Skilled Labor: An Overview

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Skilled Labor: An Overview

Though slaves in the Americas are typically portrayed as either field hands or domestic servants, many slaves were in fact skilled laborers whose crafts were a vital part of the American economy, particularly in the antebellum South. There is ample evidence for skilled African and African American slave labor, including the manifests of slave ships, which identify artisans such as wood-carvers and metalworkers. Records of sale from the early years of the slave trade through the mid-nineteenth century indicate a higher price for skilled individuals. The narrator of Fifty Years in Chains; or, the Life of an American Slave, describing a slave auction, relates the sale of several skilled slaves: "a carpenter … and a blacksmith [who can] put new steel upon an axe or mend a broken chain … and a good shoemaker, well acquainted with the process of tanning leather" (Ball 1859, p. 99).

Skilled slaves arrived with knowledge of a wide range of traditional African crafts—pottery making, weaving, basketry, wood carving, metalworking, and building—that would prove valuable in the Americas, particularly during the preindustrial colonial period, when common household goods, such as thread, fabric, and soap, were all made by hand. Colonial labor shortages and a general scarcity of goods intensified the need for skilled slave labor.

Some planters required slaves with specific skills and were willing to pay slave traders a premium for them. Rice planters in the coastal low country of South Carolina and Georgia, for example, were willing to pay more for slaves from Africa's Windward Coast (present-day Senegal to Côte d'Ivoire), as these individuals were skilled in rice cultivation and processing. Their skills included the ability to weave winnowing baskets and to carve wooden mortars and pestles for processing the grains of rice.

During the colonial period, traditional African skills were preserved in some measure, despite the trauma of displacement, largely because of the practical need for handcrafted items. Early pottery from South Carolina often revealed a distinct West African form; winnowing or fanning baskets from the Low Country used both the form and technique of baskets made in Senegambia. In particular, items made by slaves for personal use reflect African tradition; examples include small ceramic face vessels (resembling Kongo pottery) found at burial sites in South Carolina, which are thought to have served a ritual function, and drums made from gourds or wood. (Not surprisingly, few drums survived; many slaveholders prohibited the making or use of drums for fear of their potential use in a rebellion.)

Skilled Slave Labor and Plantation Enterprise

As the plantation economy grew, so too did the need for skilled slave labor. Most plantations had facilities for spinning thread and weaving fabric, as well as for blacksmithing, coopering (barrel making), and carpentry. The list of slaves at Mount Vernon in 1799, the year of George Washington's death, reveals that, of the 184 slaves listed, more than one-quarter were described as skilled workers; they included carpenters, bricklayers, blacksmiths, coopers, millers, distillers, spinners, weavers, and seamstresses. At Thomas Jefferson's plantation at Poplar Forest, Virginia, slaves performed tasks that included brick making, blacksmithing, woodworking, and masonry.

Typically, such skilled labors provided goods for use on the plantation, though in many cases they became profitable enterprises in their own right, providing an additional source of income for the slaveholder, who sold the products made by the slave artisans. Robert Fogel and Stanley Engerman, in Time on the Cross: The Economics of American Negro Slavery (1974), have asserted that more than 25 percent of American slaves were craftsmen and semiskilled workers; they suggest as well that many of the leaders of the slave community came from this class of skilled workers and that many became leaders of protests, insurrections, and desertions.

Textile production was a typical plantation enterprise. Female slaves, following their work in the fields or in the slaveholder's household, were often required to spin, weave, or sew at night, usually to fill specific production quotas. The textiles produced by the slaves included cotton, linen, and wool fabrics, as well as embroidered bed coverlets and appliquéd pieced quilts, often made under the supervision of the mistress of the plantation. Sale of the textiles often became a successful business that helped offset fluctuations in a planter's income from crops.

