Monetary Value of Slaves

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Monetary Value of Slaves

The entire Southern economy before the Civil War was based on the labor and value of enslaved people of African descent. People of African descent were treated like chattel, property that could be bought and sold like livestock and other commodities that slave owners valued. However, some American jurisdictions such as Virginia classified slaves as real estate instead of chattel. According to a 1705 Virginia statute, "[a]ll Negro, mulatto, and Indian slaves within this dominion shall be held as real estate and not chattel and shall descend unto heirs and widows according to the custom of land


James Martin was a former slave who was born in Virginia in 1847. In an interview from 1937, Martin recounted a Virginia slave auction:

The slaves are put in stalls like the pens they use for cattle—a man and his wife with a child on each arm. And there's a curtain, sometimes just a sheet over the front of the stall, so the bidders can't see the "stock" too soon … Then, they pulls up the curtain, and the bidders is crowdin' around. Them in back can't see, so the overseer drives the slaves out to the platform, and he tells the ages of the slaves and what they can do … and one of the bidders takes a pair of gloves and rubs his fingers over a man's teeth, and he says to the overseer, "You call this buck twenty years old? Why there's cut worms in his teeth. He's forty years old, if he's a day." So they knock this buck down for a thousand dollars. They calls the men "bucks" and the women "wenches" … At these slave auctions, the overseer yells, "Say, you bucks and wenches, get in your hole. Come out here." Then, he makes 'em hop, he makes 'em trot, he makes 'em jump. "How much," he yells, "for this buck? A thousand? Eleven hundred? Twelve hundred dollars?" Then the bidders makes offers accordin' to size and build. (Rawick 1972–1979, vol. 5, pp. 62-65)

SOURCE: Rawick, George P., ed. The American Slave: A Composite Autobiography, 19 vols. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1972–1979.

inheritance" (Higginbotham, Jr. 1980, p. 52). However, the children of slaves were categorized as chattel and were "considered no otherwise than Horses and Cattle" (p. 53).

According to a former slave, J. W. C. Pennington, "[t]he being of slavery, its soul and its body, lives and moves in the chattel principle, the property principle, the bill of sale principle: the cart-whip, starvation, and nakedness are its inevitable consequences" (Johnson 1999, p. 218). African slaves endured this harsh treatment from the inception of the slave trade in the American colonies in 1619 until the total abolition of slavery in the United States in 1865. Slave owners treated their black slaves like animals, buying and selling these human beings as though they were horses or cows. Fountain Hughes, who was a 101-year-old ex-slave from Charlottesville, Virginia, when he was interviewed in 1949, recalled how the slave owners treated their slaves like livestock. "It was what they call, we were slaves. We belonged to people. They'd sell us like they sell horses an' cows an' hogs an' all like that. Have an auction bench, an' they'd put on, up on the bench an' bid on you jus' same as you bidding on cattle you know." Hughes also stated that "[t]he'd have a regular, have a sale every month, you know, at the court house. An' they they'd sell you, an' get two hundred dollar, hundred dollar, five hundred dollar." (Bailey 1991, pp. 29-37)

During the 250-year period when slavery was legal in the American colonies and the United States, slaves were very valuable to the slave traders and slave owners who bought and sold them as a source of labor. The value of individual slaves varied depending on the sex, age, skills, and physical characteristics of individual slaves. Adult males were the most valuable slaves because they could do the greatest amount of hard labor under the most intense conditions. Adult females were almost as valuable as adult males. Because infants and small children could not work like full-grown, healthy male and female slaves, they did not have much monetary value and were often sold away from their families. For example, when an Arkansan slaveholder, James Milton, first arrived in that state in 1842, he owned only one slave between the ages of eight and sixty, the ages for which the state of Arkansas taxed slave owners for their human property. In 1850 Milton owned nine working slaves valued at $3,200 for taxation purposes and three slave children who were under the age of eight and were not old enough to work (Gillmer 2007, pp. 508-509).

Just as their farm animals were characterized by color and appearance, slaveholders classified their slaves of African descent by skin color from jet black to almost white. Slave traders and slave owners invented terms like mulatto, quadroon, and octoroon to describe the percentage of white parentage of a particular slave. Slaves with the greatest percentage of white blood tended to have a greater monetary value than slaves with a greater percentage of African ancestry, but other factors were important in determining the monetary value of a particular slave. The price of each slave was largely dependent upon the actual market at the time that a slaveholder sold a slave and whether the owner had to sell a slave when money was needed for the slave owner's family or business because of financial difficulties of settlement of a descedent's estate.

The value of each slave increased after the U.S. Congress banned the importation of slaves to the United States in 1807. Because of the laws of supply and demand, as the demand for African slaves as sources of labor increased with the expansion of United States the importation ban severely reduced the supply of new slaves from Africa. Black slaves were important to the expansion of the United States westward because they were the primary labor source of landowners. The market value of able-bodied slaves who were already in the United States and its territories increased because importation of slaves was illegal and the only other way for a slaveholder to obtain more slaves was to buy them from another slave owner or to actively breed new slaves. For slaveholders who actively bred their slaves, it was very profitable. One Virginia slave owner claimed that his slave women were "uncommonly good breeders" and gave birth very quickly—"every one of them … was worth two hundred dollars … the moment it drew breath," and were very valuable to the slaveholders (Franklin 2004, p. 132).

Slave owners bought, sold, and raised slaves of African descent like farm animals, considering them to be instruments of profit and labor. These slaveholders placed a specific value on them as human property, until the abolition of slavery in the United States at the end of the Civil War.


Bailey, Guy; Natalie Maynor; and Patricia Cukor-Avila; eds. The Emergence of Black English: Text and Commentary (Creole Language Library, vol. 8). Philadelphia: John Benjamins Publishing, 1991, 29-37.

Born in Slavery: Slave Narratives from the Federal Writers' Project, 1936–1938. Online collection of the Manuscript and Prints and Photographs Divisions of the Library of Congress. Available from

Franklin, John Hope; and Alfred A. Moss, Jr. From Slavery to Freedom: A History of African Americans. 2 vols. New York: Random House, 2004.

Gillmer, Jason A. "Poor Whites, Benevolent Masters, and the Ideologies of Slavery: The Local Trial of a Slave Accused of Rape." North Carolina Law Review 489 (January 2007): 508-509.

Higginbotham, Jr., A. Leon. In the Matter of Color, Race and the American Legal Process: The Colonial Period. New York: Oxford University Press, 1980.

Johnson, Walter. Soul by Soul: Life Inside the Antebellum Slave Market. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1999.

                                          Jocelyn M. Cuffee