Slave Money

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Slave Money

"If there is money in the world, I must manage to have a part of it" (Atwater 1857, p. 24). So explained a Georgia slave to Northern traveler Horace Cowles Atwater in the winter of 1856 to 1857. Prior to his three-month Southern tour, Atwater might have been surprised by such a statement, assuming, as many others outside of the South did, that enslaved people had no access to or use for cash money. Like many other chroniclers of the South during the antebellum period, Atwater, once enlightened, devoted significant attention to slaves' money-making activities, noting, "The slaves, in favorable localities, have more opportunities for earning money to furnish themselves with necessaries and luxuries, than one would at first suppose" (1857, p. 24). Earning and spending money formed a crucial component of the slaves' internal economy.

Slaves throughout the United States earned money through productive activity undertaken during their "off time"—the evenings and Sundays when they were not working for their masters. Bondpeople could earn cash in any number of ways: by selling foodstuffs or staple crops from personal gardens or provision grounds; raising and selling poultry and eggs; selling crafted goods such as woven baskets or brooms; and hiring their time for wages. Slaves might also receive small tokens of money as "rewards" for good behavior from their masters at Christmas, as a sign of approval upon a marriage, or at the birth of a child.

In Slavery in the United States (1853), the ex-slave Charles Ball explained that slaves' money was "spent in various ways; sometimes for clothes, sometimes for better food than was allowed by the overseer, and sometimes for rum; but those who drank rum, had to do it by stealth" (p. 157). As Ball explained, bondpeople could spend their money on basic necessities such as blankets and coarse clothing; on more luxurious items such as molasses, sugar, or white flour; or on fine clothing that would allow them to distinguish themselves from their homespun-clad peers (p. 157). Money could be spent in more unconventional ways as well. Henry Bibb, for example, paid cash to a conjurer for a potion to prevent his master from whipping him (1849, p. 27). Other slaves saved their money in hopes of one day accumulating enough money to purchase their freedom. Lunsford Lane worked diligently to acquire cash for this purpose: "These sums, and the hope that then entered my mind of purchasing at some future time my freedom, made me long for money; and plans for money-making took the principal possession of my thoughts" (1845, p. 8). Other slaves, such as those described in Benjamin Drew's A North-Side View of Slavery (1856), found cash money particularly useful as they made their escape north to freedom in the antebellum period.

In addition to its exchange value, money served social purposes. Cash-strapped merchants, accustomed to extending lines of credit to local whites, often were eager to accept currency from bondpeople, thus promoting economic relationships off the plantation. Likewise, the fungibility of currency facilitated theft as slaves appropriated goods and sold them for less conspicuous cash. Accumulated money and property conferred elevated social status as well, and melded notions of moral and political economy.


Atwater, Horace Cowles. Incidents of a Southern Tour: or, The South, as Seen with Northern Eyes. Boston: J. P. Magee, 1857.

Ball, Charles. Slavery in the United States: A Narrative of the Life and Adventures of Charles Ball, a Black Man, Who Lived Forty Years in Maryland, South Carolina, and Georgia, as a Slave under Various Masters, and Was One Year in the Navy with Commodore Barney, during the Late War. New York: John S. Taylor, 1837.

Bibb, Henry. Narrative of the Life and Adventures of Henry Bibb, an American Slave, Written by Himself. New York: H. Bibb, 1849.

Drew, Benjamin. A North-Side View of Slavery: The Refugee, or, The Narratives of Fugitive Slaves in Canada. Boston: J. P. Jewett and Company, 1856.

Lane, Lunsford. The Narrative of Lunsford Lane, Formerly of Raleigh, N.C., Embracing an Account of His Early Life, the Redemption by Purchase of Himself and Family from Slavery, and His Banishment from the Place of His Birth for the Crime of Wearing a Colored Skin. Boston: Hewes and Watson's, 1845.

                             Kathleen Hilliard