A Broader Footprint:
Slavery and Slaveholding Households
in Antebellum Piedmont North Carolina
D aniel L. Fountain
In January 1861, J. D. B. De Bow, a noted proponent of southern agriculture
and slavery, published an article arguing that there was greater support for slavery
in the South than abolitionists asserted. In particular, De Bow, who once headed
the U.S. Census Bureau, criticized those who frequently cited only the number of
legal slave owners to try to prove that an “insignificant portion” of the southern
population supported slavery. In fact, he believed that there was a conspiracy to
use census data to mislead the public about the South’s peculiar institution. More
specifically, De Bow mused that the “separation of the schedules of the slave and
the free was calculated to lead to omissions” so that the public would view slave
owners as comprising a tiny “wealthy aristocracy” with interests that varied greatly
from the vast majority of non-slave-owning southerners.
To counter this idea, which he felt was “malignantly alleged,” De Bow encouraged observers to note that the number of slave owners reported in the census
“embraced slaveholding families and that to arrive at the actual number of slaveholders, it would be necessary to multiply by the proportion of persons which
the census showed to be a family.” Using this methodology, De Bow asserted that
“the number of actual slaveholders [was] at about two millions and a quarter” or
“one third of the population of the entire South.” For De Bow, this proved that
slave owners “make up an aggregate greater in relative proportion than the holders of any other species of property whatever, in any part of the world; and that
of no other property can it be said, with equal truthfulness, that it is an interest of the whole community.”1 Putting aside the question of the overall accuracy of his politically motivated calculations and assertions, De Bow’s focus on
families is an effective approach for evaluating the footprint and impact of slavery
within a community. By analyzing the demographic and economic components of
slave-owning households, rather than those of individual slaveholders, historians
1. J. D. B. De Bow, “The Non-Slaveholders of the South: Their Interest in the Present Sectional Controversy Identical with That of the Slaveholders,” DeBow’s Review 30 (January 1861): 67-77, University of
Michigan: Humanities Text Initiative, http://name.umdl.umich.edu/acgl336.l-30.001.
408 D a n ie l L. F o u n t a in
gain a fuller understanding of slavery’s reach and the impact it had on specific
Just as a person does not have to hold the title to a car or house to benefit
from it, individuals living and working within slave-owning households could also
benefit from slavery, whether or not they were the legal owner of the enslaved.
Slave labor provided slaveholding household members with a wide range of benefits, including but not limited to food, clothing, shelter, relief from undesirable
tasks, primary and supplemental income, and increased social status. Slave owners, their families, and household members also formed a cooperative, if not single, economic unit with their collective skills, labor, and wealth contributing to
the function and potential success of the household. For this reason, focusing on
slave-owning households allows for a more fully developed picture of how slavery
appeared and functioned within a community. For the purposes of this analysis,
slaveholding families consist of persons who are related by birth or marriage living in the same home with at least one slave owner as listed in the United States
Census. Slaveholding households are broader in their makeup, as they include
employees like overseers and farm laborers, as well as nonrelated free persons
living with or slaves owned by a slaveholding family.
This study analyzes late antebellum slave-owning households in three counties of the North Carolina Piedmont: Alamance, Orange, and Wake. As John
David Smith aptly pointed out in a recent article, the North Carolina Piedmont
has been understudied despite its “breadth, diversity, and economic significance.”2
Fiopefully, this article will help correct some of that historiographical shortfall. I
selected these three counties as none of them are on the border of either Virginia
or South Carolina, which means that their development, while not completely
detached from that of their neighbors, was more heavily influenced by the internal
social and economic trends within Piedmont North Carolina. One such native
development that significantly affected all three of these counties was the completion of the North Carolina Railroad in the 1850s, which connected Alamance,
Orange, and Wake to markets across the state and beyond. Finally, the three counties also comprise a contiguous section of the region: Wake and Orange counties shared each other’s western and eastern borders in 1860, while Orange and
Alamance did the same further west. All of these shared factors make the three
counties an interesting and related group for studying Piedmont slavery in the late
antebellum period.
Based on an analysis of census data from 1850 and 1860 for Alamance, Orange,
and Wake counties, it is clear that slavery played a major or even dominant role in
their economies and communities. Unsurprisingly, slavery here was overwhelmingly a rural, agricultural institution. Most slave-owning farmers were yeomen
2. John David Smith, “ ‘I Was Raised Poor and Hard as Any Slave’: African American Slavery in Piedmont North Carolina,” North Carolina Historical Review 90 (January 2013): 3.
Slavery and Slaveholding in A ntebellum Piedmont N orth Carolina 409
who owned fewer than ten slaves to grow multiple marketable crops.3 Nonetheless, slavery remained a flexible source of labor, and numerous slave owners
utilized that labor in a wide range of applications. In addition, slavery in each
county, while not growing rapidly, was a stable regional institution that continued to attract new and ambitious individuals into the slave-owning ranks who
sought to improve their economic and social position. However, while these
counties share some significant traits, this article also demonstrates that Alamance, Orange, and Wake counties are distinctive. Local institutions, prominent
individuals, crop preferences, and settlement patterns greatly shaped the nature of
slavery in each county
It is important to note that the resulting figures at times differ from those
reported in the original published census. There are more slave owners in my
counts for Wake and Orange counties and fewer for Alamance County than
appear in the official census data. The higher counts for Orange and Wake reflect
the fact that while there are numerous entries identifying multiple slave owners
with rights to the same human property, it appears that the census takers only
counted the entry as a single owner. In contrast, for all counties I counted all
of the slave owners included in such entries in the final tally. For example, both
3. For the purposes of this study, I share Stephanie McCurry’s definition of a yeoman as a “self-working
farmer.” In other words, the difference between a yeoman slave owner and a planter is that the former
worked the land with his or her own hands alongside family members and any slaves he or she owned.
In contrast, planters owned enough slaves to be freed from anything more than a supervisory role in
the cultivation of their lands. Stephanie McCurry,
Masters of Small Worlds: Yeoman Households, Gender
Relations, and the Political Culture of the Antebellum South Carolina Low Country
(New York: Oxford
University Press, 1995), 47—48.
4. For this analysis of Piedmont slavery, I extracted the data for each slave-owning household from the
slave and then free population schedules of the 1860 United States Census for Alamance, Orange, and
Wake counties. Slave owners appearing on the slave census schedule were matched with their entries in
the free population schedule in order to determine the size and makeup of the slave-owning households
in each county. Slave-owning household totals include not only family members but also individuals living or working within those households. Individuals working within slave-owning households, especially
overseers and their families, received compensation from the proceeds generated wholly or in part by the
enslaved laborers with whom they worked or lived. This made free workers employed by slave owners not
only important to the functioning of that household but also dependent on if not beneficiaries of slavery
in regard to occupation or wages. For these reasons free workers and their families were included in overall
figures for slave-owning households in each county. Persons listed as overseers within the census data who
lived outside of identifiable slave-owner households were, along with their family members, counted in
overall county totals but were not linked to specific slave-owner families. The total number of free persons
working in slave-owning and independent overseer households was 864 and comprised 7 percent of all the
people counted toward slave-owning households.
After determining the composition of slave-owning households, the population data was then paired
with that of the agricultural census for the same year, thereby providing a measure of the activities and
productivity of the identified families. This was a challenging process that took several years to complete,
given that there were 2,156 slave-owning households between the three counties. In addition, the spelling
of names and order of appearance often varied between the free, slave, and agricultural schedules. Nonetheless, the vast majority of the slave-owning households for 1860 were identified, and all were accounted
for in some way during this multiyear process. For slave owners who appeared in the slave schedule but
were not located in the free schedule, I created a household entry that counted the total number of slaves
reported plus one for the owner. Finally, the overall slave-owning household totals were then compared to
the same data from 1850 to document changes that occurred during the previous decade.
410 Daniel L. Fountain
Nancy Morris and Esther Upchurch of Wake County appear in entries bearing
their name followed by the phrase “and 7 others.”5 This means that I recorded
these two entries as yielding sixteen slave owners, while the census taker only
counted two. I found Alamance to have fewer slave owners than recorded in the
final census totals because it appears that the census taker did not eliminate multiple entries for the same owner, as I did for each county. For example, on the
second page of the Alamance County slave schedule, D. A. Montgomery appears
twice, with both entries included in the final page tally.6 There are seventeen
slave owners with multiple entries in Alamance County, which led to a decreased
total in my count. Finally, my figures show more slaves living in Orange County
than appear in the official census data. The difference results from the fact that
the census taker undercounted the slaves of the Cameron family. The Cameron
family reported the number of slaves they owned by age groups. For example, on
page thirty-five of the Orange County slave schedule, Paul Cameron reported
owning six nine-year-old girls. However, the census taker ignored the appearance of multiple individuals covered in these age ranges and recorded each line
as a single slave, thereby significantly underreporting the actual figure.7 For these
reasons I am confident that the results presented here will give a more accurate
tally of the number of slaves and slave owners in each county.
A surface view of the statistics for slave owning in Alamance, Orange, and
Wake counties in 1860 might suggest that slavery played a small role within these
areas, given the small percentage of slave owners in relation to the overall free
population. According to the U.S. Census, in 1860, the percentage of the free
population that owned slaves in each county was 6.19 percent in Alamance, 5.62
percent in Orange, and 6.68 percent in Wake (see Table l).8 With slave ownership percentages under 7 percent in each county, slave-owning households appear
to have a rather small presence in these Piedmont counties, since most historians
agree that by 1860, approximately 25 percent of free southern and 27.7 percent of
North Carolina families owned slaves. However, when one uses De Bow’s focus on
households, a very different numerical picture emerges. There were 481, 610, and
1,065 slave-owning households in Alamance, Orange, and Wake counties. This
means that approximately 30.85 percent, 26.67 percent, and 30.52 percent of all
families owned slaves in each county. When one adds together the total number of
people living in those households the figures rise even higher. There were 2,751,
5. See entries for Nancy Morris and Esther Upchurch, Eighth Census of the United States, 1860: Wake
County, North Carolina, Slave Schedule, National Archives, Washington, D.C. (microfilm roll 927, N.C.
State Archives), Wake Southern Division, p. 27.
6. See entry for D. A. Montgomery, 1860 Census, Alamance County, Slave Schedule (microfilm roll 920),
p. 2.
