This is What Daily Life for an Enslaved Person in Virginia was Like

This is What Daily Life for an Enslaved Person in Virginia was Like

Larry Holzwarth - October 28, 2021

Between 1808, when the United States abolished the transatlantic slave trade, and 1865, when it abolished slavery, enslaved peoples toiled on the plantations of Virginia. Those were not their only sites of labor, however. Enslaved people worked in factories, in fisheries, in tobacco processing facilities, and as transporters of produce. The image of slaves working in the tobacco or cotton fields of Virginia is somewhat misleading. Many thousands did, of course. But thousands of others were taught skills such as barrel making, tanning of hides, candle and soap making, carpentry, cobbing shoes, meat and fish preservation and packing and many others. The large plantations of Virginia were self-sufficient in many ways, producing everything needed for sustenance.

This is What Daily Life for an Enslaved Person in Virginia was Like
The main house at Thomas Jefferson’s Monticello plantation in Virginia. Library of Congress

Many smaller farms could not sustain the slaves needed to work their fields year around. Such farms often rented slaves from larger plantations for the busy times of planting and harvest. Their services were paid for with both money and crops, depending on the arrangement between the parties. Daily life for Virginia’s slaves was thus varied, depending on circumstances and seasons. It was also dependent, in large part, on the whims of their owners. Until 1831, many of the enslaved peoples on Virginia plantations were taught to read and write, the Bible serving as their source of knowledge. After the state legislature outlawed the practice, many planters continued to educate their slaves, including Thomas Jackson, who later entered history as Stonewall Jackson. Here is a look at the daily lives of enslaved people in Virginia from the early to the mid-19th century.

This is What Daily Life for an Enslaved Person in Virginia was Like
Richmond’s Tredegar Iron Works employed slaves hired out by their enslavers. Library of Congress

1. The plantation slaves became vital to Virginia’s economy

Antebellum Virginia’s society defined itself based on wealth and family prominence. Such was the case as far back as the later colonial period. Wealth was based on property, real property such as land and chattel property, based on slaves. For the wealthiest Virginians, the number of slaves they owned reflected a significant portion of their net worth. The largest landowners of the Tidewater and along the Blue Ridge were often cash poor. They turned to their enslaved people to generate income, though not always through sale. Slaves were often assigned to work in other capacities. Some worked in tobacco warehouses, others in loading ships along the quays on the James and Rappahannock Rivers. When railroads first began to appear, slaves prepared the roadbeds and laid the tracks. Construction of the new Capital City also provided income opportunities to Virginia planters.

Slaves were hired out as both skilled and unskilled laborers, their wages paid to their owners. In some cases, the owners allowed them to retain a portion of their wages, but others claimed the fruits of their enslaved people’s labor in their entirety. Slaves worked in Richmond’s emerging tobacco and iron industries, including the Tredegar Iron Works which became the largest in the South during the antebellum period. Relatively few urban merchants and businessmen owned slaves beyond those retained for house servants. They simply lacked the means to house them. Instead, they hired those from nearby plantations. Many of the enslaved people returned to their plantations at night, becoming some of the earliest commuters in American history. They had to carry passes to allay the suspicions of slave patrols watching for runaways as they traveled to and from their places of work.

This is What Daily Life for an Enslaved Person in Virginia was Like
The American Anti-Slavery Almanac published these illustrations of enslaved life in 1843. Library of Congress

2. The plantation slaves developed their own social strata

On the large plantations, the slaves’ diverse tasks led them to develop a societal structure of their own. At the top were those who worked as servants in the main house. There, the butler, or major-domo, held sway over the rest, at least officially. Often, the woman assigned to serve as a nanny, nurse, and disciplinarian of the younger children often reigned supreme. Such women gave rise to the stereotype of the “mammy”, often presented in song, literature, and later film. The house servants, waiters and waitresses, maids, cooks, and others depending on the size of the house and family, were below the butler and nanny, but still higher on the social ladder than some slaves who worked outside the house. Many of the house servants resided either in quarters within the main house, usually in a cellar, or nearby, rather than in the main slave quarters.

On the Virginia plantations, the stables claimed a prominent position. Virginians prided themselves on their horses and carriages. Maintaining both were tasks which required skills and expertise above those of other positions. The stables included blacksmiths and farriers, hot-walkers, wranglers, coachmen and footmen, and other positions filled by slaves. The riding stables and those for field horses were separate on the larger plantations, and those slaves working in the former occupied a position high on the social ladder. For one thing, they often worked directly under the eye of the owner. They groomed his horses, maintained his carriages and tack, and saddled the animals when they were desired. Many of the slaves working in the stables slept there, rather than in the slave quarters, a privilege earned through the pleasure of the owner if their services merited it.

