In 1860, the last census conducted in the antebellum period revealed that over 12 percent of the total population of the United States was enslaved. The majority of the 3,952,762 enslaved people living in the United States were held on Southern plantations. They were forced to grow, harvest, and ship the cash crops that enriched their owners. Their forced labor was the foundation of the Southern economy.
On plantations, enslaved people were treated as commodities, not human beings. Their worth was determined based on the type and amount of work they could accomplish. They were considered a part of the overall wealth of slave-holding families. If an enslaver needed money quickly, enslaved people were sold without any consideration for their family or community ties.
These sources illustrate the lives of enslaved women in the plantation system. The photographs show the fieldwork most male and female plantation slaves were forced to do. Although they did the same work as men, enslaved women were considered weaker. Slave owners did not value them as highly as enslaved men. But if an enslaved woman was capable of bearing children, her value was calculated differently (see Life Story: Anarcha, Betsy, Lucy for more information).
Charles Benedict Calvert’s slave account book demonstrates how enslavers assigned monetary value to men and women differently. On this page, one-year-old Sally is sold for $75. And one-year-old Basil is sold for $100. Although we do not know exactly what led to this difference, Sally’s sex probably played a part.
Shackles were a powerful tool used to dehumanize enslaved women and men on plantations and beyond. Enslavers used shackles to limit the movements of enslaved people as punishment. Shackles were also used to try to control enslaved people during travel or public sales.