Pottery was another typical enterprise, producing utilitarian wares that in some cases merged Native American and African form and technique. Early pots were hand-built and were fired outdoors, in the African manner; later pots were made in pottery mills owned by planters and were turned on potters' wheels. A prominent pottery-making enterprise, based in part on skilled slave labor, emerged in the Edgefield district of South Carolina (present-day Edgefield, Greenwood, McCormick, Saluda, and Aiken counties) in the early 1800s; the pottery mills relied on the labor of both white potters and skilled slaves. Present-day knowledge of the Edgefield pots may be credited in part to the survival of many signed pots made by a slave named Dave (after Emancipation, Dave Drake), a skilled turner, as potters of the time were called. Dave is believed to have produced hundreds—perhaps thousands—of pots for the Landrum Pottery and later for Miles Mill Factory.

Newspaper advertisements for the return of runaway slaves attest to the value of the skilled slave. There are numerous references to runaway carpenters, seamstresses, joiners, and blacksmiths. For example, in the Raleigh Register and North Carolina Weekly Advertiser on April 13,1807, James Welborn offered a $40 reward for a runaway named Joe, a "good shoemaker, a tolerable cooper." Conceivably, a slave whose skill could provide a potential source of income may have been more likely to flee. A notice in the Maryland Gazette posted by the sheriff of Charles County, Maryland, on June 30, 1803, relates that he had taken custody of a "runaway, a stout likely Negro man, who calls himself Jack Turner, and says he is free, a joiner by trade…. His master, if any, is requested to take him away, otherwise he will be sold … for prison fees and other charges."

Artisans and Maritime Workers

Another area of production of goods by slaves occurred as part of artisanal trades. Throughout the colonies, in the South as well as in the North, a system of apprenticing and hiring out skilled slaves to white and free black craftsmen was a significant part of the production of both utilitarian and decorative items, including furniture, wrought iron grillwork, and jewelry. This system of labor resulted in a higher level of development of skills among enslaved craftspeople while enriching slaveholders. Slaves were apprenticed to cabinetmakers, silversmiths, goldsmiths, printers, and engravers. There was economic benefit for the master craftsmen as well as for the slaveholders; unlike indentured free apprentices, slaves were not released after finishing their apprenticeship but continued to labor—with a higher level of skill yet at the same low rate of pay. Some slaves benefited as well; some were able to purchase their freedom, and others ran away, confident of their ability to earn a living. In the early 1800s in New Orleans, free black artisans and slave apprentices dominated the production of certain fine craft items, such as furniture. Their numbers, in New Orleans and elsewhere, declined by mid-century, following legal restrictions in some states on the numbers of slave apprentices and on the ownership of businesses by free blacks, and as the result of an increase in the development of mechanized industry.

Female slaves were often trained as seamstresses and dressmakers, and their services were hired out as yet another source of income for the slaveholder. Newspaper advertisements indicate that many of these women, who had highly marketable skills, fled. Others, such as Elizabeth Hobbs Keckley (1818–1907), were able to purchase their own freedom by sewing.

Especially during the colonial period, slaves worked in the maritime industries as sailmakers, riggers, boatmen, mariners, and pilots. As scholar Brendan Foley suggested in his essay "Slaves in the American Maritime Economy," one of the paradoxes of American slavery is the degree of freedom that some owners allowed their skilled slaves; some even allowed slaves to sail to foreign ports. Even those slaves whose travels were confined to the rivers of the South came into contact with free blacks and white workers, thus gaining access to information—cultural and political as well as trade-based—that was not accessible to slaves on farms and plantations. Foley also asserts that the economic and cultural contribution of maritime slaves has been largely overlooked and underestimated. Despite the difficulty of documentation, the extent and quality of the work of skilled slaves—in the maritime industries as well as a wide range of arts and crafts—is known to have played a significant role in America's economy and culture.


Ball, Charles. Fifty Years in Chains; or, the Life of an American Slave. New York: H. Dayton, 1859.

Fogel, Robert, and Stanley Engerman. Time on the Cross: The Economics of American Negro Slavery. Boston: Little and Brown, 1974.

Foley, Brendan. "Slaves in the American Maritime Economy, 1638–1865: Economic and Cultural Roles." Available at

Jackson, Donald, and Dorothy Twohig, eds. The Diaries of George Washington. 6 vols. Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 1976–1979.

Patton, Sharon F. African American Art. Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press, 1998.

                                      Dorothy Bauhoff