This is What Daily Life for an Enslaved Person in Virginia was Like
George Washington and family welcome Lafayette to Mount Vernon, with his enslaved butler and a stable boy present. Library of Congress

3. The artisans stood next on the social ladder

In the late 18th century, the structure of the larger Virginia plantations began to change. Where most slaves had previously resided in communal, multi-family buildings, or dormitories for single men, individual houses emerged. They were generally crude, one-room cabins. The artisans and house workers generally occupied the slave quarters nearest to the main house or near their work areas, Field hands’ quarters began to be located near the area of the plantations in which their occupants worked. Larger plantations, such as Jefferson’s 5,000 acres (nearly eight square miles) Monticello was divided into four separate farms, each with its own overseer. George Washington’s Mount Vernon consisted of five farms. Thus, slave quarters were scattered across the plantations, rather than concentrated in a single area, as is often depicted. Many were far from the main house and the eyes of their owners.

The artisans, those who worked in naileries, gristmills, carpenter shops, breweries, distilleries, cooperages, and other such facilities, resided near their place of work. Many of the plantation owners, including Washington, Jefferson, Madison, and the Lees, offered financial incentives to their enslaved workers in order to boost production. It is a commonly held myth that slaves in Virginia had no money. Excavations of slave quarters at Monticello, Appomattox, Mount Vernon, and other sites throughout Virginia have unearthed coins in several forms, including British shillings, Spanish dollars, and later United States specie. Jefferson, as he did nearly all things, meticulously recorded the monies paid out to artisans at Monticello, especially those who made nails at his nailery. In the mornings he had weighed the iron nail rods assigned to each worker. The following day he weighed the nails produced, and those who proved most productive received what he termed a gratuity.

This is What Daily Life for an Enslaved Person in Virginia was Like
Barrels and coopering were crucial to Virginia’s economy from the earliest days of settlement. National Park Service

4. Coopers were among the most important enslaved workers on the plantations

Following the decline of the tobacco markets, most of the large Virginia plantations changed to growing wheat and other grains. The shift necessitated the installation of gristmills, utilizing nearby streams to power them. The resulting flour was then shipped to markets. In order to ship them, large numbers of barrels, casks, tuns, and kegs were required. Nearly all of the produce of the plantations required barrels for shipment, whether flour, cornmeal, beer, whiskey, nails, or salted meat and fish. Barrel making is a skill which requires knowledge of wood grains, joinery, and quality construction. The enslaved barrel makers on the Virginia plantations were essential to the profitability of the operation. Like all the slaves, they worked from daybreak to dusk, except for Saturdays, when the dinner bell ended the day’s labor. Dinner usually occurred in the early afternoon. Sundays and most holidays were usually days off.

The barrel makers constructed the containers from wood harvested from the plantations, for the most part. Iron hoops were provided by the plantation’s blacksmiths. Barrels were in such demand throughout Virginia (and the rest of America) that additional staves were prepared and sold as product to cooperages, which were readily found in all of the nation’s seaports. Enslaved barrel makers were thus essential for shipping other products from the plantations and the core of another profit center. The ability to manufacture one’s own shipping containers, rather than purchase them, greatly increased the profits realized by the plantation’s owners. Skilled coopers, as barrel makers were then known, were a highly valuable commodity. As such, they often enjoyed privileges not allowed others of the enslaved community, due to their owner’s need for their constant production.

This is What Daily Life for an Enslaved Person in Virginia was Like
Female slaves at work under the supervision of an overseer, painted in 1798. Wikimedia

5. Daily work was from dawn to dusk

Except for the house servants, who were required to be available according to their owner’s whim, a typical work day began at first light. By sunrise, the slaves were at their assigned tasks. The majority of the enslaved workers on the plantations were the field hands. They worked in their assigned plots under the supervision of a gang leader, himself a slave. They reported to the overseer, who was usually a white man under contract to the plantation owner. Multiple farm plantations, such as Monticello, employed several overseers, one for each farm, under a chief overseer. They received instructions from the owners regarding the treatment of the people they oversaw. Jefferson, Madison, Washington, and many other plantation owners were frequently away from their farms on long absences. Though they left written instructions regarding the treatment of their slaves, they often found them ignored.

