Life Expectancy and Mortality Rates

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Life Expectancy and Mortality Rates

Many factors determined life expectancy and mortality among the enslaved population of early America and the United States. Unbalanced and inadequate food rations, exposure to disease, meager living conditions, work environment, harsh work, mixed quality of health care, and physical abuse affected overall health that ultimately determined life expectancy and mortality rates among people held in bondage. Even the difference of being African, enduring the transatlantic crossing, and exposure to New World diseases increased mortality rates, especially in swampy regions such as the Chesapeake Tidewater, the low country of South Carolina and Georgia, or the lower Mississippi Valley.

In America's history there has been a general lack of recording slave births and deaths. This has made it difficult to develop strong empirical data for determining life expectancy and mortality among slaves. Through several studies, historians and demographers have attempted to derive crude estimates based on limited extant documents containing slave births and deaths such as plantation records, church parish records, and reports from tax assessors or constables. Results have varied, at times providing conflicting data and even causing debate among those studying this aspect of slavery in America. However, with crude estimates, comparisons can be made between the enslaved, the white population, and subsequent generations of the United States documented in census-based vital statistics from the late nineteenth century to the present.

African captives brought to the New World were primarily male with some women and children included. These new arrivals to the colonies, as well as Europeans, went through a seasoning process of becoming acclimated to their environment. As Africans came into contact with New World contagions, they became chronically ill and experienced high mortality rates. The combination of disease with inadequate food, clothing, and shelter drove up the death rate among African-born slaves, especially in highly populated urban areas. One estimate determined that one-third of imported slaves died within the first three years following their arrival (Engerman 1976, p. 272).

During the 1750s and 1760s in Boston and Philadelphia, the death rate was over sixty per 1,000, nearly onethird to one-half more than the death rate of white people. In 1763 more than one-quarter of the slaves who died in Boston were new arrivals (Berlin 1998, pp. 184-185). In addition, Africans in northern climates endured winters of bitter cold, which consumed those already physically weakened by disease. Once African-born slaves gave birth to the first generation of American-born slaves, this next generation lived longer and appreciably healthier lives. Even with the transition to a native-born slave population, some regions continued to experience high mortality rates because of a marshy environment. From 1767 to 1775, the Philadelphia slave population numbered approximately 1,000, with less than 100 black children surviving infancy (Nash 1973, p. 239).


The enslaved men and women of the United States lived with the knowledge that violence, even death, at the hands of their masters or mistresses could come at any time. Through religious practices and spiritual music, the enslaved sang of rejoining lost loved ones or gaining freedom from slavery in the afterlife. Here is a sample of the spirituals sung by bondmen and bondwomen:

      "And it won't be long, And it won't be long,
      And it won't be long, Poor sinner suffer here.
      We'll soon be free
      De Lord will call us home.
      We'll fight for liberty
      When de Lord will call us home.
      "My Father, How Long?" (Blassingame 1979, p. 140).

The following, more obscure, spiritual is generally listed without a title:

      When we all meet in Heaven,
      There is no parting there;
      When we all meet in Heaven,
      There is no parting more

The next poem is taken from William Francis Allen's collection of poetry, Slave Songs of the United States, and is another example of the spirituals sung by bondmen and bondwomen:

      My brudder—sittin' on de tree of life,
      An' he yearde when Jordan roll;
      Roll, Jordan, Roll, Jordan, Roll, Jordan, roll!
      O march de angel march,
      O march de angel march;
      O my soul arise in Heaven, Lord,
      For to yearde when Jordan roll.
      "Roll, Jordan, Roll" (1867, p. 1).


Allen, William Francis; Charles Pickard Ware; and Lucy McKim Garrison. Slave Songs of the United States. New York: A. Simpson, 1867.

Blassingame, John W. The Slave Community: Plantation Life in the Antebellum South. New York: Oxford University Press, 1979.

The Low Country of South Carolina and Georgia produced conditions ripe for malaria—hot summer temperatures, swamps, and mosquitoes to carry the disease. During the early eighteenth century, the population had limited understanding of the connection between malaria and mosquitoes and saw high mortality rates with the increase of rice cultivation. By the mid-eighteenth century, Low Country planters began to see a relationship between malaria and their living environment, choosing to leave their plantations for the safety of Charleston when the sickly season arrived during the hot summers. In a modern-day study, it was found that the impact of malaria on mortality rates is estimated "for every death ascribed to malaria in an infected population, five additional deaths are actually due to malaria acting in concert with other diseases" (Merrens and Terry 1984, p. 548).

On the Low Country rice plantations the black men and women were required to stand knee-deep in water after controlled flooding filled the fields. This practice caused the enslaved to have direct contact with waterborne contagions such as yellow fever, dysentery, cholera, and pneumonia. These rice plantations also had a larger average population density of approximately 226 slaves in contrast to the average-sized enslaved groups of twenty-four living on southern cotton plantations (Young 1993, p. 680). In the Low Country during 1700 to 1750, one study found that most white residents died before the age of forty. In the years prior to the American Revolution (1776–1783), if an individual managed to survive childhood they rarely would live past age sixty. Considering the slaves' working and living conditions, it could be assumed that slaves died off at even younger ages than their white owners (Merrens and Terry 1984, pp. 534 and 543).

During the early to mid-nineteenth century, the United States expanded westward with white settlers bringing their slaves and recreating the plantation system that began in the original colonies. Plantations that spread across the South primarily cultivated cotton, with some sugar plantations located along coastal regions.

