During slavery, plantation owners kept a variety of records documenting the life of the plantation and the activities of enslaved persons. This page from a plantation ledger from Locust Grove Plantation in Natchez, held by the University of Mississippi, lists enslaved persons by name, and indicates how many pounds of crops (probably cotton) they gathered on specific days. Some days are marked “rain” indicating that the weather had prevented the enslaved persons from working in the field.
Some slave owners hired their enslaved persons out to work for other people. These receipts, held by the University of South Florida, documents several such instances, including one occasion where an enslaved woman named Nancy, owned by James T. Magbee, was hired for ten days by a third party, and Magbee was paid for her services, and others where Captain James McKay of Tampa paid for a month’s work for Diana and Maria, enslaved women owned by Dr. Crichton.
Enslaved workers were also hired out to work in cities, such as Charleston, South Carolina. In order to be identified, enslaved people wore licensed badges when working outside the master's house for temporary wages. They permitted short-term employment without the necessity of a written contract. Badges were a special feature of urban slavery in Charleston, Savannah, New Orleans, Mobile and Norfolk; all had badge laws, but Charleston was the only city to regularly enforce them. The badge below was made by John J. Labar, a local silversmith. On the front was etched: CHARLESTON/9/SERVANT/1827 and on the back, Lafar etched his name.
One of the most vile cruelties of the practice of slavery was the dispersal of families of enslaved persons. Mothers and fathers were routinely sold away from their children and children were sold apart from each other. Since most slaves were illiterate, it was next to impossible for families to reconnect once they had been separated, absent intervention from their new owners.
In this extraordinary letter, held by Duke University, an enslaved woman named Vilet Lester writes to her former owner Patsy Patterson to ask about her daughter, who Vilet’s new owner has offered to purchase in order to reunite them. In the letter, Vilet recounts the different people who have owned her since she departed Patterson’s service, and expresses her devotion to Patterson. She also asks Patterson to give her love to “Mother, Brother and Sister and ask them to Right [sic] to me” suggesting that multiple slaves in the Patterson household had been taught to read and write, in contravention of standard practice."
The following letter, from Samford University, is from a former enslaved women named Lotsey White. Written in 1869, just four years after the conclusion of the Civil War, Ms. White wrote to Howard Montague, the son of one of her former owners. The letter also recounts White's history of ownership and then asks Montague the whereabouts of her father, three brothers, and three sisters.
Finally, the letter from Mary Tunstall to her husband, held by UNC-Chapel Hill, shows the cold obliviousness of white slave owners who supported the practice of family separation by purchasing enslaved children and separating them from their parents. Tunstall writes to thank her husband for the gift of an enslaved girl and shows absolutely no awareness of the significance of the trauma the child has experienced. Tunstall’s sole acknowledgment of the child’s distress is to report that the child was fretful the first day, but Tunstall had dosed her with oil and she had quieted down. Tunstall also notes that she is pleased the child is the right color, and seems very bright, but does not once mention her name.
Other plantation records can include ledgers that record the amount of cotton picked by each enslaved person. These ledgers represent a the business of slavery and can also include inventories of enslaved people, marriages, deaths, and births.
Many plantation owners also documented financial transactions in diaries, such as the diary below from Florida State University. In the excerpts, plantation owner Geo. Whitfield discusses the sale of enslaved persons along with day-to-day business transactions such as paying part of the salary for the local pastor or giving money to his son. This illustrates the calluousness of plantation owners who thought of enslaved people as a source of income rather than as human beings.
Plantation records also consist of deeds of gifts of enslaved people, often to relatives, as seen in the example below. One unusual transaction is a receipt for the payment of a doctor to vaccinate a group of enslaved people working on Adam Gordon's plantation.