7. See entries for Paul, Mildred, and Thomas Cameron, 1860 Census, Orange County, Slave Schedule
(microfilm roll 925), pp. 33-35.
8. In Table 1, my different counts from those of the census yielded slave-owner percentages of 5.95
percent, 5.79 percent, and 6.72 percent for Alamance, Orange, and Wake counties.
Slavery and Slaveholding in Antebellum Piedmont N orth Carolina 411
3,321, and 6,194 persons living, working, or dependent on those working in slaveowning households, totaling 32.7 percent, 28 percent, and 34.6 percent of the
free population in the three counties. Overall, this means that almost one out of
every three free persons, 32.14 percent, in Alamance, Orange, and Wake counties
was a part of or economically dependent on a slave-owning household. Adding
the enslaved to those totals expands the slave-owning households’ footprints even
further. The 1860 Slave Schedule of the United States Census identified 3,445,
5,495, and 10,733 enslaved persons living within Alamance, Orange and Wake
County slave-owner households. This means that a total of 6,196, 8,816, and
16,927 free and enslaved persons were living or working in these slave-owning
households, yielding county percentages of 52.28 percent, 50.86 percent, and 59.1
percent, with an overall percentage of 55.2 percent. The fact that every other
person in Alamance and Orange counties and nearly six out of every ten in Wake
County were part of or closely associated with slave-owning households demonstrates not only that De Bow’s methodology was accurate, but also clearly shows
that slavery was very significant in this section of the Piedmont.
The members of these Piedmont slave-owning households were not only
numerically significant, but also financially far better off than average citizens.
They held some of the most prestigious and powerful positions in Alamance,
Orange, and Wake counties. The 1860 census data for estate values show that
slave-owning households controlled the vast majority of the wealth in their
respective counties (see Table 2). Overall, slave-owning households controlled
79.4 percent of the real estate value and 92 percent of the personal estate value
listed in the U.S. Census for the three counties.9 This meant that on average,
slave-owning households owned real estate worth $3,339 and personal property valued at $9,934.26. In contrast, the average non-slave-owning households
owned real estate valued at only $361.44 and personal property worth $361.88.
In other words, on average, slave-owning households in these three counties held
nine times the value of real estate and twenty-seven times the value of personal
property of non-slave-owning households. The largest wealth gap between households existed in Wake County, with slave-owning households owning $3,781.61
and $11,634-56 more in real estate and personal property than those of non-slave
owners. The smallest gaps between slave owner and non-slave owner wealth
existed in Orange County for real estate and Alamance County for personal
property, with differences of $1,867.73 and $7,291.86 separating the two groups.
Contributing to this wealth advantage was the fact that 15.7 percent of all slave
owners lived with at least one other slave owner. Multiple slave-owner households
9. Gary T. Edwards found a similar level of accumulated wealth in the hands of slave owners in another
Upper South state. See Edwards, “Men of Subsistence and Men of Substance: Agricultural Lifestyles in
Antebellum Madison County, Tennessee,”
Agricultural History 73 (Summer 1999): 304-305.
412 D a n ie l L. Fo u n t a in
T able 1
Slave Ownership in 1860
Total Population
Total Families
Free Population
Slave Population
Slave Owners
Slave Owner % of
Free Population
Wake 28,627 3,489 17,894 10,733 1,065 1,203 6.72
Orange 17,334 2,287 11,839 5,495 610 685 5.79
Alamance 11,852 1,559 8,407 3,445 481 500 5.95
Total 57,813 7,335 38,140 19,673 2,156 2,388
Source: Slave and free population schedules of the 1860 United States Census for Alamance, Orange, and Wake
comprised 6.58 percent of all such families in the region.10 Combining the wealth
of multiple slave owners under one roof made what were typically well-to-do
households that much more robust. In certain cases, such as with the households
of Paul Cameron of Orange and George W. Mordecai of Wake, the combination
of slave-owner assets in one home created an accumulation of wealth that dwarfed
all others. The three slave owners in the Cameron household had a combined
$102,000 in real estate and $245,000 in personal property, while the two slave
owners in the Mordecai home owned $150,000 and $550,000 of the same. The
combined wealth of these two households alone equaled almost 28 percent of that
owned by all non-slave owners in Alamance, Orange, and Wake counties. Clearly,
slave-owning households controlled the lion’s share of wealth and resources in
these three Piedmont counties.11
10. Multiple slave-owner households are those in which two or more slave owners who appear in the slave
census schedule live together.
11. These findings square with those of Rosser Howard Taylor, who found that by 1860, North Carolina
was “tending toward improved methods of farming and, except in areas of staple production, to a more
equal distribution of wealth in land and slaves” (emphasis added). Rosser Howard Taylor,
Slaveholding in
North Carolina:
An Economic View (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1926), 47. Bill CecilFronsman argues that similar levels of wealth concentration were typical of slave-owning regions. See Bill
Common Whites: Class and Culture in Antebellum North Carolina (Lexington: University
Press of Kentucky, 1992), 24-25.
Slavery a n d Sla v eh oldin g in A ntebellum P ied m o n t N o r t h C a r o l in a 413
a b le 1 (continued)
Slave Ownership in 1860
% Slave-owning
# of Persons Living in
Separate Overseer &
Farm Manager Families
# of Free Persons
Living or Working in
Slave-owner Households
% of Free Population Living or Working in Slaveowner Households
# of Free & Enslaved
Living or Working in
Slave-owner Households
% of Free & Enslaved
Living or Working in
Slave-owner Households
Slaves as a % of
Slave-owner Households
Wake 30.52 367 6,194 34.61 16,927 59.13 63.41
Orange 26.67 68 3,321 28.05 8,816 50.86 62.33
Alamance 30.85 16 2,751 32.72 6,196 52.28 55.60
Total 451 12,266 31,939
a b l e 2
Estate Values in Slave-owning Households in 1860
Estate Values
Slave Owner
Estate Values
Real Estate Personal
Property Real Estate Personal Property Estate Real Personal Property
Wake $5,376,951 $13,885,370 $4,439,355 $12,847,013 82.6 92.5
Orange $1,785,921 $5,550,375 $1,311,783 $4,956,098 73.5 89.3
Alamance $1,907,923 $3,856,683 $1,447,737 $3,615,154 75.9 93.7
Total $9,070,795 $23,292,428 $7,198,875 $21,418,265
SOURCE: Slave and free population schedules of the 1860 United States Census for Alamance, Orange, and
Wake counties.

414 Daniel L. Fountain
By the mid-1800s, Henry Mordecai was managing a plantation in Raleigh now known as Mordecai House,
growing mainly com. Slaves on the plantation not only worked in the fields, but also took care of the Mordecai children and prepared food for the family. “Aunt Missouri and a baby in a carriage” are depicted in this
ca. 1900-1920 photograph of Mordecai House, built in 1795, from the State Archives of North Carolina,
The disproportionate wealth of slaveholding households in Alamance, Orange,
and Wake counties is equaled by the prominent positions and occupations household members held throughout the region. Bolstered by Raleigh’s status as state
capital, the slave owners residing in these three counties in 1860 included the
governor of North Carolina, the secretary of state, the state treasurer of North
Carolina, two state supreme court justices, the president of the University of
North Carolina, the superintendent of the Raleigh and Gaston Railroad, the treasurer of the North Carolina Railroad, the mayor of Raleigh, twelve University
of North Carolina professors, two bank officers, two county officers, a sheriff and
deputy sheriff, as well as the constable of Raleigh. There were also a total of 205
slave owners who identified themselves as either merchants, doctors, ministers,
lawyers, dentists, engineers, editors, or publishers, which would place them among
the region’s most important and influential professionals and cultural leaders.
Furthermore, slave owners, especially those living in Wake County, were well
represented among the region’s business class. Slave owners served as grocers,
clerks, railroad and mill agents, hotelkeepers, brokers, traders, confectioners, bank
clerks and cashiers, booksellers, builders, restaurateurs, landlords, and druggists.
Slavery and Slaveholding in Antebellum Piedmont N orth Carolina 415
While perhaps lacking the social clout of those who largely were unassociated
with manual labor, slave owners who were skilled artisans provided the region
with many essential or desired services. At least ninety-two different slave owners
worked as mechanics, stone masons, midwives, carpenters, millers, cabinetmakers,
tin workers, saddle and harness makers, jewelers, daguerreotype artists, milliners,
machinists, brick makers, foundry workers, coach makers, telegraph operators,
butchers, piano makers, tanners, blacksmiths, wagonmakers, artists, limners, gunsmiths, boot makers, tobacconists, manufacturers, surveyors, and wheelwrights.
The greatest occupational diversity existed in Wake County, with slave owners
working in eighty-five different occupations, while those in Orange and Alamance made livings in forty-seven and twenty-three. From the political to the
practical, slave owners in Alamance, Orange, and Wake counties served in highly
influential or economically essential positions throughout their communities.
However, not all slaveholders in these Piedmont counties were wealthy, powerful, or influential. Some slave owners faced difficult circumstances because of
their age or race. Older slave-owning whites of modest means likely gained very
little from their legal status. For example, sixty-eight-year-old Jane Mabry of Wake
County possessed a modest estate worth less than $1,000, had no identifiable occupation, and her household did not appear in the agricultural census. The sevenyear-old slave she owned was the only other occupant of her home and doubtless
provided Jane with little more than assistance with basic chores. Martha Wheeley
of Orange County lived in similar circumstances. Wheeley was a fifty-seven-yearold farmer who owned $200 of personal property and, like Mabry, did not appear
in the agricultural census. It is very likely that Wheeley received more help from
the white thirty-year-old woman and six-year-old child with whom she lived than
from the eighty-year-old enslaved man she owned. Nancy Lynch of Raleigh very
likely faced the same modest returns from her ownership of slave property. Lynch
was a seventy-one-year-old seamstress who owned $25 of personal property in
1860. The ninety-six-year-old woman Lynch owned is unlikely to have given her
much assistance with her livelihood or household responsibilities. It is extremely
doubtful that most slave-owning families, much less prominent ones like the
Camerons, Mordecais, or Ruffins, would have seen these slave-owning households
of modest circumstances as having much in common with their class, despite sharing the title of master.
Free blacks also faced doubtful benefits from their legal status as slave owners.
