Slavery by the Numbers (redux)

Published:August 24, 2017 by Brendan Wolfe

Almost six years ago, I wrote a blog post, “Slavery by the Numbers,” that included a number of statistics about American slavery presented in the manner of a Harper’s Index. In subsequent years many, perhaps all, of the links to the sources of those statistics have gone broken. Readers interested in where that information came from and perhaps skeptical that it came from anywhere, or at least anywhere reliable, have been knocking on our door of late. So for that reason we are publishing the post anew, this time with more substantial sourcing. There are a couple statistics I could not track down as precisely as I would have liked, and two that I described incorrectly and therefore misleadingly. All of that is detailed below.

80: The approximate percentage of enslaved Africans among the total number of people who embarked for the Americas between 1500 and 1820.

Source: David Eltis and David Richardson, Atlas of the Transatlantic Slave Trade (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 2010), xvii. See also the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade Database (slavevoyages.org).

12.5 million: The approximate number of enslaved Africans transported to the Americas between 1500 and 1866.

Source: Eltis and Richardson, Atlas of the Transatlantic Slave Trade, 2.

35,000: The maximum number of enslaved Africans transported to the area that was or would be the United States in any single year between 1619 and 1865.

Source: This came originally from Harper’s Magazine, the link to which no longer exists. Eltis and Richardson, in Atlas of the Transatlantic Slave Trade, page 197, note that the average total per year to all points in the Americas over 350 years was 30,000.

15: The percentage of enslaved Africans who died, on average, during the Middle Passage.

Source: Eltis and Richardson, Atlas of the Transatlantic Slave Trade, 2.

“They loved this”: How an Alabama public school teacher describes his/her class’s reenactment of the Middle Passage.

Source: This came from a webpage at the University of Alabama–Huntsville that is no longer active (webpages.uah.edu/~carlise/uah_competency_1_narrative.htm).

Less than 4: The percentage of the total number of enslaved Africans transported to the New World who were imported to the area that became the United States.

Source: Eltis and Richardson, Atlas of the Transatlantic Slave Trade, xviii, 17.

90: The percentage of the total number of enslaved Africans transported to the New World who were imported to Brazil and the Caribbean.

Source: Eltis and Richardson, Atlas of the Transatlantic Slave Trade, xix.

33: The percentage of South Carolina’s enslaved labor force early in the 1700s made up of American Indians.

Source: Eltis and Richardson, Atlas of the Transatlantic Slave Trade, xix.

4 to 1: The ratio of white servants to enslaved Africans in Virginia late in the 1670s.

Source: Eltis and Richardson, Atlas of the Transatlantic Slave Trade, xx.

4 to 1: The ratio of enslaved Africans to white servants in Virginia early in the 1690s.

Source: Eltis and Richardson, Atlas of the Transatlantic Slave Trade, xx.

1 in 7: Chance that a New York State resident in 1776 was enslaved.

Source: According to Historical Statistics of the United States: Millennial Edition Online (hsus.cambridge.org), the population of New York in the 1771 census totaled 163,348, of which 19,874 people, or 12.2 percent, were black. An accompanying essay notes that “most of these blacks are presumed to have been slaves, though the colonial censuses were rarely explicit about status.” Census.gov, in an article titled “Population in the Colonial and Continental Periods,” gives a slightly different total population (163,337) and estimates the 1776 population to have been 190,000. There is no estimate of the black population for that year, however, and HSUS does not distinguish between free and enslaved blacks. There is no reason to believe the above ratio is incorrect, but for 1771, it would read 1 in 8.

25: The approximate percentage of the total number of enslaved Africans transported to the Americas who came after Britain outlawed the slave trade in 1807.

Source: Eltis and Richardson, Atlas of the Transatlantic Slave Trade, xxi.

$97,100,000,000,000: Estimated value of the labor performed by black slaves in America between 1619 and 1865, compounded at 6 percent interest through 1993.

