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Slavery in America; Daily lives of Slaves in the Antebellum South

Updated on March 7, 2015
cam8510 profile image

Through his travels and reading, Chris gathers information and writes about historical events and concepts which are often overlooked.

Sculpture of Slaves in America

City Hall, Philadelphia.
City Hall, Philadelphia. | Source

Houses of Slaves in America

The part of the plantation where slaves lived was known as the slave quarter. The word quarter is used here in the same sense as when we speak of the French Quarter of New Orleans. Individual houses are often referred to as slave quarters (pl). Housing on plantations was varied, with some slave owners providing a relatively decent place for slaves to live while others built hovels that left the occupants exposed to wind and driving rain.


Here is a list of some of the living conditions of the least fortunate slaves:

  • Field workers seemed to have been provided the poorest accommodations.
  • Often, these shacks were made of sticks, saplings and spare boards arranged vertically and bound together.
  • The structure allowed wind and rain into the dwelling.
  • Floors were usually dirt.
  • Chimneys were made of wood and lined with clay. This made replacement easy and cheap when the chimney caught fire.
  • Beds in the poorest of slave homes consisted of a single blanket used on the dirt floor.


Slaves who were more fortunate had some of the following amenities:

  • Plank floors
  • Siding that kept out weather of all kinds. Examples of siding are logs with chinking between, wood siding with no gaps, brick, stone.
  • Brick or stone fireplaces.
  • Straw tick mattresses.

In most cases, it seems that there were two families in each dwelling, no matter how many individuals that might amount to. Female slaves were encouraged to begin having babies at young ages, such as thirteen years old and to have large numbers of children. This would mean that a single dwelling, housing two families, could potentially have a very large number of people inhabiting it.

Chairs and tables were usually not provided, but could be constructed by the slaves themselves if they had access to materials from which to make them.

Windows had no glass, but were covered with fabric or whatever the slaves could find to make shutters.

Houses of Slaves in America

This work is in the public domain in the United States because it is a work prepared by an officer or employee of the United States Government as part of that person’s official duties under the terms of Title 17, Chapter 1, Section 105 of the US Code
This work is in the public domain in the United States because it is a work prepared by an officer or employee of the United States Government as part of that person’s official duties under the terms of Title 17, Chapter 1, Section 105 of the US Code | Source

Slave Home

As a work of the U.S. federal government, the image is in the public domain (17 U.S.C. §§ 101 and 105).
As a work of the U.S. federal government, the image is in the public domain (17 U.S.C. §§ 101 and 105). | Source

Slaves and their Houses

This media file is in the public domain in the United States. This applies to U.S. works where the copyright has expired, often because its first publication occurred prior to January 1, 1923.
This media file is in the public domain in the United States. This applies to U.S. works where the copyright has expired, often because its first publication occurred prior to January 1, 1923. | Source

Clothing Worn by Slaves in America

Clothing for slaves was handled in one of two ways.

  1. Some slave owners would periodically provide fabric which the slaves would use to make their own garments.
  2. Other masters would provide clothing imported from northern suppliers.


The poorest slaves would often have only the bare basics in terms of clothing.

  • One shirt.
  • One pair of trousers.
  • No coat.
  • No shoes.

The more fortunate might have been provide for in the following ways:

  • Two or more shirts.
  • Two or more pairs of trousers.
  • One or two pairs of shoes.
  • Heavy coats made from blanket material-Coats were only for those working outside. House servants often were not given coats or shoes.



Food Provided for Slaves in America

Masters usually supplied slaves with at least a basic ration of food. This might consist of a peck of corn per week. The corn would be ground by the slaves themselves and made into cornbread. The meat provided was usually bacon or salt pork when it was available. When meat stores were exhausted the slaves either went without or found their own meat by hunting and fishing. Rabbits, squirrels, raccoons and opossums were popular among slaves. These were sometimes fried, but usually boiled along with whatever vegetables were available.

Families of Slaves in America

Marriage among slaves was not legally recognized in the south. If a man and woman married, they could be split up by selling the husband or wife to a different master. Fathers had no paternal rights regarding their offspring. The children were the property of the master. Mothers likewise had no rights in terms of their children, only responsibilities. They were encouraged to begin having babies young and to have large families. This was a means of the owner acquiring more slaves without purchasing them. Children would begin working as young as possible. Some became “Child minders” as early as age four. If small children accompanied their mothers to the field, they were expected to work as well, although the driver might tolerate periods of play.

