Slavery’s Origins in Arkansas
Slaves lived in every county and in both rural and urban settings in antebellum Arkansas. Historian Orville Taylor estimated that roughly one in four white Arkansans either owned slaves or lived in families that did. Many more probably benefited from slavery, however, as leasing slaves was not an uncommon practice. Although slavery clearly touched the lives of many white Arkansans, most slave owners possessed only a few slaves. The largest number of slaves were the property of the owners of large plantations in the state’s lowlands, particularly in the rich valley and delta lands along the state’s waterways. A relatively large slave holding would have been ten slaves, a work force valued at about $9,000 on the average in 1859, an amount equal to approximately $200,000 in 2002. By 1860, seventy-three percent of slaves were on plantations and farms of that size. They were owned, however, by only about twenty-six percent of the state’s slave owners. Elisha Worthington of Chicot County was the state’s largest slave owner, holding more than 500 slaves on the eve of the Civil War.
Legal Protection for Slavery
Even though it defined slaves as less than human, the law recognized slaves as a unique form of property. Numerous statutes made it clear that the white community knew their slaves were human beings and could not be dealt with in the same way as livestock. Slaves had to be controlled, and laws attempted to achieve that goal and provided for punishment of slaves that broke these laws. Statutes restricted their movement, required passes to leave their home plantation, limited their rights of assembly, and prohibited their possession of firearms, clearly indicating that whites saw their property as restless and potentially dangerous. An 1825 law created the slave patrol, an institution that enforced such limits across the countryside, the existence of which further indicated the contradictory character of white perceptions of their slave property. The patrol, upon which all adult white men served periodically, policed the countryside, punishing slaves off a farm or plantation without a pass, searching for runaways, and ensuring against slave revolts.
Contemporary whites often looked at their peculiar institution as a benevolent one and saw the lack of any notable slave revolts in Arkansas as reflecting its benign character. The majority of slaves probably did not see it that way. The weekly newspaper advertisements placed by owners attempting to recover runaway slaves clearly indicated the dissatisfaction of slaves with their condition and a willingness to risk extreme punishment to get away. The frequent need of slave owners to resort to physical punishment to secure obedience from their slaves also indicates the refusal of individual slaves to be satisfied with their condition. Impudence, disobedience, and a refusal to work—all behaviors that led to whippings by Arkansas planters—demonstrated the efforts by slaves to establish some degree of personal independence within the slave system. In the end, only the use of force made possible this critical labor system through the antebellum years.
Economics of Slavery
A Slave’s Life
Slaves usually lived in small log or lumber cabins in separate quarters from their white owners, although slaves might live with their owner on a small holding. Slaves’ cabins usually had dirt floors, contained very little furniture, and perhaps even lacked doors and windows. Slaves’ clothing was usually manufactured on the plantation out of coarse or low-quality cloth. Owners usually purchased shoes, but slaves often did without them except in the winter. Slaves’ diet varied from plantation to plantation but mostly consisted of pork and corn supplemented with some vegetables grown on the farm. In some cases, the supplements came from plantation gardens. Some planters allowed slaves to tend small patches of their own. In cases where a master allowed slaves to carry arms and hunt, they added wild game and fish to their diet. The slave’s diet was barely adequate, as the death rate of slaves relative to whites showed. While barely adequate, slaves survived such conditions and, in Arkansas, possibly did relatively better than slaves in other Southern states. The 1850 census indicated that the death rate among Arkansas slaves was 1.83 per thousand, considerably lower than the overall national average of 2.13. On the other hand, the death rate among slaves was thirty percent higher than that of the state’s free population.
A religious life also developed within the slave community, especially variations on Protestant Christianity. Many masters encouraged religion among their slaves, sometimes for benevolent reasons but at times because they believed it would make their property more docile. Slaves quickly transformed the beliefs of their masters, however, into a faith emphasizing equality before God and ultimate release from slavery. Music also constituted an important part of slave culture. As in the case of religion, the slaves molded their music into a form that voiced their feelings about their enslavement. Even though the connection of most slaves to Africa was remote by the nineteenth century, elements of their African background appeared in their formulation of social and cultural institutions.
The Civil War and the End of Slavery
Ironically, the war contained the seeds of destruction for the institution it was intended to protect. The removal of thousands of white men from the countryside weakened the hold of masters on their slaves. Even the Confederate government’s appropriation of slaves for laborers changed the character of the institution behind Rebel lines. Ultimately, however, the successful movement of Union forces into Arkansas in 1862 saw thousands of slaves flee their plantations to secure freedom behind federal lines, and Union victory in 1865 ensured their ultimate freedom. New relationships between slaves and white Arkansans would have to be forged after the war, although white people proved reluctant to surrender the power over the freedmen that they had exercised for so long over their slaves.
For additional information:
Bolton, S. Charles. Fugitives from Injustice: Freedom-Seeking Slaves in Arkansas, 1800–1860. Omaha, NE: National Park Service, 2006. Online at http://www.nps.gov/subjects/ugrr/discover_history/upload/Fugitives-from-Injustice-Freedom-Seeking-Slaves-in-Arkansas.pdf (accessed May 2, 2012).
———. “Slavery and the Defining of Arkansas.” Arkansas Historical Quarterly 58 (Spring 1999): 1–23.
Duncan, Georgena. “Manumission in the Arkansas River Valley: Three Case Histories.” Arkansas Historical Quarterly 66 (Winter 2007): 422–443.
———. “‘One negro, Sarah… one horse named Collier, one cow and one calf named Pink’: Slave Records from the Arkansas River Valley.” Arkansas Historical Quarterly 69 (Winter 2010): 325–345.
Griffith, Nancy Snell. “Slavery in Independence County.” Independence County Chronicle 41 (April–July 2000).
Jones, Kelly Houston. “‘A Rough, Saucy Set of Hands to Manage’: Slave Resistance in Arkansas.” Arkansas Historical Quarterly 71 (Spring 2012): 1–21.
Lack, Paul D. “An Urban Slave Community: Little Rock, 1831–1862.” Arkansas Historical Quarterly 41 (Autumn 1982): 258–287.
Lankford, George E., ed. Bearing Witness: Memories of Arkansas Slavery: Narratives from the 1930s WPA Collections. 2d ed. Fayetteville: University of Arkansas Press, 2006.
Moneyhon, Carl H. “The Slave Family in Arkansas.” Arkansas Historical Quarterly 58 (Spring 1999): 24–44.
Shafer, Robert S. “White Persons Held to Racial Slavery in Antebellum Arkansas.” Arkansas Historical Quarterly 44 (Summer 1985): 134–155.
Stafford, L. Scott. “Slavery and the Arkansas Supreme Court.” University of Arkansas at Little Rock Law Journal 19 (Spring 1997): 413–464.
Taylor, Orville W. Negro Slavery in Arkansas. Fayetteville: University of Arkansas Press, 2000.
Thompson, George H. “Slavery in the Mountains: Yell County, Arkansas, 1840–1860.” Arkansas Historical Quarterly 39 (Spring 1980): 35–52.
Van Deburg, William L. “The Slave Drivers of Arkansas: A New View from the Narratives.” Arkansas Historical Quarterly 35 (Autumn 1976): 231–245.
Walz, Robert. “Arkansas Slaveholdings and Slaveholders in 1850.” Arkansas Historical Quarterly 12 (Spring 1953): 38–73.
Carl H. Moneyhon
Last Updated 5/2/2012
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