Source: This number came from Harper’s Magazine and is based on figures found in Clarence J. Munford, Race and Reparations: A Black Perspective for the 21st Century (Trenton, New Jersey: Africa World Press, 1996), 428–429. Other figures have been more modest, between $5.9 trillion and $14.2 trillion, according to Thomas Craemer, “Estimating Slavery Reparations: Present Value Comparisons of Historical Multigenerational Reparations Policies,” Social Science Quarterly 96, no. 2 (June 2015): 639–655. The number depends on, among other factors, what is defined as labor, who is identified as performing that labor, the number of calculated labor hours, the rate of pay per hour, the rate of inflation, and the rate of interest.

1: Votes by which eighteenth-century lawmakers in the United States rejected outlawing slavery in all future states beyond the original thirteen.

Source: This is a reference to the Ordinance of 1784, enacted by the Confederation Congress on April 23, 1784, which clarified the means by which land outside the original thirteen states would be organized. A clause prohibiting slavery in any new states lost by a single vote. See a letter from Thomas Jefferson to James Madison, dated April 25, 1784: http://founders.archives.gov/documents/Madison/01-08-02-0009.

55: The number of white people killed in Southampton County, Virginia, during Nat Turner’s rebellion in August 1832:

Source: Encyclopedia Virginia, “Confessions of Nat Turner” (1831).

15: Votes by which Virginia lawmakers rejected outlawing slavery in the commonwealth on January 25, 1832.

Source: The vote was 58 to 73. Erik S. Root, ed., Sons of the Fathers: The Virginia Slavery Debates of 1831–1832 (Lanham, Maryland: Lexington Books, 2010), 13. See also Encyclopedia Virginia, Virginia Slavery Debate of 1831–1832.

500: Estimated number of antislavery petitions sent to the U.S. Congress between 1835 and 1836.

Source: This came originally from Harper’s Magazine, the link to which no longer exists. In Signatures of Citizenship: Petitioning, Antislavery, and Women’s Political Identity (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2003), Susan Zaeske notes that 175 antislavery petitions awaited the Twenty-fourth Congress when it convened on December 7, 1835 (page 69). These petitions famously raised the ire of Senator John C. Calhoun, of South Carolina, and when a call was made to stop them, or to implement a gag rule, even more came flooding in, stopping all other work of the Congress. I haven’t been able to locate an estimated total number of petitions, however.

7.5: Percentage of all free black [heads of families] in the United States in 1830 who owned slaves.

Source: The bracketed material has been added to make this accurate. See Thomas J. Pressly, “‘The Known World’ of Free Black Slaveholders: A Research Note on the Scholarship of Carter G.Woodson,” Journal of African American History 91, no. 1 (winter 2006): 81–87. The total number of free blacks in the 1830 U.S. Census was 319,599, and the number of free black heads of families 49,462. The number of free black slaveholders was 3,776, owning 12,907 slaves.

12: Percentage of all free black [heads of families] in Virginia in 1830 who owned slaves.

Source: The bracketed material has been added to make this accurate. See Thomas J. Pressly, cited above. According to the 1830 U.S. Census, the total number of free blacks in Virginia was 47,348, and the number of free black heads of families 7,818. The number of free black slaveholders was 950, owning 2,235 slaves. The historian David L. Lightner, looking at these numbers, noted that “a southern white was just three times more likely to own slaves that was a southern free black.” See Lightner, “Were African American Slaveholders Benevolent or Exploitative? A Quantitative Approach,” Journal of Southern History 71, no. 3 (August 2005): 535–558. As the title of his article suggests, there is historical disagreement about the nature of this kind of slavery, but certainly a significant portion of free blacks who owned slaves actually owned their family members for reasons designed to preserve relationships.

1 to 1: Ratio of the average 1850 price in Texas of a healthy male slave to that of 200 acres of prime farmland.

Source: The Handbook of Texas Online, a digital encyclopedia, notes in its entry “Slavery” that “during the late 1850s, prime male field hands aged eighteen to thirty cost on the average $1,200, and skilled slaves such as blacksmiths often were valued at more than $2,000. In comparison, good Texas cotton land could be bought for as little as six dollars an acre.”

490,865: Total number of slaves in Virginia in 1860.

Source: 1860 U.S. Census, Census.gov. See also Historical Statistics of the United States: Millennial Edition Online (hsus.cambridge.org), Table Bb49: Black population, by state and slave/free status: 1790–1860.

30.7: Percentage of slaves among total Virginia population in 1860.

