriet Barnett, 17, $550.00 Sold to Davenport and Jones, Lafourche, $900.00
Though the importation of slaves to the United States was banned starting in 1808, the nation's slave population grew at an average of 27 percent per decade after 1810, as children were born into slavery. During the 1850s, the vast majority of slaves worked in agriculture, growing cotton, or, to a lesser extent, tobacco, sugar, rice, or hemp.
In the slaveowning states, which had a population of slightly more than eight million white people in 1860, nearly 400,000 people owned slaves. Counted together with their families, slaveowners totalled about a quarter of the South's white population.
Explore this topic further:
Primary Source Documents
Read letters, articles and poetry by those who opposed and defended slavery.
Historian Ira Berlin discusses African Americans in the South
View the interior of urban slave quarters in Charleston, South Carolina.