The overseers had much to say of the living conditions of the enslaved people; how long they had for meals, breaks from work, whether a person was too ill to work, and so on. Overall, their performance was a disgrace. The latter is reflected by Virginia legislature recognizing the need to enact laws which regulated the treatment of enslaved peoples. During the antebellum period, laws establishing the amount of rations provided to slaves, the issuance of clothing, shoes, and other necessities were passed. On Virginia’s plantations, nearly all slaves were allowed to grow their own gardens and raise chickens, which they were allowed to sell in nearby markets. Since the workday took up the daylight hours year around, they were forced to tend their crops on weekends and during the evening hours. The overseers were responsible for preventing or reporting any thefts from these “private” stocks.

This is What Daily Life for an Enslaved Person in Virginia was Like
George Washington frequently supervised his enslaved workers personally at Mount Vernon. Getty

6. Work continued throughout the winter months

On December 13, 1799 – a Friday – George Washington arose at dawn, as was his wont. Despite a sore throat, he rode out on his farm, through a storm of sleet and freezing rain. It was to be his last ride. He died of a “throat distemper” late the following night. Yet his ride had been one of necessity for the operation of Mount Vernon. Washington had gone out to mark trees to be felled. The removal of trees during the winter months was a common event on the Virginia plantations. They were removed to provide additional acreage for planting in some cases. In others, they were felled to provide lumber for the plantation’s buildings and cooperage. Cutting down the trees took place during the winter months occurred because it was then, with the fields fallow, that the field hands were available to do the work.

Trees were trimmed, felled, and hauled away, using oxen, draft horses, and enslaved labor to accomplish the task. Some trees were selected specifically for the shape of lumber pieces they would produce. Others were selected to be sawn into logs, and then boards, for use on the plantation. Still, others could be sold, floated downriver in the spring, to be used by shipbuilders or carpenters. Nearly all of the tree cutting took place in the period between the harvest and the following spring planting when the field hands would otherwise be idle. Trees, and the scrap wood they provided, produced fuel for cooking and warmth, charcoal for the plantation’s forges, and lumber for maintenance and construction of the plantations’ many buildings. At Monticello, Jefferson constructed a saw pit, and later a water-powered sawmill, for his slaves to produce the prodigious amount of lumber his construction projects required.

This is What Daily Life for an Enslaved Person in Virginia was Like
Thomas Jefferson maintained Monticello’s workshops and the slaves who worked in them along a site he called Mulberry Row. NPR

7. Enslaved workers produced cloth at Monticello

Following the invention of the cotton gin in 1793, production of cotton boomed in the American south. Although Virginia never became a major cotton state, several plantations did grow it in relatively small quantities. Jefferson also husbanded sheep, and grew industrial hemp. All three allowed for him to produce cloth, which he used to produce clothing for his enslaved people. In the first decade of the 19th century, Jefferson converted a building formerly used as a residence for his house slaves into a textile shop. Enslaved workers spun, wove, carded, and quilled hemp fibers, cotton, and wool into cloth on machines Jefferson purchased and installed for the purpose. The cloth was then used by seamstresses to make clothing, primarily work shirts and dresses, for the plantation’s enslaved population.

Jefferson’s textile shop was never intended to be a cash-generating enterprise. Rather it was a cash-saving operation. Clothes made from fibers produced by the plantation, and manufactured by the enslaved peoples who wore them, freed him from having to purchase them. According to his records, Jefferson hired a White weaver named William McLure in 1812, to evaluate the necessary machinery, construct models for use at Monticello, and train the slaves in its operation. McLure remained at Monticello until 1814, after which the textile shop operated under the six women, all enslaved, whom he had trained. The textile shop was sited near several other of Jefferson’s workshops in an area of Monticello he called Mulberry Row. In all of his shops, enslaved workers labored alongside free Whites to produce the items his plantations required.

This is What Daily Life for an Enslaved Person in Virginia was Like
Enslaved workers, usually women, did their enslavers laundry by hand year round. Mount Vernon

8. Slaves provided the laundering for the main house and its free occupants

The laundries on the Virginia plantations were usually located in one of the outbuildings near the main house. There, enslaved workers, usually women, washed the clothes of their owners’ families, as well as the table linens and other items. Laundering was considerably more labor-intensive than today. Linens and other heavier items were treated for stains by scraping or scrubbing with powder, and then boiled, usually in cauldrons outdoors of the laundry. Finer items, such as neckcloths, were washed inside the laundry by hand. The boiled items were then rinsed, wrung by hand, blued to enhance whiteness, re-rinsed, wrung by hand, starched, re-rinsed, wrung by hand, and hung to dry. The soaps used were harsh, the heat from the steam and the fire beneath the cauldron intense, and the linen tablecloths heavy with water. Doing the laundry was not for the meek.

