The effects of small slaveholding in Maryland

From Barbara Jean Fields’ Slavery and Freedom on the Middle Ground: Maryland during the Nineteenth Century–some context on the problem of tracing African-American family members in Maryland.

Though almost anyone would select slave trading as the villain of almost any piece, small-scale slaveholding does not seem as obviously type-cast for the role of villainy. Nevertheless, much of the suffering incidental to slavery in Maryland resulted, directly or indirectly, from the small size of slaveholdings, a characteristic that had become steadily more marked over the years from the Revolution to the Civil War. Few holdings in Maryland would have rated the name “plantation” in the eyes of slaveholders from the lower South… (p 25)

Despite Fields’ claim that this was a growing phenomenon in the early years of the Republic, Russell Menard describes very similar patterns in the late 17th c. In the period 1658-1710, nearly half of all slaveholders owned only one or two people, and only 15 out of the 300 surveyed owned more than 20. “More than half of the slaves lived on plantations with ten or fewer blacks, nearly a third on estates with five or fewer…making isolation and loneliness a prominent fact of life for Africans in the Chesapeake colonies.” Evidence suggests that some slaves in this early period, especially those who were married, had more autonomy in their daily lives than was common in later periods. (Economy and Society in Early Colonial Maryland, pp 266-69)

Back to Fields:

The most common slaveholding in Maryland by 1860 was one slave; half the slaveholders owned fewer than three slaves, three-fourths fewer than eight, and 90 percent fewer than fifteen slaves. (p 24)

Small holdings divided family members among several owners, exacerbating the potential trauma of sale and attacking the integrity of family life even when the question of sale…did not arise. Husbands and wives might live apart…seeing each other only when granted permission… What went for husbands and wives also went for parents and children, and doubly so for  grandparents and grandchildren, brothers, sisters, cousins, aunts, and uncles. (p 26)

The desire to be reunited with family members figured prominently in escapes, as owners made clear when advertising…[For example], the purchaser of Barbary Williams, a fifty-year-old woman who escaped soon after being sold by her deceased owner’s estate, mentioned five different neighborhoods to which the fugitive might have gone seeking relatives, including her husband. (p 26)

The division of family members among a number of small slaveholders multiplied…the danger of a family’s disruption by the financial mischance or simple human mortality of an owner. Small slaveholders were more vulnerable than planters to the financial reverse that might require the liquidation of slave property. Slaves with families parceled out among several such owners must have lived in permanent apprehension of disaster, especially since the evidence of that disaster’s having befallen others lay constantly before them. From the death of an owner slaves had more to fear, furthermore, than the possibility of sale. For every slave sold upon the death of an owner, many others must have been simply sent elsewhere–to the residence of an heir, for example–where old attachments would be sundered as surely as if a sale had taken place. (p 26-27)

Here is one painful example from early Magruder history: in 1734, Sarah Beall Magruder (wife of Samuel Magruder, son of Alexander the immigrant) left her nine slaves to nine different heirs in eight households.

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