Daniel Price of Wake County was a thirty-five-year-old mulatto male who worked
in the less than prestigious occupation of a ditcher. According to the census,
Daniel owned only $40 of personal property, among which was a one-hundredyear-old slave named Peter. Adeline Bowles, a thirty-two-year-old free black
woman from Chapel Hill, was far better off financially than Daniel Price, as the
census indicates she owned $800 in real estate and $650 in personal property.
416 D a n ie l L. Fo u n t a in
However, Bowles’s property did not offer her much distinction, as she lacked a
designated occupation, and her property did not yield agricultural returns worthy
enough to be recorded in the census. In fact, Adeline lived alone except for
the forty-seven-year-old male slave whom she owned. He was very likely a
family member if not, in fact, her husband.12 In an age of declining freedom for
North Carolina free blacks, most white citizens probably would have viewed the
inclusion of Daniel or Adeline’s household in the slave-owning ranks as a mere
technicality. They would have been accorded little, if any, additional respect.
While the description of slave-owning officeholders, professionals, business
owners, skilled artisans, free blacks, and whites of meager means helps demonstrate the diversity of slaveholding in the three counties, the vast majority of
slave-owner households in Alamance, Orange, and Wake were led by farmers. Of
the 2,113 slave owners who identified an occupation in the 1860 U.S. Census,
1,648, or 78 percent, described themselves as a farmer or as a farmer who pursued
at least one other occupation. Alamance County had the highest percentage of
farmers, with 84-4 percent of its slave owners identified as such. Orange and Wake
counties had 78.6 percent and 75.9 percent of slave owners identified as some
type of farmer. Undoubtedly these figures still underestimate the dominance of
farming in the region, as many of the slave-owning households that were headed
by ministers, lawyers, and bank officers still appear in the agricultural census for
1860. Both as a sustainer of life and as the region’s economic engine, agriculture
was king in these Piedmont counties, and slave owners were members of the royal
Slave-owning households dominated virtually all of the major categories measured in the 1860 agricultural census; there were 1,770 in Alamance, Orange, and
Wake counties. Despite the fact that these households represent only 45 percent
of the farms recorded in the census, slave-owning households reflect almost 70
percent of the values or totals recorded in the major categories of data collected
for that survey (see Table 3). For example, slave-owning households owned an
identical 71.2 percent of both the improved and unimproved farm acres in the
three counties, which in turn meant that they controlled 75.2 percent of the cash
value of all farms in the region. These farms also produced the lion’s share of the
three counties’ agricultural output. Slave-owning households produced 66.2 percent of the corn, 68.8 percent of the wheat, 74.5 percent of the oats, 69.9 percent
of the tobacco, 81.9 percent of the cotton, 61 percent of the orchard products,
89.4 percent of the market garden products, 62.3 percent of the home manufactures, and 59.7 percent of the value of all animals slaughtered. The only major
12. John Hope Franklin argues that most free black slave owners held title to family members and other
persons largely for “benevolent reasons” and that most antebellum free blacks experienced declining economic circumstances and opportunities. Franklin’s findings mesh well with those of this study. John Hope
The Free Negro in North Carolina 1790-1860 (New York: W. W. Norton, 1943), 159-161.
Slavery a n d Sla v eh oldin g in A ntebellum Pied m o n t N o r t h C a r o l in a 417
commercial category that non-slave owners dominated was in the region’s paltry
production of rice. Wake and Orange county farmers grew 12,962 and 9 pounds of
rice in 1860, and 85.2 percent of this was grown by non-slaveholding farmers. A
few grains of rice aside, the evidence is clear that slave-owning households owned
the most productive and valuable of the 3,910 farms recorded in the agricultural
census for Alamance, Orange, and Wake counties.13
Another measure of the slave owners’ agricultural dominance was their level
of investment in farm machinery and implements, as well as livestock. At a time
when the North Carolina economy had awakened from its Rip Van Winkle phase
to provide free people greater opportunities for success, slave-owning households controlled 72 percent of the investment in farm machinery and implements and 68.2 percent of the value of all livestock in Alamance, Orange, and
Wake counties.14 The slave owners’ dominance of such agricultural statistics from
1860 reflects their primacy in the expansion of commercial farming in the region
following the completion of the North Carolina Railroad. In 1860, all three counties recorded significant total gains over the values and output of 1850, which
can be attributed largely to the railroad-driven expansion of the marketplace.15
Paul Escott has shown that the railroad and invigorated economy drew many new
people into market participation in the Piedmont.16 While yeoman farmers
embraced commercial farming to some degree, it was slave owners who were best
poised to benefit from the new market conditions.
In 1850, the value of all farms and farm implements in the three counties
was $3,880,802. By 1860, slave-owner lands and implements alone were worth
$5,460,952, easily surpassing the previous decade’s figure for all farms. While this
significant gain in value benefited all landholding farmers, it certainly would have
allowed the already better off slave owners to expand their operations by giving
them greater access to capital for purchasing more land, livestock, farm equipment, and slaves. This benefit is perhaps reflected in the slave owners’ agricultural
output. For example, by 1860, slave-owner households alone surpassed the entire
county totals for the value of livestock and the value of animals slaughtered for
1850. Likewise, in 1850, the totals for wheat, tobacco, and cotton for all farmers in
13. Slave owners in Madison County, Tennessee, dominated agricultural production in a similar fashion.
Edwards, “Men of Subsistence and Men of Substance,” 315.
14. William A. Link,
North Carolina: Change and Tradition in a Southern State (Wheeling, 111.: Harlan
Davidson, 2009), 171.
15. Alan D. Watson,
Internal Improvements in Antebellum North Carolina (Raleigh: Office of Archives
and History, N.C. Department of Cultural Resources, 2002), 123; Milton Ready,
The Tar Heel State:
A History of North Carolina (Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 2005), 183; Link, North Carolina: Change and Tradition in a Southern State, 151-154
16. Paul D. Escott, “Yeoman Independence and the Market: Social Status and Economic Development in
Antebellum North Carolina,”
North Carolina Historical Review 66 (July 1989): 275-300.
418 D a n ie l L. Fo u n t a in
Table 3
Agricultural Production of Slave-owning Households in 1860
County Totals
Improved Acres
Unimproved, Acres
Value of Farm
Value of Farm Machinery
& Implements
Value of Livestock
Bushels of Wheat
Bushels of Com
Bushels of Oats
Alamance 110,655 109,538 $1,512,700 $95,994 $3.39,720 140,215 263,280 58,806
Orange 101,354 246,040 $2,141,690 $129,292 $531,353 157,794 400,242 81,825
Wake 183,947 368,019 $3,246,866 $151,291 $823,523 79,293 725,843 48,391
Total 395,956 723,597 $6,901,256 $376,577 $1,694,596 377,302 1,389,365 189,022
113,900 208,389 $1,711,400 $105,481 $539,464 117,827 470,253 48,190
Owner % 28.8 28.8 24.8 28.0 31.8 31.2 33.8 25.5
per Farm 56.7 103.7 $851.40 $52.50 $268.40 58.6 234.0 24.0
Slave Owner Totals
Improved Acres
Unimproved Acres
Value of Farm
Value of Farm
Machinery &
Value of Livestock
Bushels of Wheat
Bushels of Com
Bushels of Oats
Alamance 76,546 72,309 $1,095,550 $65,989 $220,780 97,383 176,848 45,537
% of
County 69.2 66.0 72.4 68.7 65.0 69.5 67.2 77.4
Orange 65,525 166,015 $1,547,724 $89,529 $349,942 104,059 241,863 54,843
% of
County 64.6 67.5 72.3 69.2 65.9 65.9 60.4 67.0
Wake 139,985 276,884 $2,546,582 $115,578 $584,410 58,033 500,401 40,452
% of
County 76.1 75.0 78.4 76.4 71.0 73.2 68.9 83.6
Total 282,056 515,208 $5,189,856 $271,096 $1,155,132 259,475 919,112 140,832
per Farm 148.5 271.2 $2,731.50 $142.70 $608.00 136.6 483.7 74.1
Total Slave
Owner % 71.2 71.2 75.2 72.0 68.2 68.8 66.2 74.5
Source: 1860 United States Agricultural Census for Alamance, Orange, and Wake counties.
Slavery and Slaveholding in Antebellum Piedmont N orth Carolina 419
Table 3 (continued)
Agricultural Production of Slave-owning Households in 1860
County Totals
Pounds of Rice
Pounds of Tobacco
Ginned Cotton
400’■lb. Bales
Value of Orchard
Value of Market
Garden Products
Value of Home
Value of Animals
# of Farms
555,245 58 $24,333 $113 $12,685 $107,448 883
9 1,159,764 848 $2,514 $10 $19,367 $145,400 1,396
12,953 314,754 6,112 $13,798 $3,002 $38,942 $291,657 1,631
12,962 2,029,763 7,018 $40,645 $3,125 $70,994 $544,505 3,910
11,047 610,832 1,267.8 $15,861 $330 $26,799 $219,514 2,010
85.2 30.1 18.1 39.0 10.6 37.7 40.3 51.4
5.5 303.9 0.6 $7.90 0.2 $13.30 $109.20 1,303.33
Slave Owner Totals
Pounds of Rice
Pounds of Tobacco
Ginned Cotton
400-lb. Bales
Value of Orchard
Value of Market
Garden Products
Value of Home
Value of Animals
# of Farms
# of Farms wl
Agricultural Data
427,110 58 $14,187 $105 $8,813 $60,702 437 431
76.9 100.0 58.3 92.9 69.5 56.5
5 736,578 597 $1,657 $50 $11,845 $85,498 620 496
55.6 63.5 70.4 65.9 500.0 61.2 58.8
1,910 255,243 5,095.3 $8,940 $2,640 $23,537 $178,791 843 843
14.7 81.1 83.4 64.8 87.9 60.4 61.3
1,915 1,418,931 5,750.3 $24,784 $2,795 $44,195 $324,991 1,900 1,770
1.0 746.8 3.0 $13.00 $1.50 $23.30 $171.00
14.8 69.9 81.9 61.0 89.4 62.3 59.7 48.6 45.3

420 D a n iel L. Fo u n t a in
Edwin M. Holt (1807-1884), who built a textile mill in Alamance County in 1837, also had a 1,693-acre
plantation, Oak Grove, in that county. In 1860, fifty-one slaves lived on the plantation, twenty-four of whom
were less than ten years old.
