Sunday, December 30, 2012

Planters, Farmers and Slaves

Gail asks:
“I'm looking at the 1850 census for Warren County, Georgia. I see some people listed as "farmers" and others (far fewer of them) as "planters." Value of real estate is one of the items accounted for in the census and there does not seem to be an absolute correlation between value and occupation title. In other words, I see some planters with less real estate value than some farmers. I know some people define the term plantation by size, degree of self-sustainability, number of slaves, or other factors. My question, though, is how would an 1850 census enumerator determine whether to call someone a farmer or a planter? Would it be whatever the family head said he was? I'm a little doubtful about that. I looked at the guidance for enumerators in the 1850 census and didn't see anything about planters vs. farmers."

A farmer is one who grows foodstuffs for his family and his livestock. He could have many acres (though they might not all be in crops) as well as slaves. A planter is one who grows commercial crops. In the south that usually means cotton, tobacco or rice. As a general rule, planters have more acreage and more slaves than your average farmer but that isn't always the case so you can't use that as your criteria. The agriculture schedules will tell you what you need to know. Both the farmers and the planters will appear on the ag schedule. It is always good to look at your ancestor from as many angles as you can which means you need to be looking at the population schedule along with the ag and the slave schedules (whatever is applicable). The slave schedules are available on They have been adding the ag schedules as well as the other non-population schedules to their collection but they are not complete yet.

A related question from F. W.:
"I have been looking at the 1850 and 1860 slave schedules. I am finding my ancestors no problem but I haven't found them to be that useful. The slaves are only identified by race and age. There are no names. I am not sure names would really be that helpful to me anyway since I am not researching the slaves per se. Also, are there other slave schedules for the other years that Ancestry[.com] doesn't have?"

The 1850 and the 1860 are the only slave schedules. In the earlier censuses they do give numbers of slaves on the population schedules themselves. All of the slaves were freed before the 1870 census so obviously there isn't one for that year. Even though the slave schedules don't tell you a whole lot you can glean some clues. You can get a sense of general wealth by the number of slaves owned. If there are mulatto slaves listed, the inference is that either the owner, his sons, or his overseers have been taking liberties. The number of slave houses listed can give you an idea of living conditions.

Here is something interesting for you. Here is the list of slave-holding states in 1850:

Alabama (Confederate)
Arkansas (Confederate)
District of Columbia
Florida (Confederate)
Georgia (Confederate)
Louisiana (Confederate)
Mississippi (Confederate)
New Jersey
North Carolina (Confederate)
South Carolina (Confederate)
Tennessee (Confederate)
Texas (Confederate)
Virginia (Confederate)

Not all of the slave-holding states listed were southern/Confederate states. People who are doing research in states other than the deep south sometimes forget that they should also be looking at these records. Prior to the Revolutionary War all of the colonies had slaves. After the Revolutionary War, states started abolishing slavery one by one over time but several of the "northern" states held on. Delaware and New Jersey didn't abolish slavery until the end of the Civil War. As a matter of fact, Delaware opposed the Emancipation Proclamation because they felt it was their decision not the federal government's whether or not they could have slaves. Stubborn Delaware didn't ratify the 13th amendment until 1901. Knowing all of this could be important to northern researchers. If your ancestor owned slaves one of the first places you need to be looking are the deed records. Slaves were considered personal property and thus deeded. You can find familial connections through slave deeds.

"Know all men by there presents that we for the natural love and affection which we bear for our brother in law William Sterling do give grant and confirm in him our right and title of a certain negro girl named Charity which was given to him by one Jesse Lee during the natural life time of his wife Obedience Sterling by Will after which time she is to belong to the rest of the heirs of the said Jesse Lee according to said Will we as a part of the lawful heirs of the said Jesse Lee do hereby relinquish all our rights titles or claims to the said girl unto him the said William Sterling and his heirs forever." 1

This one deed was used to prove the relationships of 13 people.

As I mentioned in the A Few Followups blog post, when you are doing research you must stay neutral and report the facts objectively no matter what your personal feelings are. I am saying this so that readers of this blog don't think me callous when I speak of these things matter-of-factly.

1Robeson County, North Carolina, Deeds, vol. S (1811-1823): 122, Jacob Pope and Others to William Sterling; accession no. C.083.40005; North Carolina State Archives, Raleigh.

Copyright © 2012 Michele Simmons Lewis

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