Dividing the Estate of Old Sam: The Informal Economy and Rules of Inheritance among South Carolina Cotton Slaves, 1830–65

Saturday, January 9, 2010: 11:50 AM
Molly A (Hyatt)
Erica A. Bruchko , Emory University, Atlanta, GA
In late-antebellum South Carolina, cotton slaves participated in local economic networks that enabled them to acquire personal property for household consumption and resale. Acting under the authority of their masters, industrious bondsmen and women accumulated cash, credit, and domestic goods that masters and plantation communities widely recognized as slaves’ own. Using rare evidence from plantation account books, Southern Claims Commission files, slaves’ Magistrate and Freeholders’ courts, and appellate trials in law and equity, this paper will explore the contours of slave property ownership by examining informal inheritance practices among upcountry slaves. On some Carolina cotton plantations, slaves had little control over the redistribution of household goods as masters assessed the value of slaves’ ‘estates’ and divided property among slave ‘heirs.’ In other contexts, slaves actively claimed ownership, and legitimized their rights to property by identifying goods as ‘passed down.’ In these cases, slaves successfully negotiated for the privilege to bequeath and claim family property; however, these freedoms were ultimately dependent upon the prerogative of masters. In the end, the rules of inheritance reaffirmed social hierarchies within slave communities and southern society at large.