Once dry, everything, needed to be ironed. Different sized irons were required, depending on the item being pressed. They were then folded and stored away, an activity which usually fell to one of the house maids. In the case of the master’s shirts and neckcloths, his personal servant or valet, also enslaved, would return the item to its proper place. The Virginians on the large plantations were known for their entertaining and hospitality, and dinners usually featured liberal amounts of wine, ale, and other spirits, which left their inevitable evidence on the tablecloths and napkins. So did the rich sauces which were a feature of the cooking of the day. Yet all evidence of stains from meals of the past had to be removed before the cloths could be redeployed, lest the host’s table betray a less than meticulous housekeeping.

This is What Daily Life for an Enslaved Person in Virginia was Like
House servants on Virginia plantations, such as Berkeley, seat of the Harrison family, often worked longer days than the field hands.

9. House servants often worked longer days than the field hands and artisans

Being assigned as a house servant meant freedom from the back-breaking labor of the fields. But the enslaved house staff were needed at all times their owners and guests were awake. It also meant some of them were frequently away from the plantation, Virginians at the time usually taking personal servants with them when they traveled. Though not necessarily working all the time, house servants could be called upon at all hours to welcome unexpected guests, replace spent candles, light fires, or even simply prepare tea. The butler’s workday ended when the owner dismissed him for the evening, but it began before dawn. So did that of the owner’s personal valet, who needed to be available to assist his owner’s morning ablutions and dressing. Cooks arose before dawn to ensure the kitchen fires were lighted and breakfast prepared.

House maids spent the day cleaning, dusting, sweeping, polishing glassware, silver, and pewter. Their efforts were inspected by the butler, who spent most of the day in morning coat, of the colors associated with his owner’s. The butler also bore the responsibility of keeping the owner informed of the state of his wine cellar, and what other beverages were available, such as ale, beer, brandy, and rum. Cooks collected fresh eggs each morning. Throughout the day, cooks churned butter, harvested vegetables and fruits from the gardens and orchards, and prepared the meals requested by the lady of the house. Should any of the owner’s household desire a bath, it was the cooks who heated the water, which was then borne by housemaids or valets to the appropriate chamber. It was also the responsibility of the housemaids to empty the chamber pots of their noxious contents each day.

This is What Daily Life for an Enslaved Person in Virginia was Like
Slave quarters built of stone at Berry Hill Plantation, Halifax County, Virginia. Wikimedia

10. Slaves received two meals per day

Upon arising in the predawn hours, enslaved people in Virginia ate a meager breakfast, usually hoecakes or spoon pudding, a form of cornmeal mush. During the summer months, a fire in their one room cabins was unwelcome, and breakfast usually taken cold started their day. Daylight comes early during the Virginia summer, and their second meal did not come until early-to-mid afternoon. Many carried with them part of their breakfast ration with them to work. If a moment occurred when they were free from the scrutiny of their supervisor or overseer, they ate it. Their dinner usually included their meat for the day, salt pork, or salted fish, or perhaps even salt beef. Fresh meat was unavailable except on holidays, never in the fields or shops. In summer months they then continued to labor at their assigned tasks until well after 8 PM, before trudging back to their cabins.

There, they could have supper, usually of fish or game they caught themselves, and the produce of the small gardens they were allowed to maintain. During workdays, water was the only beverage provided. After work, on some plantations, they could partake of cider they purchased with the proceeds from the sale of their vegetables or the incentives received from their owners. On most of the Virginia plantations, the possession of alcohol by enslaved people was a punishable offense. Punishments were decided by the overseer, though some owners did not allow corporal punishment without their approval. Some slaveholders took a more liberal view, tolerating alcohol among the slaves, but punishing drunken behavior, or for accidents contributed to by alcohol. By the 1790s, slaves in Virginia were producing alcohol on several plantations, including George Washington’s Mount Vernon.