Dictionary of North Carolina Biography, s.v. “Holt, Edwin Michael.” Engraving of
Holt, ca. 1906, from the N.C. State Archives.
the three counties were 220,341 bushels of wheat, 223,745 pounds of tobacco, and
2,485 bales of cotton. In 1860, slave owners alone exceeded this output for the
three most important commercial crops by producing 259,475 bushels of wheat,
1,418,931 pounds of tobacco, and 5,750 bales of cotton and overwhelmingly were
the region’s leading producers. Clearly, slave owners responded to and dominated the growing marketplace in the region. In doing so, slave owners would
have expanded the economic impact of slavery even more by contributing to the
financial success of other residents like millers, butchers, cotton gin and textile
operators, and tobacconists, as well as the draymen and railroad workers who
transported crops or livestock.
While slave-owning farmers in the three counties dominated agricultural production in their communities, they did not approach the market in a uniform
way. Slave-owning farmers in Alamance and Orange counties favored the production of wheat, oats, and tobacco, while those in Wake County concentrated more
on cotton and corn. The farms of Alamance and Orange County slave owners
produced over 77 percent of the wheat, 71 percent of the oats, and exactly 82
Slavery and Slaveholding in Antebellum Piedmont N orth Carolina 421
The farms of Alamance and Orange counties produced over 77 percent of the wheat and 71 percent of the oats
grown in the three Piedmont counties. Holt produced wheat, com, oats, fruits, and vegetables at Oak Grove, as
well as dairy products, beef, and pork. The earliest part of the Holt plantation house, now the Alamance County
Historical Museum, was built in 1790. Photograph courtesy of Alamance County Historical Museum, Burlington, North Carolina.
percent of the tobacco grown in slave-owning households in the three counties.
This in part reflects the “three-field shift of tobacco, wheat, and com” that was
practiced in the tobacco-growing counties.17 In contrast, Wake County produced
88.6 percent of the cotton and 54-4 percent of the com grown by slave owners in
the three counties. Orange County had the largest number of tobacco growers,
227, and led the region with 51.9 percent of the total crop produced. Another
distinguishing characteristic of this group is the fact that Alamance and Orange
County slave-owning farmers on average grew a greater diversity of crops than
did those of Wake. For example, 81.3 percent of Alamance and 80.2 percent of
Orange slave-owning farms produced three to five of the following crops: wheat,
com, oats, tobacco, and cotton. Only 69.6 percent of all Wake County slaveowning farms produced three to five of the crops from that list.18 Wake farmers
17. Taylor, Slaveholding in North Carolina, 34.
18. Mary Eschelbach Gregson found that Missouri farmers also responded to commercialization by growing a diversity of crops. Mary Eschelbach Gregson, “Specialization in Late-Nineteenth-Century Midwestern Agriculture: Missouri as a Test Case,”
Agricultural History 67 (Winter 1993): 18. North Carolina’s
largest slave owner, Paul Cameron, concentrated on “mixed farming and livestock raising.” See Jeffrey J.
Crow, Paul D. Escott, and Flora J. Hatley Wadelington, A
History of African Americans in North Carolina,
2nd ed. (Raleigh: Office of Archives and History, N.C. Department of Cultural Resources, 2011), 53;
422 D a n ie l L. Fo u n t a in
were also far more likely to grow only one crop at 7.3 percent, while Orange and
Alamance farmers of the same category comprised only 2.6 percent and .7 percent
of the county totals.
A third area differentiating the three counties is the crop choices of small slave
owners. Virtually all masters owning one to five slaves in Alamance and Orange
counties grew wheat and corn, and nearly two-thirds grew oats. However, that
same group of farmers was much less likely to grow the counties’ leading inedible
cash crop. Only 26.3 percent of Alamance and 40.4 percent of Orange County
small slave-owning farmers grew tobacco. A total of only nine small farmers in
Orange and Alamance counties grew any cotton, for a combined percentage of
3.7 percent. In contrast, 50.5 percent and 10.5 percent of Wake County’s small
slave-owning farmers grew cotton or tobacco. Also, fewer Wake County small
slave-owning farmers grew wheat (71.6 percent) and oats (39.5 percent) than
in Alamance and Orange counties. In other words, while Alamance and Orange
County small slave-owning farmers appear to have favored crops they could eat if
they could not sell them, those in Wake County were more willing to plant inedible cash crops and face greater risks in the market.
Interestingly, despite the agricultural dominance of slave-owner households, a
total of only five slave-owning individuals were identified as planters in the 1860
U.S. Census. Planters were the apex of the antebellum southern social structure
and wielded power far greater than their numbers. While nineteenth-century contemporaries used the term “planter” variably, most historians reserve the word for
slave owners who owned at least twenty slaves, which would have marked them as
some of the wealthiest people in the region.19 The conspicuous wealth and power
controlled by these individuals made them the envy of or role model for most of
the South’s free population, of which a sizable majority was yeomen farmers with
no slaves. Despite their minority status and comprising only 12 percent of all slave
owners, planters were disproportionately represented in the South’s legislatures
and among its congressional delegations. For example, in 1860, 81 percent of the
representatives in North Carolina’s state legislature were slave owners, and 35
percent of these elected officials owned twenty or more slaves.20 Given the disproportionate authority that the planter class enjoyed, one might assume that slave
owners would eagerly lay claim to the title as well as to the power and privilege
that accompanied owning twenty or more slaves. However, that does not appear
to be the case in Alamance, Orange, and Wake counties.
All five of the individuals identified as planters in the United States Census
owned property in Wake County, but none were among the top ten slave owners
in that county. While most certainly were wealthy, they did not all farm, and they
Cornelius O. Cathey, Agriculture in North Carolina before the Civil War (Raleigh, N.C.: State Department
of Archives and History, 1966), 45.
19. Peter Kolchin, American
Slavery, 1619-1877 (New York: Hill and Wang, 1993), xiii.
20. Link,
North Carolina: Change and Tradition in a Southern State, 178.
Slavery and Slaveholding in A ntebellum Piedmont N orth Carolina 423
One of the largest slaveholders in the South was Paul C. Cameron. By 1861, he was “unquestionably the richest man in the state, [with] at least thirty thousand acres in not just one but a composite of plantations—Snow
Hill, Brick House, Stagville, and Faimtosh—with many adjoining plantations and farms.”
Dictionary of North
Carolina Biography,
s.v. “Cameron, Paul Carrington.” Engraving from University Magazine 19 (December 1886):
facing 121.
owned an average of only twenty-two slaves (the largest number of slaves owned
was forty-eight; the smallest, three). The overall top ten slave owners in the three
counties each owned over one hundred slaves, and yet not one of these individuals identified himself as a planter. It is possible that these five planters owned
vast estates elsewhere, but their Wake County holdings make the title seem out
of place. The labeling of these five individuals could be a quirk of the Raleigh
census taker, W. D. Scarborough, as he recorded the information for each of the
individuals listed as planters. That aside, it is surprising that none of the largest
slave owners in these counties, including Paul Cameron, one of the largest slave
owners in the South, were identified as planters. Perhaps the legacy of republican
simplicity set by Warren County native Nathaniel Macon in the late eighteenth
and early nineteenth century dissuaded these individuals from assuming the loftier
title, or the term was not used as frequently in the Piedmont by agriculturalists or
census takers
21. Macon served in the N.C. Senate, the U.S. House of Representatives, and the U.S. Senate. William S.
Nathaniel Macon: Three Views of His Character and Creed (Raleigh: Office of Archives and History,
N.C. Department of Cultural Resources, 2008).
424 Daniel L. Fountain
T able 4
Slave-Owner Households by Number of Slaves Owned
1 to 3 1 to 5
6 to
1 to
21 to
51 to
Wake 350 506 256 185 98 14 6 1,065
% of Wake 32.9 47.5 24.0 17.4
9.2 1.3 0.6
Orange 235 326 134 92 44 6 2 *610
% of Orange 38.5 53.4 22.0 15.1 7.2 1.0 0.3
Alamance 198 279 106 72 20 4 0 481
% of Alamance 41.2 58.0 22.0 15.0 4.2 0.8 0.0
Total 783 1,111 496 349 162 24 8 2,156
% of Wake,
Orange, and Alamance Counties
36.32 51.53 23.01 16.19 7.51 1.11 0.37
Source: Slave and free population schedules of the 1860 United States Census for Alamance, Orange, and
Wake counties. I used groupings of 1 to 3 slaves and 1 to 5 slaves in order to show greater nuance in the data
on small slaveholders, who constituted the majority in all three counties.
*The number of slave owners from Orange County in the final column of Table 4 does not add up because
six slave owners could not be linked to a specific household. The number of households for Orange County is
technically 604 plus 6. Although these individuals do not appear in a specified household, they are listed as
slave owners in the county.
There were 2,388 slave owners living in 2,156 individual households in Alamance, Orange, and Wake counties (see Table 4). Wake County led the region
and state in the number of slave owners (1,203) and was second statewide only to
Granville County in the number of slaves owned (10,733). Orange County had the
tenthdargest number of slave owners (685) in the state but ranked only twentyfirst in the number of slaves owned (5,495). Alamance was by far the smallest of
the three, with only 500 slave owners owning 3,445 slaves and related state rankings of twenty-sixth and forty-second. Numerically speaking, the typical slaveowning household in these three counties was a single family living on a farm with
its members comprised of a male slave owner of approximately forty-seven years of
age, four of his family members, and nine slaves. There were nearly fifteen (14-8)
free and enslaved members living in the typical slave-owning household. On average, Wake County slave-owning households owned ten slaves, while households
in Orange and Alamance counties owned nine and seven. Three hundred slaveowner households also identified 414 employees living with them at the time of
the census, with over 65 percent of these persons living in Wake County. Thus,
the largest households were in Wake County, with an average of 15.5 household
members, while Alamance had the smallest, with just under thirteen members
Slavery and Slaveholding in Antebellum Piedmont N orth C arolina 425
In the 1860 census for Alamance, Orange, and Wake counties, only 109 individuals identified themselves as
overseers or managers. The majority worked in Wake County. In this engraving, an overseer directs slaves repairing roads on an unidentified South Carolina plantation, ca. 1855. “The overseer rode about among them, on a
horse, carrying in his hand a raw-hide whip, constantly directing and encouraging them.” Engraving and quotation from Frederick Law Olmsted,
A Journey in the Seaboard Slave States (New York: Dix and Edwards, 1856), 387.
