Slave Life
Submitted by Debbie Quinn

This section describes the different aspects of the life of a slave. It also includes accounts from slaves. Click on the links below and you will be directed to that section or you can browse through the page.

House Slaves / Field Slaves / Food & Clothing / Education / Punishment / Marriage / Old Age / Music / Housing / Religion / Whipping / Family Life / Slave Breeding / Childhood

House Slaves:

House slaves usually lived better than field slaves. They had better food and were sometimes given the family's old clothing. Their living accomodations were also better than those of other slaves. Some slaves were treated like the slave-owners children. Some house slaves were educated by the women in the family. Trusted house slaves were sometimes promised their freedom after their masters died. However, they were exposed to the family's whims and passions twenty-four hours a day. On Sunday they worked much harder because that was the day the master and family liked to entertain company.

Field Slaves:

Field Slaves worked the fields six days a week. Sundays they worked half a day. They were in the fields from sunrise to sunset and at harvest time they did an eighteen hour day or longer. The women worked the same hours as the men and pregnant women were expected to continue until their child was born. After the child was born the mother took the baby to the fields with her or an elderly woman slave would watch the baby while the mother was in the field. The mother would only be allowed to leave the field to feed the baby three times a day.

Food & Clothing:

Slaves received a monthly allowance of corn meal and salt herrings. Some plantation owners gave their slaves a small piece of land or truck patch where they could grow vegetables. They also had a yearly clothing allowance which sometimes included: 2 linen shirts, 1 pair linen trousers, 1 jacket, 1 pair of trousers for the winter, pair of stockings and 1 pair of shoes.


As we all know it was illegal to teach a slave to read and write. If you were caught teaching the slaves you were imprisoned or ran out of town. Some slaves learned to read and write from the wife and daughters of their master.


The law provided no protection for slaves. On large plantations the overseers took charge of punishing the field slaves. The overseers would constantly push them to work harder and if the overseers were not satisfied the slave was whipped. Sometimes the slaves were mutilated or branded like cattle. Some punishments were associated with certain areas of the country such as Virginia, where after being whipped the slave was put in a smoke house. States with a large number of slaves introduced their own slave codes. These codes gave their masters tight control of their slaves. Slaves could be executed for murder, rape, burglary, arson and assault upon a white person.


Slaves were encouraged to marry. The reason behind this was they were less likely to runaway and the women would produce children. Child-bearing started very early in life for a slave, around the age or thirteen and by twenty they would be expected to have atleast four or five children. Their masters promised them their freedom if they had alot of children. Sometimes male slaves would marry a woman from another plantation because he was not subjected to her whippings or treatment from her master. If no children were born after a year or so the female slave would be sold.

Old Age:

If a slave was trusted by their master they usually stayed with them until they reached a good old age. The elderly women were in charge of the young children. She took over as a mother basically and she was given everything she needed to take care of them. The elderly men were expected to perform small light tasks.


Slaves attempted to preserve their African culture with their music, dancing, and rituals. The white people banded slaves to practice their rituals, especially the use of drums, for they feared the drums were used to signal, talk or send messages to other slaves. Slaves almost always sang while working, their songs were about their loves, work, whippings, etc. and you could hear their rhythmic music for miles.


Housing consisted of wooden shacks with dirt floors which housed two families, which many times were located in damp areas. They did not have beds nor furniture. The beds were made of straw and old rags boxed in with boards, much like a stall in a barn, and a single blanket. Children slept together until they got married then a portion of the cabin was assigned to them. There was one fire place to share. If the two families were in disagreement the fires in the fireplace did not meet on the hearth.


In the south black people were not allowed to attend church services. The churches that did accept them would separate them from the white worshipers. The main reason blacks were not allowed to attend is because the slave owner was afraid they would become Christians and interpret the bible that all men were created equal.


Whippings were used to control the behavior of slaves. The number of lashes depended on the offence and it was up to the master what that number was. There was no safety even for women and children for they were also whipped. Slaves were stripped down and tied to a post and after the whipping they usually were left there until sunset or all night. Sometimes their masters would put pork salt on the wounds which made it hurt worse. If there was a way that the masters could make it more painful, they did.

Family Life:

Since state laws gave slaves no protection, family members including children were sold. Children were taken away from their mothers at a very early age, sometimes before the child was one year old. Some slave women were taken to auction with their children and were sold to different people, never to be seen or heard from again. Whatever way the slaveowner could get a higher price for them is how he sold them. The hopes of a slave family to have his family kept together was an impossible dream.

Slave Breeding:

Slave women were expected to have alot of children so their masters would have more slaves to work the fields or to sell at his decretion. Childbearing started at the age of thirteen and if a slave woman did not get pregnant sometimes their masters took it upon themselves to impregnant them or sell them.


Pregnant slave women continued to work until their child was born. After a month of recovery she was expected to go back to work with the child on her back in the fields. Slave children played during the day until they reached the age that they could handle small tasks such as running errands and at the age of eight or nine they were expected to work in the fields.


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