Several studies of slave life expectancy in the nineteenth century resigned to using incomplete records with statistical limitations resulting in widely varied results. The results estimated a slave's life expectancy at birth from 17.8 to 38.1 years, in contrast to the white man's life expectancy of approximately age forty and a white woman's of approximately forty-two years in 1850 (Rao 1973, p. 409). In one study, it was estimated that in 1830 the crude death rate for slaves was approximately twenty to thirty per 1,000. In Mississippi during the 1850s, a twenty-year-old slave had less chance than a twenty-year-old white of reaching the ages of thirty, forty, fifty, or sixty (Sydnor 1930, p. 573). For a slave who beat the statistical odds and lived a long life, however, this does not imply that the slave's life was pleasant or even reasonably bearable.

At all times in American slavery, bondwomen had the added risk of death during their childbearing years in combination with the physical weakening from disease. In general, these women received neither prenatal nor postnatal care, nor were their workloads reduced before or after giving birth. Once enslaved women gave birth, they handed over the care of their infants to elderly enslaved women or the infants' older siblings. This practice increased the risk of improper or irregular feedings, causing high infant mortality (Steckel 1988, p. 344). In addition, infants' limited postnatal care put them at greatest risk of dying during their earliest years. The clustering of numerous young enslaved children on plantations also may have increased the spread of communicable diseases among this vulnerable population and increased their mortality rates (ibid.).

In studying the high mortality rates of slave children, an important hidden factor are the inherited blood disorders such as sickle-cell anemia found among African descendants. Because of limited medical knowledge, blood disorders would have been unknown during the time of slavery. A slave child in a weakened or sickly condition from a blood disorder would have had difficulty surviving in an environment where they were subjected to diseases, parasites, and deficiencies in their diet. Crude slave infant mortality rates vary among several studies, yet the majority agrees that there were high rates of death among this young population. One study surmised that three out of every ten [slave] babies died before age one. Another study estimated it ranged from between 222 and 237 per 1,000 for female infants and 261 to 278 per 1,000 for male infants. At a plantation in St. Martin's Parish, Louisiana, the slave infant mortality rate was 194 per 1,000. One South Carolina plantation was found to have one of the highest death rates for slave infants at 338 per 1,000 during a child's first year. A study of Mississippi slavery suggested as many as half the slave infants perished during their first year and the survivors continued to die at rapid rates until the age of five or six (Kiple and Kiple 1977, pp. 285 and 290). On the antebellum Gowrie Plantation in South Carolina's Low Country, the average crude mortality rate was 97.6 per 1,000, three times greater than the crude mortality rate for the North American slave in the nineteenth century (Young 1993, p. 682).

In a broader study of records from several plantations dating from 1786 to 1864, primarily those cultivating rice, children from the age of one to four years old were nearly five times more likely to die during the peak summer months when there was an increased risk of contracting malaria and other diseases (Steckel 1979, p. 107). In a second study focusing on the years of 1850 to 1860, it found that mortality rates of slave children were approximately double those of the free population in the entire country (Steckel 1986, p. 344).

Although there is an imperfect science to determining the life expectancy and mortality rates for the enslaved in America, various studies clearly indicate that several risk factors determined longevity such as the environment, exposure to disease, severity of working conditions, and inherited blood disorders. The enslaved population had a greater increased risk of early death in Colonial America and the United States. Many died shortly after arriving in the New World. Of those American-born slaves, infants and young children were at greatest risk of perishing well before reaching adulthood. Slaves of all ages living in regions with low-lying marshlands were most likely to die by contracting one or more diseases. A slave's life was filled with multiple health risks. Those who survived had to rely on their physical and mental endurance plus sheer luck.


Berlin, Ira. Many Thousands Gone: The First Two Centuries of Slavery in North America. Cambridge, MA: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1998.

Engerman, Stanley L. "Some Economic and Demographic Comparison of Slavery in the United States and the British West Indies." The Economic History Review 29, no. 2 (May 1976): 258-275.

Kiple, Kenneth F., and Virginia H. Kiple. "Slave Child Mortality: Some Nutritional Answers to a Perennial Puzzle." Journal of Social History 10 (March 1977): 284-309.

Merrens, H. Roy, and George D. Terry. "Dying in Paradise: Malaria, Mortality, and the Perceptual Environment in Colonial South Carolina." The Journal of Southern History 50, no. 4 (November 1984): 533-550.

Nash, Gary. "Slaves and Slave owners in Colonial Philadelphia." The William and Mary Quarterly 30, no. 2 (April 1973): 223-256.

Rao, S.L.N. "On Long-term Mortality Trends in the United States, 1850–1968." Demography 10, no. 3 (August 1973): 405-419.

Steckel, Richard H. "Slave Mortality: Analysis of Evidence from Plantation Records." Social Science History 3 (October 1979): 86-114.

Steckel, Richard H. "A Dreadful Childhood: The Excess Mortality of American Slaves." Social Science History 10 (Winter 1986): 427-465.

Steckel, Richard H. "The Health and Mortality of Women and Children, 1850–1860." The Journal of Economic History 48, no. 2 (June 1988): 333-345.

Sydnor, Charles. "Lifespan of Mississippi Slaves." The American Historical Review 35, no. 3 (April 1930): 566-574.

Young, Jeffrey R. "Ideology and Death on a Savannah River Rice Plantation, 1833–1867: Paternalism amidst 'a Good Supply of Disease and Pain.'" Journal of Southern History 59, no. 4 (November 1993): 673-706.

                                        Kelly M. Ray

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Life Expectancy and Mortality Rates

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