This is What Daily Life for an Enslaved Person in Virginia was Like
George Washington’s restored distillery at Mount Vernon produces whiskey from his original recipes for sale at the estate. Mount Vernon

11. Enslaved brewers and distillers made Virginia plantations major producers of alcohol

Virginia’s larger plantations shifted away from tobacco and toward wheat, rye, barley, corn, and other grains in the late 18th century. Though better for the soil, those crops did not generate the same profits per acre on a consistent basis as had tobacco. Some Virginia planters, George Washington among them, recognized that wheat and rye converted to whiskey were more profitable than sold as flour. At Mount Vernon, Washington used slave labor to build a distillery. Prodded by his farm manager, James Anderson, a Scotsman with distilling experience, Washington built what was at the time the largest distillery in Virginia. His enslaved people quarried stone for the foundations, hewed the lumber for walls and floors, and erected the building which eventually housed five pot stills. Completed in early 1798, Washington’s distillery was one of the largest in the young United States.

Washington assigned six slaves to work full time at the distillery, which operated 12 months of the year. The enslaved workers performed all of the many diverse tasks required in the preparation of whiskey. When distillation was complete the whiskey was poured into barrels of roughly 30 gallons capacity, though not for aging. It was sold for immediate consumption to merchants and tavernkeepers. Much of the waste, including the spent mash, was used to feed hogs, and Washington relocated a hog pen to nearby the distillery. Slaves carried the mash to the slop troughs. Distillery workers were housed nearby. In 1799, the year of Washington’s death and after less than two full years of operation, Washington’s enslaved distillers produced over 11,000 gallons of whiskey. The average Virginia distillery that same year produced less than 700 gallons.

This is What Daily Life for an Enslaved Person in Virginia was Like
Resistance to slavery took many forms, including running to freedom along the Underground Railroad. Wikimedia

12. Daily life often included resistance to enslavement

On the large Virginia plantations, the enslaved workers used numerous techniques to resist their situation. Most, but by no means all, of the resistance took place among the field hands and laborers. The artisans, craftsmen, house workers, and others occupied places within the plantation hierarchy which precluded them from the gatherings in which organized resistance was planned among the slaves. Resistance included a refusal to work, or working very slowly. Those in positions in which their production was closely monitored, and who failed to perform to their supervisor’s satisfaction, were quickly replaced. Other means of resistance included the deliberate damaging or destruction of tools. The enslaved laborers who resisted were dealt with first by the overseers, and ultimately by the plantation managers or owners themselves. Punishments could be harsh, and often were.

Whippings of enslaved workers were often performed publicly, with the others of the enslaved community informed of the crime, witnessing the punishment. Crimes against other enslaved workers were also dealt with by the enslavers. Crimes such as theft and assault were relatively common in the enslaved communities, and the punishments were determined by the owners until some were codified by Virginia law. Murders were resolved by the transgressor being handed over to the local magistrates and usually resulted in the perpetrator being hanged. Slaveowners dealt with resistant slaves in a variety of ways, including selling them, usually to slaveowners in the expanding states of the Deep South. Running away to escape enslavement was a form of resistance which occurred throughout the antebellum period, and numerous laws regarding the recovery of escaping slaves became one of the many causes of the eventual Civil War.

This is What Daily Life for an Enslaved Person in Virginia was Like
During the antebellum period enslaved workers were as likely to be found in mills and foundries as on plantations. Historic Fredericksburg

13. Many slaves in Virginia were hired out by their owners

During the 18th and early 19th centuries, large Virginia plantation owners hired slaves to others. Slaves were hired, under contract with the owner, for a specified period of time and at a mutually agreed fee. The fee was paid to the owner. Some owners allowed the enslaved workers to keep some, or even all, of the money thus earned. Support of the enslaved workers became the responsibility of the employer, including food and clothing, and in many cases, shelter. In Virginia, it became standard to hire out enslaved workers for a period of 50 weeks, with New Year’s Day being the starting point. January 1st became known as “hiring day” in discussions of Virginia commerce. Domestic workers, cooks, housemaids, seamstresses, and nannies, were commonly held positions in which women slaves were hired out to others.

Many slave owners demanded that the enslaved workers they hired out be treated fairly and carefully by their employers. An employer who returned a worker in an unhealthy or injured condition could be sued for negligence, or for, in essence, damaging another man’s property. By the beginning of the 19th century, the practice of hiring out slaves had become so widespread in Virginia that new business lines emerged. Brokerage houses and hiring agents, dedicated solely to the hiring of slaves throughout the state, received commissions for arranging the transactions. Richmond, Virginia, became the center of tobacco production, with more than four dozen factories manufacturing cigars, pipe tobacco, and chewing tobacco. Nearly two-thirds of the more than 3,500 workers in those factories were hired slaves. Others worked in coal mines, on the canals, and in the warehouses of the Tidewater.

