Slaves "sold to Tennessee" from Augusta County, Virginia.


In the 1760s Anglo-American frontiersmen, determined to settle the land, planted slavery firmly within the borders of what would become Tennessee. Over time, East Tennessee, hilly and dominated by small farms, retained the fewest number of slaves. Middle Tennessee, where tobacco, cattle, and grain became the favored crops, held the largest number of slaves throughout the antebellum period. West Tennessee, the area between the Tennessee and Mississippi Rivers, ultimately the richest cotton producing section of the state, saw the greatest concentration of slaves. By 1860 Tennessee’s 275,719 slaves represented just under 25 percent of the total population and were engaged in urban, industrial, and agricultural slavery.

When North Carolina ceded its western lands to the United States in 1790, the terms of cession prevented the new federal congress from excluding slavery in the Southwest Territory, as had been done under the Articles of Confederation’s government in the Northwest Territory. Six years later, when Tennessee achieved statehood, the 1796 constitution remained mute on the status of slavery. The state operated under the laws first promulgated by North Carolina, whereby slaves were regarded primarily as chattel (the property of their owners), but sometimes as persons with legal obligations and a very few legal rights. Slaves, for example, had the right to a jury trial in those exceptional cases of crimes that were outside the master’s jurisdiction. They also had the right to contest their ownership in the courts if they could present evidence and procure a white sponsor. At the same time, as in all of the slave states, the marriage of slaves and their right to their children had no legal sanction.

As Tennesseans moved westward from the 1770s throughout the 1820s, successive frontiers saw a temporary loosening of restraints on slaves and a multiplication of roles for slaves to play. Slaves traveled alone through the wilderness on their masters’ errands, carried guns for protection against Indians and to hunt game, and shared tight quarters with their masters in the stockades. White men of property made unusually public alliances with women of color, and sometimes they freed and provided for their mulatto children. Agencies to enforce racial codes were weak and erratic. Ironically, however, in these years, roughly from 1770 to 1830, when legal obstacles least constrained emancipation, both the demand for slave labor and uncertain frontier finances made slave families especially vulnerable to slave sales. From the beginning slaves were among white Tennesseans’ most valuable assets; in time, both Nashville and, most notably, Memphis established permanent slave markets. From 1826 until 1853, legislation outlawing interstate trade in slaves was ignored.

East Tennessee manifested an early antislavery sentiment. Some twenty-five manumission societies organized before 1830 and attracted major figures in the emerging national campaign against slavery. Men like Elihu Embree and Benjamin Lundy attempted to find ways to achieve emancipation without violent upheaval. In 1829 the Tennessee Colonization Society organized to send emancipated slaves to Liberia, transporting 870 ex-slaves to Africa in the period that ended in 1866. Although this modest record had minimal impact on the institution of slavery in Tennessee, it represented the only antislavery activity tolerated in the state after the 1830s. Manumission societies disappeared, and public discussion of emancipation was prohibited. The increasing militancy of the abolition movement in the North, periodic white panic following rumors of slave insurrection, and above all, the increasing institutionalization of slavery as it became part of the settled agriculture of the state dictated a harsher legal code governing not only slaves, but also free blacks and white abolitionists. In 1831, for example, the law required that emancipation of a slave had to be accompanied by removal from the state, while severe penalties were enacted against the distribution of “rebellion inciting” materials. The 1835 state constitution explicitly deprived free blacks of the right to vote. Laws against the assembling of blacks, which were often observed only in the breach, were harshly enforced during slave rebellion scares.

Although most slaves, both male and female, were agricultural workers, slavery was not a uniform experience. On the farm, a slave’s life was influenced, first, by the kind of operation the master ran: a subsistence farm, a corn and tobacco cash crop farm, a livestock farm, a cotton plantation, or, most likely in all sections of Tennessee, some combination of these. Secondly, the number of slaves a master housed helped determine the contours of any given slave community. Relatively few great plantations existed in Tennessee. Census records show that only one person owned more than 300 slaves in 1860 and only forty-seven owned more than 100. More than three-fourths of all masters held fewer than 10 slaves; together they controlled under 40 percent of the slave population. Thus, by 1860, more than half of the slaves probably lived in quarters that housed more than ten, but many fewer than 100 slaves. Work assignments were dictated by the seasonal needs of the master’s farm, by the domestic needs of the master’s household, and often by the needs of the plots assigned to slave families to provide a portion of their subsistence. Some slaves, especially those with special talents as carpenters, weavers, or musicians, were hired out to other planters or town residents.

For the most part, rural slaves had to create their own societies. They focused first on putting together families which, given the trauma of slave sales and dispersals, meant putting together surrogate families to take in newly purchased single adults or children separated from parents. The so-called matriarchal families of slavery were one result, but the nuclear or extended family remained the vital institutional base of slave society. Generally slaves were housed in family units rather than in barracks, which undoubtedly reinforced the sense of family that prevailed in the slave quarters despite the ways in which slavery violated the norms of family life as understood by black people or by white people of the nineteenth century.