Family Life of Slaves

 his media file is in the public domain in the United States. This applies to U.S. works where the copyright has expired, often because its first publication occurred prior to January 1, 1923.
his media file is in the public domain in the United States. This applies to U.S. works where the copyright has expired, often because its first publication occurred prior to January 1, 1923. | Source

Daily Schedule of Slaves in America

The daily schedule of a field slave would begin before sunrise when the slave driver would blow a horn. Slaves would work throughout the day until sunset. After working all day they,

  • Mended clothing.
  • Gathered firewood.
  • Hunted.
  • Played games: marbles, jax, tops, running races and jumping contests.
  • Attended religious services for prayer and singing.
  • Held Parties and dances.

Escaped Slave Living in the Great Dismal Swamp

originally published in Harper’s New Monthly Magazine, 1856 Osman, an escaped slave in the North Carolina part of the Great Dismal Swamp, 1856.  public domain
originally published in Harper’s New Monthly Magazine, 1856 Osman, an escaped slave in the North Carolina part of the Great Dismal Swamp, 1856. public domain | Source

Runaway Slaves During Slavery in America

If slaves made the decision to run away from their owners , they would normally be pursued by the master or by hired slave catchers. Dogs were commonly used to follow the scent of the runaway. No special breed was used, but the dogs were specially trained for hunting runaway slaves. According to one source, the dogs were kept penned up from the time they were born. These dogs were not allowed to have contact with slaves until the training began. At that time, a slave was forced to start running and the dog turned loose. When the dog chased the slave, it was given meat. The goal was for the dog to chase the slave until it was trapped, for example, in a tree. Modern bloodhounds are trained to not attack, but only to track their query, but dogs used to track runaways, also called negro dogs, were allowed to physically attack and injure the slaves.

Many slaves chose to hide in the many swamps located in the southern states. For much of the year the swamps were flooded, but in times of drought they would dry up and be impacted by wild fires. The slaves who made their homes in the swamps became known as Maroon people These runaways were very skilled at avoiding being caught by their masters and slave catchers. Even dogs were relatively ineffective at finding these people. During the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, cedar shingles became a very popular roofing material for homes. Cedar trees were plentiful in the swamps. Many Maroon people were able to earn money by harvesting cedars and selling them to builders located on the edges of the swamps. The Dismal Swamp of eastern North Carolina was a very popular place for runaway slaves to hide and live.

The Great Dismal Swamp National Wildlife Refuge

This image or recording is the work of a U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service employee, taken or made as part of that person's official duties. As a work of the U.S. federal government, the image is in the public domain.
This image or recording is the work of a U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service employee, taken or made as part of that person's official duties. As a work of the U.S. federal government, the image is in the public domain. | Source

The Growth of Slavery in America

The beginning of slavery in America is dated back to 1619. That was the year that a Dutch ship carrying African slaves docked at Port Comfort near Jamestown. The slaves and crew aboard the ship were starving. The crew traded 20 slaves for provisions. In 1625, there were a total of 23 African slaves in the colonies. By December 1865 when slavery was ended by the signing of the Thirteenth Amendment, 12 million slaves had been imported from Africa. The population of living slaves peaked prior to Abolition at 4 million according to the 1860 census.

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    • savvydating profile image

      savvydating 3 months ago

      Excellent layout. Crisp and clean. But more importantly, you brought to life the suffering of slaves in the Antebellum South. Even the more fortunate slaves had it rough. The image of a young girl having one baby after the other which she couldn't even claim as her own made me cringe. Thank you for writing this revealing article.

    • Charito1962 profile image

      Charito Maranan-Montecillo 23 months ago from Manila, Philippines

      Great hub, Chris! Reading this reminded me of the TV mini-series "Roots" which I watched in the late '70s, and the 2013 film "12 Years a Slave". I was so moved by these stories.

      I'm glad that black slavery in America finally ended when Abraham Lincoln came into the picture.