Source: 1860 U.S. Census, Census.gov. See also Historical Statistics of the United States: Millennial Edition Online (hsus.cambridge.org), Table Bb49: Black population, by state and slave/free status: 1790–1860. The black population in 1860 included 490,865 enslaved and 58,042 free. Virginia’s total population was 1,596,318 (see Table Eh1: Population of the slave states, by state, race and slave status: 1860–1870).

52.2: Percentage of slaves among total Albemarle County, Virginia, population in 1860.

Source: 1860 U.S. Census, Census.gov. Albemarle County’s white population in 1860 equaled 12,103, it’s free black population 606, and its enslaved population 13,916, for a total of 26,625 people.

$15: Price an Indiana historical museum charged in 1999 for visitors to spend 90 minutes as a runaway slave.

Source: This came originally from Harper’s Magazine, the link to which no longer exists. A similar, perhaps even the same, program is reported on by the Indianapolis Star, “Conner Prairie slavery re-enactment draws criticism,” August 7, 2016.

2 to 1: Estimated ratio of white to black runaways in an Indiana historical museums slavery reenactments in 1999.

Source: See above. From the newspaper story: “Parts of the experience are intense. The students, most of whom are white, are verbally berated, forced to do manual labor, told to not look white people in the eye and to line up according to gender. ‘It’s making people uncomfortable,’ Evans said, ‘but not pushing them over the edge.'”

2: Number of months after the Civil War ended that slaves in Texas were told of their emancipation.

Source: “From Texas; Important Orders by General Granger. Surrender of Senator Johnson of Arkansas. A Scattering of Rebel Officials,” New York Times, July 7, 1865. This newspaper report contained the text of General Orders No. 3, issued by Union general Gordon Granger on June 19, 1865, informing the people of Texas that “all slaves are free.”

IMAGE: Middle Passage by Robert Claiborne Morris

Discussion

4 Comments on “Slavery by the Numbers (redux)”

    1. Brendan Wolfe Post author

      I don’t have that information at hand, but if you do the research and come up with answers, please do share. And let us know what conclusions you draw from those numbers.

  1. John Smith

    About the effectiveness of the Underground Railroad: Did many slaves escape using the Underground Railroad? No. Only a tiny percentage escaped. Most slaves never tried to escape, or if they did, they were killed or returned to their masters. For example, out of 4,000,000 slaves in the South in 1860, only 100,000 (2.5%) managed to escape. (I got this from http://teacher.scholastic.com/activities/bhistory/underground_railroad/myths.htm).

    Does this look accurate according to your numbers, or are there better numbers? I appreciate your help and info.

    1. Brendan Wolfe Post author

      I’m not sure how it’s even possible to come up with a number for slaves who escaped. Because the Underground Railroad was less a tangible thing but a metaphor for a series of independent, secret networks, there can be no firm number of slaves who escaped using it. Instead, you could think in terms of slaves who escaped from the early 1800s to the Civil War, but how to count them? You could count the number of fugitive slave ads in newspapers, but you’re limited by the newspapers that still exist today. And what about the owners who did not advertise their runaways? There were men who interviewed runaways. William Still was a free black who worked as a clerk for the Pennsylvania Anti-Slavery Society beginning in 1847 and he kept records of slaves who came through Philadelphia on their way to freedom. The historian Eric Foner recently discovered a cache of records from New York, and Benjamin Drew, a Boston abolitionist, traveled through Canada in the mid-1850s interviewing escape slaves. But all of their records must only have accounted for a fraction of the people who ran away, and then only those who were successful.

      Certainly, as you say, the percentage of slaves who ran away successfully was small. It was extremely dangerous and separated you from friends and family. Still, the numbers were large enough to provoke the public griping of newspaper editors. Our entry on the Underground Railroad notes that in April 1854, the Norfolk Southern Argus complained about the high number of runaways and worried about “secret agencies” in their midst inducing African Americans to flee. The paper estimated that the previous year had seen $75,000 in property losses. “A man may be wealthy today,” the editors wrote, “but tomorrow his property may have vanished into empty space.”

      Read the whole entry here: https://www.encyclopediavirginia.org/Underground_Railroad_in_Virginia

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