(12.85). As the average non-slave-owning household in the three counties had
only 5 members, slave-owning households had access to two to three times the
human, material, or financial resources of families who owned no slaves.
Overseers comprised a very small portion of the human assets living and
working in slave-owner households. Only 109 individuals identified themselves
as overseers or managers in the 1860 Census for Alamance, Orange, and Wake
counties. This means that only 5 percent of slave-owner households employed
someone to manage the slaves laboring on their lands. This small percentage of
persons working as overseers reflects the preponderance of smaller slave-owner
estates in the three counties. The vast majority, 82.6 percent, of these overseers
and managers worked in Wake County, which had the largest slaveholdings in the
area. In contrast, Orange County had 16 people working as overseers or managers,
while Alamance had only 3 people employed in this field. A small number, only
17 of the 109 overseers, appeared as residents living in a slave-owning household.
426 D a n ie l L. Fo u n t a in
The Cameron family household in Orange County included 606 free and enslaved people who resided on several
plantations in that county. This two-story, four-room slave cabin at Horton Grove, Stagville Plantation, was
built ca. 1851-1860. Photograph by William R. Garrett, 2013, courtesy of N.C. State Historic Preservation
Office, N.C. Office of Archives and History, Raleigh.
Most overseers lived with their families in separate residences near slave-owner
properties. However, since 93 of the 109 owned no land of their own, they were
likely living on some parcel of their employer’s property as part of their annual
compensation. Most overseers were under forty years of age, and 25 percent were
illiterate. In stark contrast to their employers, most had very few tangible assets.
Twenty-nine percent of overseers held no personal property, while most held an
average of only $426 in personal property. Slave owners held assets more than
twenty times greater than those of overseers, whose assets more closely resembled
those of the population in non-slaveholding households.
The greatest accumulation of human and material assets existed in the Cameron family. Orange County records demonstrate that their household included
606 free and enslaved people residing on their properties in that county.22 Leading this category in Wake and Alamance counties were George W. Mordecai and
Thomas Ruffin, with 304 and 107 household members respectively.23 Of the 10
22. The total number of Cameron family slaves exceeds this figure, as the family had holdings outside
of the counties included in this study, as well as in Alabama and Mississippi. Smith, “African American
Slavery in Piedmont North Carolina,” 7-8.
23. For more information on the Camerons, Mordecais, and Ruffins, see Jean Bradley Anderson,
Plantation: The Bennehan-Cameron Family and Lands in North Carolina
(Durham, N.C.: Historic Preservation Society of Durham, 1985); Emily Bingham, Mordecai, A n Early American Family (New York: Hill and
Wang, 2003); and Sally Greene, “Judge Thomas Ruffin and the Shadows of Southern History,”
17 (Fall 2011): 66-89.
Slavery a n d Sla v eh oldin g in A ntebellum Pied m o n t N o r t h C a r o l in a 427
able 5
Owners with One Slave
Real Estate
Personal Property
# of Household Members
# o f Households
# o f Hired Laborers
Living in Home
# Improved Acres per Slaveowner Household
# Unimproved Acres
per Slaveow ner Household
Average Cash Value
# of Slaves
Alamance $114,850 $150,180 635 96 15 105.60 100.90 $1,405.00 96
Orange $76,112 $157,919 664 106 16 65.23 166.95 $1,250.80 106
Wake $221,182 $394,735 1,149 175 60 79.00 94.00 $1,235.00 175
Total $412,144 $702,834 2,448 377 91 249.83 361.85 $3,890.80 377
per Slaveowner
$1,093.22 $1,864.28 6.49 83.3 120.6 $1,296.90
Source: Slave and free population schedules of the 1860 United States Census for Alamance, Orange, and
Wake counties.
largest slave-owning households, 6 were in Wake County, with 2 apiece in Orange
and Alamance. Households such as these comprised only a tiny fraction of the
total slave-owning households, as there were only 30, or 1.3 percent, that owned
more than fifty slaves. Of those households, only 8, or .3 percent, owned more
than one hundred slaves. While large estates were certainly highly visible and featured numerous influential individuals, slave-owning households of this size were
very uncommon in all of the counties surveyed here.
Most slave-owning households in Alamance, Orange, and Wake counties
owned between one and five slaves (see Table 5). Such households comprised
over half, 51.5 percent, of all slave-owning families, and 377 of those owned
only one slave, forming the largest single category at 17.4 percent. These slave
owners worked alongside their slaves in the fields or shops they owned, performing many if not most of the same tasks as non-slave owners. In other words, the
day-to-day life of those living in small slave-owner households was very similar to those who owned no slaves.24 However, there was a significant difference
24- Edwards, “Men of Subsistence and Men of Substance,” 309-310.
428 D a n ie l L. Fo u n t a in
Table 6
Non-Slave-owning Farms
Average Improved
Acres per Nomslaveowning Household
Average Unimproved
Acres per Non-slaveowning Household
Average Cash
Value of Farm
Alamance 76.30 83.20 $933.00
Orange 48.27 109.11 $800.29
Wake 24.10 107.70 $732.10
Average 49.56 100.00 $821.80
Source: Slave and free population schedules of the 1860 United States Census for Alamance, Orange, and
Wake counties.
between the household wealth and estate value of small slave owners and nonslave owners. According to the 1860 agricultural census, the average non-slaveowning farm contained approximately 50 acres of improved and 100 acres of
unimproved land with a value of nearly $822 (see Table 6). In contrast, slaveowning households with only one slave owned over 83 acres of improved land
and 120 acres of unimproved land worth $1,296. This means that households
with only one slave owned nearly 50 percent more improved land and 18.6
percent more unimproved land, which were worth 44-7 percent more than those
of non-slave owners. The wealth gap increases for households owning one to five
slaves, as they owned an average of 97 acres of improved land and 166 acres of
unimproved land worth $1,577. These small slave-owning households owned 63.9
percent and 49.6 percent more acres of improved and unimproved land, which
was worth 62 percent more than that owned by non-slave owners (see Table 7).
Small slave owners were not only wealthier than non-slave owners, but also
had larger households. Non-slave-owning households averaged 5 members, while
those with one slave averaged 6.49, and those with one to five slaves averaged
nearly 8. Again, this size advantage allowed slave owners to place more hands to
work on life-sustaining and profit-generating tasks. It also increased the financial
and material assets that household members could draw upon.
While slaves were the most significant additions to the size of these households,
another way small slave owners added to their numbers was to hire additional free
labor. Of the 414 free individuals identified as working in all slave-owning households, 220, or 53 percent, of them worked in 148 of the households owning one
to five slaves. As the census only identifies the hired laborers actually living in the
household, this is at best an imprecise measure of how many slave owners hired
free labor. However, the fact that 13 percent of all small slave-owner households
had such laborers living with them indicates that the practice was not uncommon.
Slavery and Slaveholding in A ntebellum Piedmont N orth C arolina 429
The Great Bam at Stagville Plantation, the last major structure to be built on the plantation, was constructed
by slaves and completed around 1860. Photograph by William R. Garrett, 2013, courtesy of N.C. State Historic
Preservation Office, N.C. Office of Archives and History.
The majority of these hired individuals appeared in the census as farm laborers,
day laborers, field hands, or domestics and surely increased the households’ overall
productivity. This boost in labor force usually came at a small cost to the household, as most Piedmont farm laborers received their compensation in kind (room,
board, and provisions), rather than in cash.25 This cheap and readily available
labor source would have allowed small slave owners who were eager to improve
their lot to maximize the amount of labor, free and enslaved, that they could
command when they needed it. Additional laborers would also help small slave
owners to grow crops commercially, rather than simply focusing on household
self-sufficiency, known as safety-first farming. Of those small farmer households
who listed laborers living with them, 82 percent grew wheat, 21.6 percent grew
tobacco, and 26.8 percent grew cotton, which were the most important commercial crops in the region. Possessing more land and greater wealth than non-slave
owners, small slave owners with one to only a few slaves appear to have been well
poised for market participation, which was the most likely path to success in the
antebellum South. While the daily lives of all small farmers had much in common, those who owned human property typically had greater access to human,
25. Charles C. Bolton, Poor Whites of the Antebellum South: Tenants and Laborers in Central North Carolina
and Northeast Mississippi
(Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press, 1994), 17.

430 D a n ie l L. Fo u n t a in
Table 7
Slave-owning Households with One to Five Slaves
Real Estate Personal
# of
# of Households
# of Hired
Living in
Alamance $585,015 $837,854 2,268 279 24
Orange $357,218 $903,763 2,499 326 47
Wake $940,807 $2,035,609 4,072 506 149
Total $1,883,040 $3,777,226 8,839 1,111 220
Average per
$1,694.91 $3,399.84 7.96
Source: Slave and free population schedules of the 1860 United States Census for Alamance, Orange, and
financial, and material resources, which gave them a competitive advantage
economically over most of their non-slave-owning neighbors.
While the vast majority of small slave-owning households were led by
farmers, 218, or 20.9 percent, pursued different occupations. Skilled laborers (66)
and merchants (43) were the largest of such groups. These households used slave
labor in a variety of ways in their professional and private lives, with slaves working in their shops, at their craft, or in their homes. One hundred twenty-eight of
the non-farming, small slave-owning households were in Wake County, and the
majority of these were concentrated in the city of Raleigh. These urban slaveowning households made an even larger imprint on their living environment than
their rural counterparts. For example, of the 4,780 residents of Raleigh, 3,058,
or 64 percent, were free or enslaved members of slave-owner households. Likewise, 62.9 percent, or 1,417 of the 2,277 residents of Chapel Hill, were members
of slave-owning households. This sizeable presence would have been noticeable
even in the physical landscape, as the majority of the houses in each city were
occupied by slave owners and slaves. Based on the free and slave schedules of the
1860 U.S. Census, there were 1,274 and 471 houses for the free and enslaved populations in Raleigh and Chapel Hill. Of these 1,745 houses, 1,072, or 61.4 percent
housed slave owners and their slaves. With such solid majorities of the population
and a significant presence in the landscape as well as among the civic, business,
and professional ranks, slave-owning households would have heavily shaped dayto-day life in these urban environments.