    • cam8510 profile image
      Author

      Chris Mills 2 years ago from St. Louis, MO until the end of June, 2017

      LadyFiddler, Thank you for stopping by and reading this article. It is the result of research I've been doing for a novel I am working on about runaway slaves. I've posted three parts of that ndovel here recently if you'd like to take a look at them. I appreciate your comments.

    • cam8510 profile image
      Author

      Chris Mills 2 years ago from St. Louis, MO until the end of June, 2017

      Don, Good to see you. I just don't know about opossum, though. I've been working on a novel about slavery and decided to use some of the research for a hub. Thanks for reading and commenting.

    • LadyFiddler profile image

      Joanna Chandler 2 years ago from On planet Earth

      Hi Cam very interesting hubs, when i read stuff like these it sadden my heart. To know there are people who think they are better than some, they have the right to ill treat others of a different race. Imagine a human being would rather hide out in a swamp which is wet/damp all the time, rather than stay in a slave house. It just goes to show the ill treatment that went on there.

      These slaves have help build America in many ways even though they were badly treated. They made their masters rich and did not miss treat them though they faced so much brutality. How can you put an innocent child to work? a break a family apart? when yours are together. I believe these people who did such evil have a special kind of punishment to receive when my Lord is ready for them.

      Sometimes we wonder why people end up the way they are or get in certain situations its simply because they might be paying for some great grand daddy or mammy's sins.

      Thanks for sharing :)

    • dahoglund profile image

      Don A. Hoglund 2 years ago from Wisconsin Rapids

      Your details of slave life is interesting, I knew some of it from reading literature and movies about those days. The slaves were pretty creative in making interesting meals that are popular today from the scrap food allowed to them in those days.

    • cam8510 profile image
      Author

      Chris Mills 2 years ago from St. Louis, MO until the end of June, 2017

      freecampingaussie, thanks for reading, for the compliment and for the vote. This subject is something I've always been drawn to. I have learned a lot over the past couple of years about it. It was a very sick time in the history of the world and the United States.

    • freecampingaussie profile image

      freecampingaussie 2 years ago from Southern Spain

      Very interesting hub. I have always been disgusted by how these people were so badly treated after watching Roots as a child . I cried when I saw families being torn apart & when they were whipped. So very sad.. Voting you up.

    • cam8510 profile image
      Author

      Chris Mills 2 years ago from St. Louis, MO until the end of June, 2017

      Thank you Scarface, I appreciate you reading my hub and taking time to thoughtfully comment.

    • Scarface1300 profile image

      Scarface1300 3 years ago

      Educational and fascinating work. It goes without saying that this needs telling and you told it in a brilliant way. The lead picture should be a warning to what we are capable of doing to one and other and hopefully people will learn.

    • cam8510 profile image
      Author

      Chris Mills 3 years ago from St. Louis, MO until the end of June, 2017

      Thanks Frank. I appreciate you taking the time to read my article.

    • Frank Atanacio profile image

      Frank Atanacio 3 years ago from Shelton

      the clarity of this powerful hub bled right through... a very good write my friend..

    • cam8510 profile image
      Author

      Chris Mills 3 years ago from St. Louis, MO until the end of June, 2017

      Hi Deb, sorry I haven't responded earlier. I'm hard at work on a writing project and am not on HP very often. I miss the daily interaction here, and will be back as soon as I can. Hope all is well in Oklahoma.

    • cam8510 profile image
      Author

      Chris Mills 3 years ago from St. Louis, MO until the end of June, 2017

      Hi Nell Rose, sorry I'm just getting around to responding to your comment. I'm quite involved in a writing project and don't get on to HP very often. I followed the link you provided, and it looks as though that site has been taken down. You may have had a hand in that. Thanks for the heads up.

    • aviannovice profile image

      Deb Hirt 3 years ago from Stillwater, OK

      Great work, Chris. These are necessary stories to be told. It made me sick to see the lead photo. How can a 'civilized' society do that to another person?

    • Nell Rose profile image

      Nell Rose 3 years ago from England

      Hiya, just finding plagiarists, this one of yours is on:

      http://documentariezblog.blogspot.co.uk/2014/03/sl...

    • Nadine May profile image

      Nadine May 3 years ago from Cape Town, Western Cape, South Africa

      Your hub reminds me again on how cruel and uncaring the human race is towards its own kind. I'm sure there are a lot more stories on how people survived the most dreadful conditions in the past, but today millions of people still live in those conditions. Well researched article.

