Hunting, Trapping, and Fishing

views updated

Hunting, Trapping, and Fishing

Although slaves generally worked long hours and many days per year, they often found time for harvesting fish and game. Except in planting or harvest times, most slaves had Sunday as a day without field labor and many masters also gave half of Saturday as free time. Even if slaves worked all day, their nights were usually free. Young slave children spent much time hunting and fishing in the years before they were given heavy workloads. Frederick Douglass (1817–1895) recalled that on the plantation where he lived as a child, the days between Christmas and New Year's were considered a holiday. "The staid, sober, thinking, and industrious ones of our number would employ themselves in making corn-brooms, mats, horse-collars, and baskets," he recalled, while "another class of us would spend the time hunting opossums, hares, and coons" (1986, p. 114). Many plantations owners countenanced their slaves hunting; but even when it was forbidden, some slaves hunted nevertheless. James Bolton, a former slave in Georgia, recalled that his master forbade hunting, but "jes' the same, we had plenty of 'possums, an no buddy ax' how we cotch them" (Proctor 2002, p. 162).

Slaves sought wild fish and game for all the reasons anyone else did—as recreation, as food, and as a means to get something that might be shared with others, or sold or traded. Historian Nicolas Proctor notes that hunting also provided "a measure of autonomy" for slaves. By providing part of what their own family consumed, or by making a gift of wild game to another slave family, the slave hunter denied the totality of the master's control over his life and labor (2002, pp. 3, 144).

Besides hunting on their own, slaves were often taken hunting along with their master. If a group of white men went on a long hunt, several slaves might accompany them to do the menial labor around the camp, and to serve as beaters or drivers that helped to drive the game toward waiting hunters. At times, masters sent slaves out to hunt on their own, for food that might be used at the master's table, or be used to supplement the rations given to the slaves. Slave hunters, when hunting alone or with their masters, were often entrusted with a firearm within certain limited circumstances. Masters kept close tabs on the amount of shot and powder used, to see if the game brought in matched the ammunition expended. If they did not have access to guns, slaves used traps and primitive weapons. Opossums and raccoons could sometimes be found in their burrows and dispatched with a club; dogs might chase down and kill an animal. Young boys often hunted with slingshots, sticks, or rocks. Former slave Robert Wilson recalled hunting with rocks as a young boy, but admitted to limited success: "Weuns don't kill much of de game but 'twas good fo' to pass de time 'way" (Proctor 2002, p. 147).

Slaves engaged in trapping not just to harvest furs for the market, but also to catch game animals and birds for food. Commercially-made steel traps were sometimes used, but slaves were also ingenious in making a variety of homemade traps, including box traps, snares made of wire or cord, and deadfalls. Marketable hides and furs that slaves harvested were sold in the informal markets where slaves sold or bartered food from their own gardens, handcrafted items, or fish, game, and other foods gathered from nature.


The fact that slaves sometimes hunted, with their masters or alone with firearms, might surprise some modern readers, but there is much evidence that some slaves used guns in a variety of situations. Most slave states had laws forbidding slaves to bear arms, but these laws usually provided that slaves could carry guns with their master's permission. Certainly there were many masters that never let a slave near a gun. However, when southerners discussed the possibility of slave uprisings, they often assumed that the slaves would find ways to arm themselves. Guns were not the only potential weapon. The average farm or plantation had many tools that might serve as weapons. Although the fear of violence from their slaves haunted some masters, most probably assumed that a rebellious slave would simply run away rather than take up a weapon against the master or his family.

SOURCE: Proctor, Nicolas W. Bathed in Blood: Hunting and Mastery in the Old South. Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 2002.

Fishing was popular among slaves and, as with hunting and trapping, it was both a form of recreation and a way to procure food, or to harvest a resource that could be marketed to others. Fishing was not as gender-specific as hunting, and women, especially young girls, often fished, whereas few hunted. Fish could be caught with simple equipment, and slaves used hooks and lines, gigs or spears, nets, and fish traps. Along the coasts and major river ways, slaves were also heavily involved in commercial fishing. Fish was a major item in the diet of slaves on plantations in the Tidewater region. Historian David Cecelski has noted the large number of slaves involved in the coastal fishing industry in North Carolina; along the Outer Banks, slaves may have made up to as much as 50 percent of the fishermen and women. As Cecelski notes, forced labor seems at odds with the sense of freedom and openness that the maritime life symbolizes in the minds of many people (2001, pp. xix-xx). Like slaves who hunted, slave fishermen often found a measure of independence and autonomy that few other slaves experienced.


Cecelski, David S. The Waterman's Song: Slavery and Freedom in Maritime North Carolina. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2001.

Douglass, Frederick. Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave, Written by Himself [1845]. Reprint, New York: Penguin, 1986.

Greenberg, Kenneth S. Honor and Slavery: Lies, Duels, Noses, Masks, Dressing as A Woman, Gifts, Strangers, Humanitarianism, Death, Slave Rebellions, the Pro-Slavery Argument, Baseball, Hunting, and Gambling in the Old South. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1996.

Marks, Stuart. Southern Hunting in Black and White: Nature, History, and Ritual in a Carolina Community. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1991.

Proctor, Nicolas W. Bathed in Blood: Hunting and Mastery in the Old South. Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 2002.

                                               Mark S. Joy

About this article

Hunting, Trapping, and Fishing

Updated About content Print Article