What a Slave Census Can Tell Us

Thought I would end the work week with a little crowd-sourcing related to my Silas Chandler biography. Right now I am analyzing the journey from Virginia to northeast Mississippi that was made by Gilderoy “Roy” Chandler and Louisa Garner, along with fourteen slaves in 1839. One of those slaves was Silas. I am relying a great deal on secondary sources such as Joan Cashin’s A Family Venture: Men and Women on the Southern Frontier and Charles Sydnor’s helpful, but dated book, Slavery in Mississippi to fill in some of the unknowns.

I am basing the number of 14 slaves on the 1840 slave schedule, which places the family in Oktibbeha County, part of which would eventually comprise Clay County. It is likely that the family started out from Virginia in late summer or early fall. Here is the information from the slave schedule:

  • Male, Under age of 10: 3
  • Male, Between ages of 10 – 23: 3
  • Male, Between ages of 55 – 99: 1
  • Female, Under age of 10: 1
  • Female, Between ages of 10 – 23: 5
  • Female, Between ages of 55 – 99: 1

What explains this particular distribution of slaves, which likely accompanied the Chandlers west? What challenges did Gilderoy anticipate for the first few years in Mississippi and how might the presence and forced labor of these particular slaves have helped to overcome them?

I have my own ideas, but I would love to hear what you think.

16 comments… add one
  • David T. Dixon Aug 21, 2015

    Kevin: I have spent a lot of time trying to verify facts and derive some meaning from the slave census in my various research endeavors. My general opinion is that they can be somewhat helpful in corroborating other evidence, but usually of limited value on their own, unfortunately. Like the white census, they are rife with errors (probably even more so). As far as your specific question is concerned, i really wold have a hard time answering it unless i knew more about Silas and his owner. This distribution of sexes and ages could have so many different explanations, and it is tempting to try to make the scant data fit what we may be looking to prove. I try to avoid that, even at the cost of not relying on this source, other than as a third or fourth level confirmation of what i have gleaned from much richer sources like depositions, wills, estates, Freedman’s Bank records, Southern Claims Commission, etc… When you get lucky, as I have with a number of great subjects whose paper trail was buried and scattered, it is amazing just how full a portrait you can sketch.

    This particular distribution of slaves does not tell me much out of context, but I guess i could speculate if I knew what kind of work the master was engaged in, whether or not he had the means to hire slaves from other plantations for seasonal work, how large his estate and family was, etc… We certainly should not assume that any of the slaves listed were related, although it is likely that some were. In sum, i would use the slave census as a source to corroborate other evidence and rarely as anything more. There is just not enough meat on that bone for me to confidently draw conclusions and if I did, i might be guessing more than I would prefer to do.

    Hope this helps. Happy to go deep on any of the many richer sources that i have used, but suspect you may be well-versed in them.

    • Kevin Levin Aug 21, 2015

      Hi David,

      This is great. I’ve thought about a couple of the problems that you have already sketched. I completely agree that this is incredibly sketchy. At this point, I don’t have much more than a general narrative sketch out. What I do know is that Roy Chandler purchased roughly 320 acres in 1841. He supposedly added another tract of 640 acres within a few years and in 1849 bought another plantation, which became the home of one of two sons. Wish I knew more about his holdings in Virginia prior to moving to Mississippi. Thanks again for the comment.

      • History Enthusiast Aug 30, 2015

        You could look at the agricultural census to see if that provides insight.

  • Andy Hall Aug 21, 2015

    It would be useful to know when and under what circumstances he acquired these slaves. As David says, much additional information is needed to more fully understand the possible significance of this distribution.

    If one starts with the stipulation that this distribution of age and sex is intentional on Chandler’s part, it may be that he is taking the long view of establishing a new plantation in Mississippi, with mostly young men and women with their most productive years (both in terms of physical labor and what was termed “natural increase”) ahead of them. Chandler’s bondsmen represent not only the current value of the labor they perform, but also are a long-term capital investment in the future of his plantation.

    (Wow, that’s an unpleasant thing to type.)

    • Kevin Levin Aug 21, 2015

      Hi Andy,

      I don’t anticipate being able to do more than speculate for the obvious reasons. You make a really good point re: future investment that both young male and female slaves represented. The question of how they were acquired is crucial.

      My goal is not to get bogged down in all of this but offer as detailed an overview of the family’s pre-Civil War history as possible with a focus on understanding where Silas may have fit. In other words, I want the reader to start the large section on the war years as clear as possible about Silas’s status as a slave and not be distracted by the issue of service as a soldier. This is a story about the role of one family slave from peace to war.

  • Shane Aug 22, 2015

    While only suggestive, I’d be interested in some contextual questions: Was this a lot of slaves in Mississippi for a farm that size? Was it a small number? Virginia slaves could be sold for a premium, did the slaveholder own more slaves in Virginia, might it have sold some when it got to Mississippi? Were any of the slaves about the same age as children in the slaveholder’s family?

    • Kevin Levin Aug 22, 2015

      Hi Shane,

      Good questions all of which I am following up on. The Chandlers were apparently from Halifax County, Virginia, but I still need to verify it. Roy’s first child was not born until the mid-1840s. One of the most common stories about Andrew and Silas is that they were childhood friends, but this is unlikely given their age difference and the obvious.

  • Joan Holbert Hubert Aug 23, 2015

    It would be interesting to know why the Chandler/Garner family moved to Mississippi from Virginia at this particular time in history. Also, why so few of the enslaved? Was this a hasty move, or was it for economical reasons? I am interested in this region because some of my Holbert ancestors came from there. I would love to know more about them all.

  • Jerry McKenzie Aug 24, 2015

    I have the Garner-Keene Family book at home. I’ll take a look and see what might be in there. The Garners (if she is of the same line) are an old and prolific Maryland/Virginia family and quickly spread to all parts of America as land opened up.

    • Kevin Levin Aug 24, 2015

      That’s really nice of you. Thanks, Jerry.

      • Jerry McKenzie Aug 25, 2015

        I looked thru The Garner-Keene Families of Northern Neck Virginia, and although there is a possible Louise that is of the right age, there is no mention of who she married, issue, or change of residence.

  • David Aug 31, 2015

    A previous contributor suggested examining employment of the people in the household. Don’t overlook the 1840 census section, “Number of persons in each family employed in . . . “

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