Slavery a n d Slaveholding in A ntebellum Piedmont N orth C arolina 431
Table 7 (continued)
Slave-owning Households with One to Five Slaves
Average Improved
Acres per
Average Unimproved Acres
per Slave-owning Household
Cash Value Slaves
Alamance 121.0 116.3 $1,622.70 716
Orange 76.4 190.8 $1,524.20 809
Wake 94.0 192.0 $1,584.00 1,291
Total 97.0 166.4 $1,577.00 2,816
Average per
Wake counties.
This pattern of slave ownership in Raleigh and Chapel Hill strongly reflects
regional trends. While fewer than 10 percent of all southerners lived in urban
settings, free persons who lived in towns and cities were more likely to own slaves
than their rural counterparts.26 According to Richard C. Wade, while southern
townsfolk tended to own small numbers of slaves, “the practice was widespread
enough to give many a direct involvement in the ‘peculiar institution.’ ” Urban
slave owners also tended to own more women than men.27 Like other southern
town residents, slave owners in Raleigh and Chapel Hill were only a small proportion of the overall county totals, yet they comprised a highly visible and perhaps
defining part of the communities in which they lived. Furthermore, urban slaveowning households were a distinctive component of these Piedmont counties,
reflecting the breadth of environments in which enslaved people lived and worked
throughout North Carolina and the southern United States.
Another significant group of slave-owning households were the 511 that
owned eleven to fifty slaves. Nearly one quarter, or 23.7 percent, of all households fit within this category of prosperous families who were counted among
neither the great planters nor small farmers. The majority (55.3 percent) of these
households were in Wake County, while 26.6 percent were in Orange, and only
18 percent in Alamance. Wake’s dominance among this group most likely reflects
the greater significance of cotton cultivation in that county. Cotton cultivation
26. Kolchin, American Slavery, 177.
27. Richard C. Wade,
Slavery in the Cities: The South 1820-1860 (New York: Oxford University Press,
1969), 20-25.
432 D a n ie l L. Fo u n t a in
These former slaves at Mordecai House in Raleigh are identified as Ananias, “yard man and gardener”; Aunt
Mittie Ann, “laundress”; Uncle Jerry Hinton, “yard work and gardener”; and Aunt Chaney, “cook.” Photograph,
ca. early 1900s, from the N.C. State Archives.
required many more hands than tobacco and wheat, which were the leading cash
crops in both Orange and Alamance.28 Regardless of their preferred cash crop,
these households represented a level of success that with good effort and luck
might be attained in an individual’s lifetime and could very well have provided
those desiring upward mobility a model to follow. Aspirations aside, however, the
fact that nearly three-quarters, 74-5 percent, of all slave-owning households in
the three counties owned ten or fewer slaves shows that family-operated farms
supplemented by slave labor were the most common. These larger estates would
have been seen as part of the most successful households in the three counties,
and while not among the very elite, they would have easily stood apart from small
slave-owner households.
In 1860, 422 women were slave owners and, of these, 306 headed slave-owning
households in the three counties. Overall, women comprised 17.7 percent of all
28. Damian Alan Pargas found that wheat-growing slave owners in Virginia actually preferred owning
fewer slaves, as it was a more efficient use of resources. Pargas,
The Quarters and the Fields: Slave Families
in the
Non-Cotton South (Gainesville: University Press of Florida, 2010), 118-199; Taylor, Slaveholding in
North Carolina,
Slavery and Slaveholding in Antebellum Piedmont N orth Carolina 433
slave owners and headed 14 percent of all slave-owning households in Alamance,
Orange, and Wake counties. Over half (51.4 percent) of the slave-owning women
lived in Wake County, while 32.5 percent and 16.1 percent of the slave-owning
women resided in Orange and Alamance. While numerically superior in Wake,
women comprised about the same proportion of slave owners in all three counties,
with Orange leading and Alamance last in that category, with 20 percent and
13.6 percent respectively. The majority, 61 percent, of these women slave owners
owned 1 to 5 slaves, and 80 percent owned 10 or fewer slaves. Only two women
owned more than 50 slaves. As with their male counterparts, the vast majority,
85.6 percent, of those listing an occupation in the census were identified as farmers, although over a third of those leading a household had no occupation listed
in the census. At an average of 56.8 years of age, the women heading these households were almost a decade older than the average male slave-owning head of
household. Female-led households, averaging 13.25 inhabitants, were also slightly
smaller than the three-county average and contained fewer slaves. The typical
female-led household contained 6.6 slaves, which is less than even the smallest
county average of 7 for Alamance slave owners. While they were still well-off
compared to non-slave owners, female masters owned less real estate ($2,103.57)
and personal property ($7,342.06) than the typical male slave owner.
The difference in ages most likely is because many of these women were widows who had inherited their husbands’ estates later in life. The difference in estate
value can be attributed to the circumstances of women like Nancy Lynch, the
elderly Raleigh seamstress mentioned earlier, which negatively affected the overall averages. The smaller estate value also probably reflects the previous division of
the estate following a spouse’s death, during which some of the family assets were
distributed to persons other than the wife. That said, the top ten slave-owning
women controlled significant wealth and slaves far greater than the typical male
master. Led by Mildred C. Cameron’s 148 slaves, these women owned an average of 45.8 slaves, $7,336 in real estate, and $29,375 in personal property. By any
antebellum standard, these women were very wealthy and controlled impressive
estates. In fact, the typical farm led by a female slave owner was larger and worth
more than those of average slave owners with one to five slaves. Farms led by
female slave owners contained 41-7 more improved acres, over 45 more unimproved acres, and were worth $552 more than the average farms of small slave
owners. Again, this could reflect the female masters’ more advanced age. Older
slave owners would have had more time to accumulate land, slaves, and wealth
than younger persons, which typically would have favored widowed slave owners
who inherited estates later in life.29
29. James Oakes shows that masters acquired slaves later in life, which would have occurred even more
frequently among widows. Oakes,
Slavery and Freedom: An Interpretation of the Old South (New York:
Vintage Books, 1990), 92-93.
434 Daniel L. Fountain
These differences aside, women masters do share an interesting characteristic with small slave owners. Women slave owners who headed households that
appeared in the agricultural census were more likely to grow wheat, corn, and oats
than tobacco and cotton. While 87.4 percent, 98.6 percent, and 57.2 percent of
women slave owners grew wheat, corn, and oats, only 23.3 percent and 27 percent
grew tobacco and cotton. These participation percentages are even lower than
expected for women owning more than ten slaves. Less than half of these women
grew cotton, 42 percent, and only 22 percent grew tobacco. This suggests that
most women slave owners joined smaller producers in taking a more conservative
approach to commercial farming that favored family security over the possibility
of higher market returns for the more valuable inedible crops.30
These varying groups of slave owners are representative of what was a stable
and attractive institution for those seeking to better their lot.31 Between 1850
and 1860, the total number of slave owners in Alamance, Orange, and Wake
counties grew from 2,253 to 2,388. The total number of slave owners increased
significantly in Wake, while the number of owners in both Alamance and Orange
dropped slightly. In Wake County, the total number of slave owners grew by nearly
14 percent, from 1,048 to 1,203. In contrast, the number of slave owners in Ala’
mance and Orange fell from 513 to 500, and 692 to 685, which reflects 2.5 percent
and 1 percent declines in each county. However, while two out of three counties
experienced a slight decline in slave ownership, the total number of slaves in
every county grew. Between 1850 and 1860, the overall total number of slaves in
Alamance, Orange, and Wake counties grew from 17,849 to 19,673, which was
nearly a 10 percent increase. The slave population grew faster than the free population in these counties, which increased by 7 percent over the decade, rising from
35,538 to 38,140. Again, Wake County experienced the greatest growth. Its slave
population increased by 13.1 percent, while that of Alamance and Orange grew
by 7.4 percent and 4.67 percent. This increase in the slave population is another
sign that slavery was thriving within the region and stands in marked contrast to
the overall decline of the slave population between 1830 and 1840. Because slave
owners were migrating to and selling slaves to the booming cotton lands of the
Black Belt, both Orange and Wake counties (Alamance County did not yet exist)
experienced negative population growth among their slave populations during
the 1830s.32 However, the 1860 census marked two consecutive decades of growth
among the slave population, with an overall increase of 27.2 percent since 1840.
30. This finding squares with those of Kristin E. Wood, who found that “slaveholding widows transacted
much like men and used their homes for commerce.” In this case it appears that women shared the small
slave owners’ preference for domestic security over commercial activities. See Wood,
Masterful Women:
Slaveholding Widows from the
American Revolution through the Civil War (Chapel Hill: University of North
Carolina Press, 2004), 92-93.
31. Taylor,
Slaveholding in North Carolina, 47.
32. Ibid., 52-68.
Slavery a n d Sla v eh oldin g in A ntebellum Pied m o n t N o r t h C a r o l in a 435
This growth indicates that slave owners believed their prospects in the region
were as good as if not better than those in other regions. Thus, they neither emigrated nor sold their slaves in large numbers to buyers outside of North Carolina.33
The slight decline in slave ownership in Alamance and Orange counties
perhaps reflects the creative and destructive forces of the market economy that
expanded in the region with the completion of the North Carolina Railroad during the 1850s. For example, in 1850, there were a total of 1,029 small slave owners who owned one to three slaves in the three counties. That number declined
significantly to 889 in 1860, suggesting that competition and consolidation was
making it harder for small slave owners to acquire or hold onto human property.34
Commercial expansion would have created competition for slave laborers, which
would have driven prices upward and made it more difficult for small farmers to
purchase human property.35 Becoming or continuing as a slave owner would also
have been more difficult in the wake of the Panic of 1857, which slowed overall
business activity. Finally, small producers also faced higher transportation costs on
the North Carolina Railroad than large producers who generated revenues for the
carrier because of the large quantities of freight they shipped. Each of these factors
would have hurt less successful farmers and encouraged some level of consolidation in the region during the 1850s. The fact that slave ownership dropped only 1
percent and 2.5 percent suggests that most slave-owning households were reasonably resilient, despite the difficulties of adjusting to new market conditions and a
national economic downturn.36
Despite what appears to have been an uphill battle for aspiring masters, 674, or
75.8 percent, of these 889 small slave owners in the 1860 census appear as masters
for the first time. Certainly some of these individuals had inherited slaves from
persons who had died in the past decade, but most represent individuals who had
acquired slaves on their own. One factor that might have attracted new individuals
to slave ownership was the returns realized by those small slave owners who were
able to hold onto their slave property. The number of slaves held by the 394 small
slave owners in 1850 who remained masters in 1860 increased on average from
1.8 to 4- Some of these individuals saw impressive increases in the number of
slaves they acquired during the decade. H. Scott, an Alamance County merchant,
33. This is in keeping with the conclusions of those who found that slave owning among small fanners was
increasing in the decade before the Civil War. Cathey,
Agriculture in North Carolina before the Civil War,
44; Taylor, Slaveholding in North Carolina, 45—47.