This is What Daily Life for an Enslaved Person in Virginia was Like
Forced apprenticeships allowed enslavers to have their slaves learn a trade. Wikimedia

14. Enslaved children were hired out in forced apprenticeships

Women were often hired out to families as domestic workers, and in some cases, they took their children with them to the new home. The children, if not employable in the new home or business, often were apprenticed to other commercial entities. This both separated them from their families and increased their potential value to their owners. Apprenticeship led to artisan skills which would eventually increase the value of the enslaved individual to his or her owner. Enslaved apprentices learned iron working, leather working, tanning, carpentry, furniture making, weaving, spinning, and a plethora of other skills, while the cost of feeding and clothing the worker fell to the person to whom he was apprenticed. During the apprenticeship daily life was determined by the person to whom they were bound for the specified period of time.

Apprentices usually lived in the home or business to which they were bound. Usually, they occupied quarters in the cellar, or in an attic garret. They spent the day learning the trade to which they were apprenticed, from the employed journeymen and from enslaved hired workers. Leaving the premises of the business required a written pass, and often days would go by during which the apprentice never saw the outside of his place of work, other than to use the privy. At the end of the period of apprenticeship, the enslaved worker could be hired out at greater value than an untrained worker, or returned to his owner to ply his new trade at the latter’s behest. The practice of hiring out slaves and apprentices greatly expanded the influence of slavery on Virginia’s economy in the antebellum period. It also led to greater acceptance of slavery in the urban areas, such as Richmond and Fredericksburg, in the first half of the 19th century.

This is What Daily Life for an Enslaved Person in Virginia was Like
During the antebellum period, enslaved workers labored in all parts of the Virginia economic system. History News Network

15. Slaves in Virginia could also self-hire, and keep the wages earned

In Virginia’s larger communities, enslaved workers with marketable skills could self-hire, negotiate a payment made to their owners, and keep the rest. They were responsible for their own room and board, clothing, and finding and keeping work. In the growing cities, teamsters, masons, blacksmiths, carpenters, and other tradesmen worked in self-hire positions, allowing them increased access to the community, both White and Black. In response to the growing number of enslaved persons in the urban areas, Virginia enacted laws to restrict their movements as well as curfews which limited their hours on the streets. By 1840 it was common for an enslaved woman to be hired out as a domestic worker, and her enslaved husband to be working as a self-hire nearby. Self-hired workers could keep enough of their wages to eventually purchase their freedom, and many did.

One such enslaved worker was Elizabeth Keckly, a seamstress and dressmaker originally from Virginia. In 1860 she was enslaved in Missouri, though hired out as a seamstress, and purchased her freedom from her enslaver. She then returned to Virginia and opened a business as a dressmaker across the river in what was then known as Washington City. Many of her clients were the wives of southern congressmen and officials soon to secede from the Union. In 1861 she was hired by the Lincoln White House, as a dressmaker to Mary Todd Lincoln. She became a close confidante of Mrs. Lincoln and remained in the White House until Lincoln’s assassination. There are many tales similar to that of Mrs. Keckly, though the majority of hired out enslaved workers did not gain their freedom until Congress abolished slavery in 1865.

This is What Daily Life for an Enslaved Person in Virginia was Like
Elizabeth Keckley rose from slavery to a dressmaker and close friend of Mary Todd Lincoln. White House

16. Some enslaved people were given access to education as children

Religion was a driving force among the settlers of Virginia. Religious education was mandatory at the College of William and Mary and in elementary schools. The Bible was a source of both religious and literacy training. Among the Virginia elite, the education of slaves, at least as regarded literacy, was a moral obligation rooted in Christian beliefs. In the 17th century, Virginia law connected Christian baptism with personal freedom. That law was changed in 1667, in part to allow slave owners to teach their enslaved workers to read the Bible and the Catechism without fear they could use baptism into the Anglican Church as a claim to freedom. Slave owners were encouraged to teach their enslaved workers to read, though many balked at the idea of teaching them to write. Slaves capable of writing could avail themselves of passes allowing them to travel unsupervised, making escape more practicable.

