The lives of American slaves as seen through historical images

In the mid 17th century, the US began to import Africans for use as slaves. Here is their struggle, as seen through historical pictures and documents

Photo by: Getty Images
Photo by: Getty Images

A group of slaves who had escaped, sitting outside a cabin. Escapees were known as contraband after the Union General Benjamin Butler (1818-1893) announced that any slaves in land controlled by the Union Army would be regarded as contraband property.

Updated Jul 19, 2017

1. Kidnapped and forced into slavery

Hundreds of thousands of people from central and western Africa were enslaved and transported to the New World in dire circumstances in cargo ships between the mid 17th century and 1860.

Slave trade companies kidnapped people from their native lands. Most slaves were transported in cargo ships and chained to plank beds with little room to move. Profits came first, so the traders packed the ships to the gills, and didn't provide even basic necessities.

Around 388,000 Africans arrived in the United States during that period, according to the New York Public Library.

But more than 83,000 did not survive the journey. They died during the Middle Passage, or the crossing from Africa to the Americas through the Atlantic.

Lithograph entitled 'THE LOWER DECK OF A GUINEA MAN IN THE LAST CENTURY,' depicting a slave ship plying between Africa and America before the Civil War.

2. Seen as property

Enslaved Africans were hired, sold and bought like cattle, regardless of their age,sex or marital status.

A poster advertising a slave sale. John Carter was the name of the slave owner posting the advertisement as he was moving to Indiana which was a free state at the time.

3. Families torn apart

Enslaved families were not necessarily sold to the same owner. The death of an owner or bankruptcy, in particular, could lead to families being split up and sold to different masters. 

“I never knew a whole family to live together till all were grown up in my life. There is almost always, in every family, someone or more keen and bright, or else sullen and stubborn slave, whose influence they are afraid of one the rest of the family, and such a one must take a walking ticket to the south,” an ex-slave Lewis Clarke wrote in his book Narrative of the Sufferings of Lewis Clarke.

Undated newspaper advertisement offering slaves for sale. Enslaved families were not necessarily sold to the same owner. 

4. Cruel punishments meted

The treatment of slaves was generally brutal and degrading, and designed to break their spirit and enforce obedience. Literacy was discouraged or banned to stop any possible escape or rebellion attempts.

Wilson Chinn, a freed slave from Louisiana, poses with equipment used to punish slaves. Anti-slavery activists used such images to raise awareness against the practice.during the American Civil War.

Slave owners would punish slaves by whipping, raping and sexually assaulting their victims. As punishment, slave owners would use iron muzzles to prevent their slaves from eating. They were often barred from eating the produce from the plantations they farmed.

Illustration of a slave wearing an iron muzzle.

5. Mulatto children

Historians and ex-slaves documented that rape of slave women was common. Laws classified the children of slave mothers as slaves, irrespective of their father's race or status.

In her autobiography Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl, Harriet Jacobs, an African-American writer who escaped from slavery, wrote that her master was “to my knowledge, the father of eleven slaves."

Rebecca, Charley and Rosa, slave children from New Orleans, photographed by G.W. Hope, 477 Broadway, NY.

6. Pro-slave states vs free states

As many Northern states had abolished slavery, Southern, pro-slavery politicians became aware that their slaves were escaping to the free states. To stop this, in 1793 and 1850, Congress passed laws that called for the return of slaves who had escaped from their owners, mostly to another state.

The Fugitive Slave Act led to the capture of many free blacks who were then sold into slavery. Hence some black people took out adverts to warn their fellow blacks about possible threats.  

Some black people were posting warnings about possible threats. (Library of Congress)

7. Adverts for missing relatives 

Blacks freed after the emancipation in 1865 used newspaper adverts to find their loved ones, friends and family, from whom they were separated when sold to other plantation owners.

Excerpt from Southwestern Christian Advocate dated July 22, 1880. (Historic New Orleans Collection, Hill Memorial Library, Lousiana State University Libraries.)

Excerpt from Southwestern Christian Advocate dated Jan 1, 1880. (Historic New Orleans Collection, Hill Memorial Library, Lousiana State University Libraries.)

Author: Asena Bosnak