34- Taylor suggests that eastern plantation counties also experienced some consolidation between 1840
and 1860 but simultaneously noted that “in North Carolina slaveowning was becoming more widespread.”
Both of these trends seem to be reflected in the data for Alamance, Orange, and Wake counties. Taylor,
Slaveholding in North Carolina, 47.
35. Guion Griffis Johnson shows that “During the fifties the price of slaves climbed steadily upward.”
Ante-Bellum North Carolina: A Social History (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press,
1937), 475H-76.
36. Allen W. Trelease,
The North Carolina Railroad, 1849-1871, and the Modernization of North Carolina
(Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1991), 98-99. For turnover among and the economic
challenges of small slave owners, see also Cecil-Fronsman,
Common Whites, 28.
436 D a n iel L. Fo u n t a in
This 1860 tax list belonging to Edwin M. Holt shows the acreage of his Alamance County plantation (1,693
acres) as well as the names, ages, and monetary value of the slaves who labored there. Photograph courtesy of the
Alamance County Historical Museum.
Slavery and Slaveholding in A ntebellum Piedmont North Carolina 437
had one slave in 1850 and 36 by 1860. Charles Freeland, a farmer and doctor in
Orange County, saw similar returns, as his number of slaves grew from 3 in 1850
to 31 in 1860. Finally, Louis Peck, a Wake County grocer, owned 18 slaves in 1860
after owning only 2 in 1850. In fact, 30 small slave owners in 1850 saw their total
number of slaves reach double digits by 1860. Such growth among a slave owner’s
human property would have elevated an individual into the top 25 percent of
slave owners in his or her respective county. That this level of increase in slave
property for small slave owners was possible and occurred in each of the three
counties would have given aspiring masters reason to hope for future returns from
the institution.
Indeed, many of the new owners in 1860 appear to have been looking to the
future, as 249, or 36.9 percent, of them owned only children or adolescents. These
slave owners would not have benefited from their bondsmen’s productive and
reproductive capabilities until many years later. For example, John Kernodle of
Alamance County owned two boys, ages 10 and 6, and one 13-year-old girl. Josiah
Pullen of Wake County owned a male and female, ages 16 and 14, while S. S.
Jackson of Orange owned a 12-year-old boy and an 11-year-old girl. While some
of these children and adolescent-only groups were probably siblings, it is likely
that masters hoped that most of them who were unrelated would form mating
couples. That these new masters sought to increase their investment via future
babies borne by their own slaves is further supported by the fact that these new
small slave owners disproportionately owned females. Females comprised 61 percent of the slaves owned by new masters owning one to three slaves. The potential opportunities that slave ownership promised even attracted some seemingly
unlikely individuals to pursue the title of master. Leonidas Poole was a 27-year-old
day laborer in Wake County who owned an 11-year-old girl. Similarly, John Hill,
a farm laborer of Wake County, owned a 20-year-old woman and a 1-year-old boy.
Isaac Moore and Thomas Trewett of Alamance County were both laborers who
each owned one little girl. Moore owned a 5-year-old girl, and Trewett owned a
3-year-old girl. Finally, Brinkly Hopson of Orange County was a 27-year-old farm
laborer who owned a 16-year-old girl.
Laborers who aspired to be masters would logically purchase children and teenagers since slaves in that age range would have been among the cheapest slaves
available. Children and teenagers also would offer the purchaser the potential for
the greatest number of years of future work and the potential for fertility. Some
slave sale data from Wake County helps illustrate this fact. For example, in 1846,
Terrell Gill purchased Clary, an 8-year-old girl, for $200, and in 1850, he bought a
5-year-old boy named McDaniel for $140. In 1852, William Upchurch purchased
9-year-old Winny and 6-year-old William for $300 and $200 respectively. In contrast, William Strickland’s 1852 purchase of Calvin, a man in his mid-thirties,
cost him $650, while John O ’Rorke’s purchase of 33-year-old Davis cost him $670.
438 D a n ie l L. Fo u n t a in
Caswell Holt was one of fifty-one slaves owned by Edwin M. Holt in 1860. His name appears on the county tax
list shown on page 436. After emancipation, he married and moved to Graham, where he sharecropped on land
owned by Holt’s cousin, Jeremiah Holt. He was severely beaten by Ku Klux Klansmen in 1868, and a year later
Klansmen shot and wounded him at his home and attacked his family. He died in 1917 at the age of eighty-three.
William Murray Vincent,
Historic Alamance County: A Biographical History (San Antonio, Tex.: Historical Publishing Network, 2009), 35-36. Photograph of Caswell Holt, ca. 1912, when he was about seventy-eight years
old, courtesy of the Alamance County Historical Museum.
As these prices demonstrate, children would cost masters far less than investing
in adults. If the child survived into his or her teens or later, the slave owner could
benefit financially by renting the slave to others if the child could not be put to
work on the slave owner’s land. For example, William Haywood paid C. McRae
$578.65 plus two sets of winter and summer clothes to rent four slaves—Henry,
Monroe, Bern, and Stephen—for 1853. Likewise, in 1854, the Strickland family paid Leroy Mitchell $450 to rent two slaves, Lewis Seneca and Will, for the
year.37 The fee to hire slaves skilled in carpentry or other artisanal work on a yearly
basis could command even higher prices. Annual rents for slave hiring increased
during the 1850s to $100 to $225 per year, allowing a landless slave owner to
37. C. McRae to Wm H. Haywood, deed for renting slaves Henry, Monroe, Ben, and Stephen, January 1,
1854, Book 20, p. 596; Leroy Mitchell to the Strickland Family, deed for renting slaves Lewis Seneca and
Will, March 15, 1855, Book 20, p. 501, both in Wake County Deeds, N.C. State Archives.
Slavery and Slaveholding in Antebellum Piedmont North Carolina 439
Morgan London Latta (1853-?) was bom a slave on one of the Cameron plantations at Fishdam, near the Neuse
River, about twenty-five miles from Raleigh. He attended Shaw University and in 1892, established a school
for African Americans, Latta University, in Raleigh near the present-day Cameron Village area. Photograph of
Rev. M. L. Latta and his wife from
The History of My Life and Work: Autobiography by Rev. M. L. Latta (Raleigh,
N.C.: The author, 1903), frontispiece.
recoup his investment in a slave child fairly quickly.38 Still, it could not have
been a lightly made decision for a laborer, lacking land and holding few assets, to
commit even a few hundred dollars to the purchase of a slave. The fact that laborers
with very modest means embraced slave ownership suggests that slavery was still
an attractive path for economic and social advancement for many people in these
Piedmont counties during the late antebellum era. Such behavior calls into
question Rosser Howard Taylor and John Hope Franklin’s findings that slavery in
North Carolina “was not generally profitable
.” 39
38. Taylor, Slaveholding in North Carolina, 77-79; Trelease, North Carolina Railroad, 62-63.
39. Taylor,
Slaveholding in North Carolina, 98; Franklin, Free Negro in North Carolina, 8-9. In contrast
to Taylor and Franklin, Crow, Escott, and Wadelington argue that slavery not only was the basis for
440 D a n ie l L. Fo u n t a in
The people who made such economic and social advancement possible are
the final, largest, and most important component of slave-owning households.
Slaves were a majority of those living and working in slave-owning households in
Alamance, Orange, and Wake counties and comprised 61.6 percent of the persons
in those households. Slaves in Wake County led the region with 63.4 percent,
while the enslaved of Orange and Alamance made up 62.3 percent and 55.6 percent. While nearly 52 percent of all slave-owning households owned 1 to 5 slaves,
the vast majority of the enslaved population lived on farms and plantations with
6 or more slaves. Only 2,833, or 14-4 percent, of the slaves in the three counties lived and worked in small slave-owner households that contained between 1
and 5 slaves. The largest portion, 45.4 percent, of the enslaved population lived
on farms containing between 6 and 20 slaves, followed closely by those owning
over 20 slaves, with 40.2 percent. As was true elsewhere in the South, slave owners with more than 20 slaves—roughly 9 percent of the slave owners in these
Piedmont counties—owned a disproportionate number of the region’s slaves.40
The overall slave population was balanced in regard to age and gender makeup.
Females comprised 50.7 percent, and males 49.3 percent, of the entire slave population, an average that was nearly identical in all three counties (see Table 8).
For this survey, the population was divided into age ranges of 50+, 18 to 49, 17
to 12, and 11 to less than 1 year of age. In every county, males and females were
within less than one percentage point of one another in each of the designated
age ranges, with one exception. In Wake County, females between the ages of 18
and 49 outnumbered their male counterparts by 1.4 percent, which is hardly a significant difference. Children and teenagers under the age of 18 formed the largest
demographic, with 55.5 percent of the overall slave population. Children younger
than 12 were the single largest age category in the survey and represented 39.7
percent of the total population. In contrast, slaves who were 50 and older represented only 8.8 percent and were the smallest portion of the slave population. The
oldest slave in the three counties was a 105-year-old woman owned by N. P. Hall,
a farmer and merchant of Orange County. This unnamed centenarian was part
of the less than 2 percent of the slave population who managed to live past their
sixty-ninth birthday. In other words, the high percentage of young people within
the slave population meant that the masters of Alamance, Orange, and Wake
counties owned a work force whose best years were yet to come.
While the overall slave population was balanced in regard to age and gender,
this was not necessarily reflected in individual households. Over 18 percent of all
slave-owning households held only one slave, which meant that a large number
prosperous agricultural operations, but also that in the antebellum era, slaves were “an ever popular form
of investment and . . . source of labor.” Crow, Escott, and Wadelington,
History of African Americans in
North Carolina,
53. Cathey also found that slavery was increasingly popular among “the farmer class.”
Agriculture in North Carolina before the Civil War, 44-
40. Oakes,
Slavery and Freedom, 92.