How many slaves learned enough to be considered literate is debated. Newspapers advertisements from the late 18th and early 19th century identified as many as five percent of runaway slaves as literate. Slave children were often taught to read and write by the children of the owner’s family. Others attended classes on the plantation in their early years. Adult slaves learned to read by fire or candlelight after their long days of labor. Artisans and mechanics learned to read as part of their training, and rudimentary arithmetic was required of carpenters and other skilled trades. In towns such as Williamsburg and Fredericksburg, religious schools taught the children of slaves to read and write, when their enslavers allowed them to attend. Attitudes towards teaching literacy to enslaved workers hardened in the 1830s, following events which terrified the enslavers throughout Virginia.

This is What Daily Life for an Enslaved Person in Virginia was Like
The aftermath of the Nat Turner Rebellion brought harsher laws regarding the movement and treatment of Virginia’s slaves. Wikimedia

17. The Nat Turner Rebellion increased hostility toward educating slaves

In 1831, a literate enslaved preacher known as Nat led an uprising of slaves accompanied by some free blacks. Following the rebellion, he became known throughout Virginia and neighboring North Carolina as Nat Turner. The rebellion included the murder of about 60 Whites, including women and children, as well as some of the domestic servants who chose to remain loyal to their enslavers. Virginia militia and US Navy personnel suppressed the rebellion in a few days. Nat Turner and most of his 70 followers were taken into custody. Turner was tried, convicted, and hanged as were 56 others. Following the trial, according to some estimates, retaliation against mutinous or rebellious slaves led to up to another 100 deaths, though the exact amount is disputed and unconfirmed. The Nat Turner Rebellion was the largest, in terms of deaths, slave uprising ever on the North American continent.

In its aftermath, it was learned that Turner, who claimed he was inspired by divine messages, was able to read and write. So were several of his followers. Those opposing the education of slaves seized on the news to argue against allowing slaves to be educated. The Virginia legislature agreed, enacting laws which banned enslaved workers from gathering in churches and meetinghouses without White supervision. Black preachers were likewise banned, except when accompanied by White ministers. It was not made illegal to teach enslaved workers to read and write, in private lessons by their owners. Public sentiment however rose against the practice. Nonetheless, many enslaved workers still received instruction in reading, usually on Sundays, their only full day off during the work week. By the time of the Civil War, an estimated 20% of enslaved workers could read and write well enough to be considered literate.

This is What Daily Life for an Enslaved Person in Virginia was Like
Family of enslaved people at Virginia’s Long Branch Plantation. Library of Congress

18. Virginia’s enslaved workers sought to retain aspects of African culture and folklore

Through family gatherings and religious services, Virginia’s Black slaves passed on their folklore through oral traditions throughout the antebellum period. As the 19th century wore on, fewer and fewer slaves in Virginia came directly from Africa. By the time of the American Civil War, the overwhelming majority of the enslaved workers in Virginia had been born there. Many spent their entire lives on the plantation of their birth, or in the nearby area. By 1860, over 550,000 enslaved workers populated the state. In the mountainous region between the Shenandoah and Ohio Rivers slavery was not practiced as widely as in the eastern regions of the state, as the terrain made large plantations impracticable. But it was still practiced. Enslaved workers, hired out from eastern owners, helped build the railroads to Harper’s Ferry, dug coal in the mines, and felled trees to create roads and rail beds.

The workers created songs to sing as they worked, with rhythmic patterns which matched the movements required of their labor. On the plantations, similar “field songs” were sung as they toiled in the fields. Nighttime gatherings included other songs, many of them religious in nature. Folk tales and legends were told and retold, many of them with their roots in African legends centuries old, featuring mythical creatures such as wise and wily rabbits, using guile and wit to defeat more powerful enemies. Despite the attempts, visitors to Virginia described the plight of the enslaved as an aberration. Charles Dickens toured Virginia during his 1842 visit to America. He described the conditions he found there as on of “ruin and decay”. Dickens devoted an entire chapter in his American Notes denouncing slavery, exposing the conditions he encountered in Virginia, and describing the forlorn state of the slaves he met.

This is What Daily Life for an Enslaved Person in Virginia was Like
A broadside describing a runaway slave, including his suspected destination in Ohio. Wikimedia

19. Punishments for enslaved workers were harsh, even by the standards of the day

Enslaved workers who ran afoul of their supervisors, overseers, or owners faced harsh punishments. Reading the advertisements describing runaways alone establishes that fact beyond dispute. The announcements describe runaways “…much marked with irons”…”much scarred with the whip”…”branded on the left jaw…”branded on the thigh and hips”. These scars were indicative of previous punishments, inflicted for reasons unknown. Virginia law established regulations for the treatment of slaves, though they were often simply ignored. Most punishments were intended to inflict pain, as a warning to others of the enslaved community, but maiming detracted from the value of the enslaved worker, both in terms of labor and sale. Nonetheless, it occurred with frequency. While some Virginia planters disdained such punishments, many others did not.