    • cam8510 profile image
      Author

      Chris Mills 3 years ago from St. Louis, MO until the end of June, 2017

      Hi Ann, Thanks for your kind comments. It has been difficult being away from HP. I really enjoy the interaction and friends I've made here. But if I'm going to make headway on this new project, I need to stay at it regularly. I appreciate you stopping and reading today.

    • annart profile image

      Ann Carr 3 years ago from SW England

      You've obviously done thorough research for your book and therefore it shows in this hub; fascinating facts and figures.

      I'm surprised any of the slaves had parties and dances; how did they have any energy left after all that work and poor treatment?! They were no doubt really resilient.

      Congratulations on an excellent hub and I wish you luck with your novel. Thought you'd been quiet for a while, now I know why!

      All the best for the week ahead. Ann

    • cam8510 profile image
      Author

      Chris Mills 3 years ago from St. Louis, MO until the end of June, 2017

      Ron, I very much appreciate you taking the time to read this article and to comment. You are so right. There is nothing enjoyable about the topic. But there is still so much that we, as whites, have not understood. May we all continue to learn and grow and accept one another fully.

    • cam8510 profile image
      Author

      Chris Mills 3 years ago from St. Louis, MO until the end of June, 2017

      John, I appreciate your visit to my hub. The deeper I delve into this topic, the more I want to tell of the lives of these people. There was so much fear that even the offer of hope and help was rejected. The slaves and their descendants have a great deal to be proud of as they have fought to overcome.

    • cam8510 profile image
      Author

      Chris Mills 3 years ago from St. Louis, MO until the end of June, 2017

      Ruby, you are right. There has been so much horror committed in this world all in the name of God. But men have a way of conjuring God's approval out of their own arrogance and a few misinterpreted words from the Bible. Thank you for reading and commenting.

    • cam8510 profile image
      Author

      Chris Mills 3 years ago from St. Louis, MO until the end of June, 2017

      Randy, thanks for your interest and your help. I've looked at the hub and those are some really fine photos. I'll link my hub to yours.

    • RonElFran profile image

      Ronald E. Franklin 3 years ago from Mechanicsburg, PA

      This article brings home the conditions many slaves were forced to live in. I can't say I enjoyed reading it, but I appreciate the good information it provides.

    • Jodah profile image

      John Hansen 3 years ago from Queensland Australia

      Great hub Cam, giving a brief insight into what slave life was like in the Antebellum South. Great but sad images accompanying your information. Thanks for sharing, and good luck with your book.

    • always exploring profile image

      Ruby Jean Fuller 3 years ago from Southern Illinois

      The pictures of these poor people makes me sad, then angry. How could anyone treat people so badly? I'm sure the slave owners were good church going folks. Grrr! Leaving my anger aside, your hub was really good. I didn't know many of the details you listed... Thank you..

    • Randy Godwin profile image

      Randy Godwin 3 years ago from Southern Georgia

      You can check this hub out for some examples of tabby slave cabins, but I'll look through my photos because I'm sure I have some better ones. If I find them I'll email them to you to see if you can use them. I also have a copy of my great-great-grandfather's plantation house after the Civil War ended. Nothing to compare to those in Gone With The Wind, however. At any rate, good luck with your novel and let me know when it's published.

      https://hubpages.com/travel/Fort-George-Island-Zep...

    • cam8510 profile image
      Author

      Chris Mills 3 years ago from St. Louis, MO until the end of June, 2017

      Hi Randy. Thanks for reading this. Actually, I was having a hard time finding good examples of housing. I wanted to give the low end as well as some of the better accommodations. If you have anything that you feel would fit in here, I'd love to take a look. Thanks. Hey, I'll most likely be buying a used travel trailer in the summer. I'll be looking back at some of your hubs at that time.

    • Randy Godwin profile image

      Randy Godwin 3 years ago from Southern Georgia

      Fascinating article about a subject I've frequently researched and written about, Chris. I've visited a few plantations in Georgia and Florida and have some nice photos I took while there. If you need any other photos of slave quarters or plantation homes I'd be glad to let you use some of those. Some examples are on my Zephaniah Kingsley hub if you'd be interested. Once again, well written hub!