Religion also served as a strong survival mechanism, as slaves adopted and adapted Christianity. Frontier Methodist and Baptist churches were open to slaves in ways that were almost anomalous given the institutional constraints of slavery. Methodist circuit riders preached to whites and blacks and eagerly claimed black converts. Black church members were called upon to exhort their fellow parishioners, black and white, in Baptist churches. Within the quarters, slave preachers, who emerged from the slave community itself, interpreted Christianity; in the quarters powerful gospel music was created. This musical response to a people’s travail left a historical record for modern historians, but more importantly, it provided immediate solace, hope, and solidarity. Despite the denial of literacy, some slaves learned how to read with or without the cooperation of individual masters. Thus, slaves fashioned a world of their own within the white masters’ farms and plantations. Slave owners were often conscious of this slave community outside their purview, in some sense independent of them, even subversive, but usually they chose to ignore what they could not control.

Urban slavery produced another set of experiences. In most towns and in the larger cities, slaves were ubiquitous, scattered throughout the community, visible at any public event, providing the basic manual labor of the city and much of its skilled labor as well. The black population of the village of Nashville in 1800 amounted to 45 percent of the total. As the town grew, that figure declined to just over a third of the total in the 1820s and 1830s, and then continued to decline to 25 percent in 1850, and to 23 percent in 1860. European immigrants entering the labor force accounted for much of this change, which was even more dramatic in Memphis, where the cotton boom attracted many new immigrants to fill the demand for labor and the city’s black population declined from 28 percent to 17 percent in the decade before the Civil War. Urban conditions may have meant greater opportunities for literacy and education of all sorts, for religious choices, and even a quasi-legal independence for some slaves. On the other hand, cities may have been harder on the slave family’s integrity.

Most city slave owners, living in restricted quarters, bought or rented individual slaves according to the services required, although they sometimes agreed to take on slave children with their mothers, so that in many households, the slave family centered around the mother, grandmother, or “auntie.” The hiring of slaves became so common it was institutionalized: each New Year’s Day, the market square drew slaves and employers to bargain for slave labor for the coming year. Self-hire, by which masters allowed slaves to bargain for their own labor with employers, who simply sent back a fixed sum to the owner, was illegal but so convenient and profitable that it was difficult to stop. These quasi-free people mingled with the legally free black population, which though fewer than a thousand persons in Nashville in 1860, succeeded in creating autonomous Methodist, Baptist, and Christian (Disciples of Christ) congregations, open to slaves as well as free persons, and pastored by well-known black ministers. Nelson Merry led the Baptist congregation from the 1840s until his death in 1884, when his church numbered more than two thousand members. Schools were more clandestine operations and yet were stubbornly and courageously opened by free blacks like Daniel Wadkins, William Napier, and Sally Porter, and then reopened after white panic that periodically forced them to close had eased.

City life was not only churches or schools, or even the excitement of the streets; it was mainly work, and slaves performed in virtually every capacity. They worked as the municipality’s street hands and in the hotels’ kitchens. They were domestics of all sorts–coachmen, housepainters, laundresses, and midwives. They were also industrial workers. Small textile plants advertised for hands early in the nineteenth century; mines and gristmills used slave labor, often as hired hands. From 1807 until 1857 iron master Montgomery Bell operated a series of furnaces employing hundreds of slaves. The steam-driven Worley Furnace, built in 1844 in Dickson County, was named for Bell’s slave and trusted manager of his works, James Worley, and was operated with slave labor. By 1833 some of Nashville’s earliest merchant bankers, Thomas Yeatman and his partners, Joseph and Robert Woods, had developed iron mines, blast furnaces, and a rolling mill in Stewart County that were operated by at least 200 slaves. By the 1850s this operation, the Cumberland River Iron Works, employed almost 2,000 slaves and nearly as many white workers. The concentration of slave labor in the iron manufacturing industry focused suspicion on the Iron Works in 1835, when the specter of slave rebellion seemed imminent. Again in 1856, the suspicion of rebellion resulted in the torture of 65 slaves from the Iron Works to produce confessions to insurrection. Nine of the “confessed” rebels were hanged at the Iron Works and another 19 at Dover.

Resistance to slavery by slaves was rarely a matter of conspiracy, though. Most resistance involved individual actions of sabotage, slow-downs in output, negligence with livestock and tools, and other kinds of behavior that might force concessions in work loads or rewards from overseers or masters. The most feared forms of slave rebellion were poison and arson. The runaway slave, regardless of the success of his endeavor, was the most conspicuous and the most common embodiment of resistance throughout the history of slavery. In Tennessee slavery officially ended in April of 1865, when the Unionist-controlled legislature ratified the Thirteenth Amendment.

Citation Information

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  • Article Title Slavery
  • Author
  • Website Name Tennessee Encyclopedia
  • URL
  • Access Date July 18, 2024
  • Publisher Tennessee Historical Society
  • Original Published Date
  • Date of Last Update March 1, 2018