As abolitionist movements grew in the Northern states, and runaway slaves fled via the Underground Railroad, laws in Virginia controlling slaves grew harsher. At the time, the northwestern border of Virginia was the Ohio River. Slaves from Virginia, as well as from states further south, traveled across Virginia to reach Ohio. Slave communities on plantations large and small participated in helping escapees flee to the North and freedom. The penalties for hiding escaped slaves or aiding them in their flight could be inflicted upon entire slave communities. A large number of enslaved workers hired out in the Virginia economy faced interrogations from slave catchers, incarceration by suspicious magistrates, and in some cases outright kidnappings. By 1860, the daily life of an enslaved person in Virginia was fraught with considerable danger, with little or no legal protections.

This is What Daily Life for an Enslaved Person in Virginia was Like
A Civil War contraband camp on the site of a female seminary, sometime before 1863. Library of Congress

20. Slavery continued in Virginia throughout the Civil War

In 1862, enslaved workers in areas controlled by the Union Army, such as Fortress Monroe near Norfolk, were held in Union camps as contraband. While in the camps they continued to be enslaved, working at tasks assigned to them by the army. Not until the 1863 Emancipation Proclamation were they considered to be free. For the first two years of the war, Union authorities and Congress wrestled with existing federal laws regarding slavery and the wartime imperatives then present. Contraband camps arose around the main federal armies, and military orders were to accept all enslaved people who arrived at the camps. The Army was instructed to keep precise records of the slaves, from whom they escaped, and their families. Escaping slaves were given rations, assigned labor in the camps, and later afforded the opportunity to gain their complete freedom by enlisting in the Black regiments.

Thousands of Virginia slaves, as well as from neighboring states, fled to the camps near the federal armies. Washington City became another site for which fleeing enslaved people of Virginia turned to as a haven. The fleeing slaves, which the enslavers for over a century had claimed were happy in their lot, became a major concern for the Confederate and Virginia governments. Local militias served to provide security against the enslaved escaping, rather than bolstering the increasingly weakening Confederate Armies. Robert E. Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia carried a large slave contingent with it, and was forced to dispatch troops to secure it, rather than deploy them in battle. Even when Lee escaped from Richmond and struggled to Appomattox to surrender, his battered and starving Army carried its slaves with it. Slavery in Virginia ended with his surrender. But Reconstruction brought new challenges for the newly freed to face.

Where do we find this stuff? Here are our sources:

“Slaves for hire: Renting Enslaved Laborers in Antebellum Virginia”. Christopher Clark, Civil War Book Review. Winter, 2013

“Stables”. Article, George Washington’s Mount Vernon. Online

“Nailery”. Article, Thomas Jefferson’s Monticello. Online

“The Economy of the Enslaved in Virginia”. Article, Encyclopedia Virginia. Online

“Slave Life at Appomattox Plantation”. Article, Appomattox Plantation, National Park Service. Online

“The Dark Side of Thomas Jefferson”. Henry Wiencek, Smithsonian Magazine. October, 2012

“Sawing”. Article, Thomas Jefferson’s Monticello. Online

“William McLure: A Hired White Worker”. Article, Thomas Jefferson’s Monticello. Online

“Wash House”. Article, George Washington’s Mount Vernon. Online

“Enslaved House Servants”. Article, Encyclopedia Virginia. Online

“George Washington’s Distillery”. Article, George Washington’s Mount Vernon. Online

“The Treatment of Servants and Slaves in Colonial Virginia”. Betty Wade Wyatt Coyle, William and Mary Scholar Works. 1974. Online

“Slaves for Hire”. John J. Zaborney. 2012

“10 Famous Slave Revolutions”. History Collection. Maria. July 6, 2016

“From Slavery to the White House: The Extraordinary Life of Elizabeth Keckly”. Lina Mann, White House Historical Association. Online

“Slavery: 1825 to 1860”. Article, Virginia Museum of History and Culture. Online

“Turner’s Revolt, Nat (1831)” Article, Encyclopedia Virginia. Online

“Charles Dickens American Notes, Chapter 17”. Charles Dickens. 1842

“Between bondage and freedom: Life in Civil War refugee camps”. Lawrence Goodman, Brandeis NOW. February 14, 2020. Online