Slavery and Slaveholding in Antebellum Piedmont N orth Carolina 441
of slaves lived and worked most days without the company and support of fellow
bondsmen. Given the large number of slave owners with only one slave, it is not
surprising then that over 25 percent of all slave owners owned members of only
one sex. While this gender imbalance was offset in some households with more
than one slave owner, this was not true in a majority of cases. This meant that
slaves seeking a mate would have to look beyond the confines of their own farm
and secure permission from their owner as well as their potential spouse’s owner
to do so. If slaves were allowed to marry abroad, they would then have to secure
permission to visit their family members on a regular basis. Masters frequently
used this to their advantage to demonstrate their control, punish the disobedient,
and discourage slaves from running away.41 This naturally complicated family life
for the enslaved but was not unexpected in areas with a large number of small
slave-owning households.42 Despite these complications, the slave population of
all three counties was growing as of the 1860 census. Clearly, difficult or not, many
slaves in Alamance, Orange, and Wake counties did manage to form marriages or
sexual unions with others who did not live with them on a regular basis. Still, the
small farm structure of the three counties does not appear to have been particularly conducive for forming resident nuclear families among the slave population.
Over 46 percent of all of the slave-owner households in all three counties
lacked even one possible adult couple within their own slave populations. In
Alamance County, with its larger percentage of small slave-owning households,
this figure climbed to nearly 52 percent. However, these percentages are likely
lower than the actual figures, as the calculation hinged on a liberal definition of
“possible couple.” If it was both biologically and reasonably possible for two slaves
to have been a couple, then that slave-owner household was considered to have
at least one possible adult couple. For example, the household of Joel Iseley of
Alamance County was identified as having a possible adult couple because he
owned a 25-year-old woman and a 17-year-old male as well as four children under
the age of 7. Likewise, the household of Hugh McAdams, also of Alamance
County, was identified as having a possible adult couple because he owned a 56-
year-old man, a 24-year-old woman, and two children, ages 9 and 2. While such
slave unions would not be typical, it is possible that these individuals were actual
couples, and therefore they were counted toward the 54 percent of households
that did have at least one potential adult couple. Certainly some of these “possible” adult couples did not represent actual slave unions. This means that the
actual figure for slave-owner households without the possibility of at least one
41. Rebecca ]. Fraser, Courtship and Love among the Enslaved in North Carolina (Jackson: University Press
of Mississippi, 2007), 32-51.
42. Studies of small slave-owner farms show similar demographic patterns and the difficulty of abroad slave
marriages and family separation. See Diane Mutti Burke, On
Slavery’s Border: Missouri’s SmalLSlaveholding
Households, 1815-1865
(Athens: University of Georgia Press, 2010), 198-230; and Pargas, The Quarters
and the Fields,
442 D a n ie l L. Fo u n t a in
T able 8
Age and Gender of Slave Populations
50+ Female 50+ Male
Alamance 132 139 608 596 267 246
Orange 239 261 984 990 431 423
Wake 487 463 1,838 1,989 880 857
Totals 858 863 3,430 3,575 1,578 1,526
% 4.4% 4-4% 17.4% 18.2% 8.0% 7.8%
So u r c e: Slave and free population schedules of the 1860 United States Census for Alamance, Orange, and
nuclear family in residence is higher than 46 percent.43 When this figure is considered in conjunction with the large number of new slave owners who owned only
children, as well as the large number of owners with only one slave, it is fairly clear
that family separation via sale or inheritance was common in late antebellum
Alamance, Orange, and Wake counties. Wake County records for slave sales and
property transfers help reaffirm this bleak assessment.
A search for slave sales and transfers recorded with the Wake County Register
of Deeds from 1826 to 1863 yielded 134 total records. Of these transactions, only
9 included enough names to suggest that a possible nuclear family, including an
adult male, adult female, and their children, were part of the transfer between
owners. However, none of them specifically indicate whether that in fact occurred.
Far more typical of these entries was the sale of a small number of slaves or the
gift of slaves from one family member to another. For example, in 1855, Wib
liam Collins sold Edward Hall an 18-year-old slave woman named Lucy for $812.
In 1851, E. H. Rogers sold Caleb Denny a 9-year-old boy named Daniel for $500.
Finally, in 1851, Benton Williams purchased a woman named Isabella along with
her three children from John Moore for $1,300. As with the sale of Isabella, none
of the records of sales or transfers identified the father of the children sold or the
name of a spouse, while only 22 of them identify at least one child’s mother being
sold along with them. Nor do any of these records require or request that the new
owner keep family members together.
Ironically, more than a few of the recorded transfers between two owners
include sentimental language that celebrates the value of loved ones or family.
The transfer of two slaves from Elizabeth Myatt to her son John is typical in this
43. Others have estimated the percentage of abroad marriages to be from 27.5 percent to 33.5 percent.
Burke found abroad marriages among Missouri’s small slave-owning farmers to be as much as 57 percent.
Burke, On
Slavery’s Border, 200-201.
Slavery and Slaveholding in Antebellum Piedmont N orth Carolina 443
able 8 (continued)
Age and Gender of Slave Populations
below 12
below 12
Slaves of
Alamance 711 746 1,718 1,727 1,988
Orange 1,061 1,106 2,715 2,780 2,328
Wake 2,076 2,102 41 5,294 5,439 6,514
Totals 3,848 3,954 41 9,727 9,946 10,830
% 19.6 20.1 0.2 49.4 50.6 55.1
Wake counties.
regard. In the deed Elizabeth declared, “Know all men that by these presents,
that I, Elizabeth Myatt of the County of Wake and state aforesaid for and in consideration of the natural love and affection which I have and do bear for my son
John Myatt of the county and state aforesaid, do give, grant, bargain, and by these
presents convey unto the said John Myatt (my son), his heirs, and assigns forever,
two certain negro slaves, viz Dilsey about ten years old and a boy named Isaac
about twelve months old.”44 Nowhere in that deed from 1854 does Myatt indicate
who the two children’s parents are, nor does she indicate how those parents might
have felt about John or his acquisition of their children. Based on the census and
Register of Deeds records, buying an adult or child who could produce income for
one’s family or giving another’s child to one’s own offspring for the same purpose
was a well-established path to success in these counties.45 According to Rosser
Taylor, the Supreme Court of North Carolina even favored the sale of individual
slaves “Because it was thought that they sold better singly . . . [than] the official
sale of slaves in large numbers.” 46 Clearly, in the age of an expanding marketplace,
preserving the integrity of slave families seems to have had less importance than
acquiring the labor needed to advance Piedmont slave-owner family fortunes.47
Slavery in the North Carolina Piedmont counties of Alamance, Orange, and
Wake was different from the much-studied Cotton Kingdom of the antebellum
South in many ways. Unlike its neighbors, most of these Piedmont farmers tended
44. Elizabeth Myatt to John Myatt, deed for slaves Dilsey and Isaac, January 6, 1854, Book 20, p. 335,
Wake County Deeds.
45. Crow, Escott, and Wadelington argue that such family separations were common both in North Carolina and the South in general. See Crow, Escott, and Wadelington,
History of African Americans in North
46. Taylor,
Slaveholding in North Carolina, 71.
47. These findings stand in marked contrast to the assertion of Guion Griffis Johnson, who argued that
“W hen forced to sell, a planter preferred not to separate a slave family if possible.” The assertion that
slave owners “were usually reluctant to sell slaves” and tended to do so only “when forced” does not hold
up to the patterns of slave owning in Wake, Orange, and Alamance counties in the late antebellum era.
Johnson, Ante-Bellum
North Carolina, 474—475.
444 D a n ie l L. Fo u n t a in
to grow a diversity of crops, rather than concentrating on a single cash crop like
cotton, sugarcane, or rice. Small slave-owning farmers rather than large planters were also the dominant household structure for these three counties. However, these significant differences aside, slave-owning households in Alamance,
Orange, and Wake counties dominated their region in wealth, agricultural
output, and occupational status. These households also held a majority of the
counties’ populations within their doors and seemed eager to seize upon the new
market opportunities made available by the transportation revolution of the midnineteenth century. In contrast to John Hope Franklin’s description of slavery as
an antique, unprofitable holdover from the colonial era, late antebellum slavery
in these three Piedmont counties appears to have been a thriving institution that
was drawing new enthusiasts to its siren call.48 In these ways, the Piedmont slave
owners described here had much in common with the more often studied planters of the Black Belt. Undoubtedly, J. D. B. De Bow would agree that Piedmont
slavery has been greatly underestimated.
De Bow’s household methodology to measure slavery’s impact raises some
interesting and broader questions regarding slavery in North Carolina and the
South. Alamance, Orange, and Wake counties each had slave ownership percentages of less than 7 percent among their free population, yet the free members of
those households comprised nearly one-third of the entire population. One can
only wonder what the total footprint of slavery would be in counties with far
greater slave ownership percentages or black majority populations. If the patterns
in these Piedmont counties hold true elsewhere, then it would not be unreasonable to suggest that the beneficiaries of slave labor among the free population
were far more numerous than historians have believed. This would go a long way
toward explaining why so many “non-slave owners” fought and died in support of
the Confederacy’s effort to preserve slavery. More research of this kind conducted
at the county level is needed and would be welcomed to help clarify this matter.
Dr. Fountain is associate professor and department chair of the Department of History and
Political Science at Meredith College. He is the author of
Slavery, Civil War, and Salvation: African American Slaves and Christianity, 1830-1870, published by Louisiana
State University Press in 2010. He would like to thank Jeffrey Crow, Way Fountain, Clyde
Frazier, Michael Novak, and Bill Price for their helpful suggestions on this article. He would
also like to thank his student assistant Sarah Harmon for her work on this project.
48. John Hope Franklin described antebellum slavery as an institution whose decline began after the
American Revolution. “Although the slaves constituted about one third of the total population in North
Carolina in 1860 . . . it cannot be said that slavery was a growing institution. The rate of increase had
steadily fallen off during the ante-bellum period, and the lack of profits, apparent even to the most rabid
proslavery spokesman, heralded its demise as a constructive factor in the economic life of the State.”
Free Negro in North Carolina, 8-9.
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