A brief history of slavery in North Carolina

By Samantha Winer

Slaves in the United States of America were commonly viewed as chattel and were subjected to long working hours, harsh conditions, floggings, and separation from families and loved ones. It was also relatively common, though, for slaves to display their autonomy and rebel against their masters. Common forms of rebellion included feigned illness, sloppy work, and sabotage. Running away, however, was the ultimate form of rebellion and resistance.[1] Slave owners, often befuddled as to why their property ran away, placed advertisements in newspapers to find their escaped property. Analyzing the history of slavery in North Carolina provides valuable clues that allow the scholar to understand the role of slavery and why many slaves chose to run away.

Colonial North Carolina: 1748-1775

North Carolina, unlike neighboring South Carolina and Virginia, lacked a substantial plantation economy and the growth of slavery was sluggish in colonial times. In 1705 the black population was one thousand, twenty percent of the state’s population, while in South Carolina the black population numbered over four thousand. By 1733 there were an estimated six thousand blacks in the state, while South Carolina was home to approximately 39,155 blacks by the end of the decade. North Carolina, however, experienced a rapid population increase between the years of 1730-1755. The number of slaves in the state increased from six thousand to more than eighteen thousand. [2]

One of the reasons North Carolina lagged behind was the state’s geography. The shore of the state is fickle with coastlines surrounded by shoal. The coastline had only a few natural harbors. A network of north-south roads developed in the Coastal Plain and Piedmont, but rivers slowed the growth of east-west routes. Minimal trade was established with the backcountry, emphasizing the supply routes to Charleston and Virginia. After 1750 the colony revitalized its road systems, promoting the growth of sea towns such as Edenton, New Bern, and Wilmington. North Carolina would become the lead exporter of naval stores in the colonies, in addition to exporting large quantities of sawn lumber, shingles, wheat, and livestock. [3]

In the northeastern and central counties tobacco was the main cash crop. Tobacco required fifty percent of a fieldhand's time, with the remaining time split between growing food and other cash crops. Slaves near the Tar and Cape Fear Rivers worked in the production of naval stores. Many slaves were forced to spend numerous hours in swampy environments rendering resins over open fires to create tar and pitch. The largest population of slaves was found in the the counties of Brunswick and New Hanover. Rice was a predominant cash crop in the Wilmington area. Rice planting was a long and arduous process under very hot and humid conditions. [4]

Revolutionary North Carolina (1775-1783)

North Carolina’s population at the beginning of the 1770s, was an estimated 266,000, of whom 69,600 were black. [5] Numerous slave revolts and insurrections at the start of the decade frightened many of the tidewater elite, alienating their alliances against the British. Lord Dunmore, the last colonial governor of Virginia, issued a proclamation in 1775 stating that any slave who joined his all-black regiment was guaranteed freedom. Many slaves from northern North Carolina attempted to join Dunmore’s regiment, causing panic amongst slave owners. The Revolution would continue to create chaos within the slave system in North Carolina. During the Southern Campaign many slaves flocked to British lines, hoping to find freedom. Other slaves took advantage of the confusion created by warfare and escaped. [6]

Antebellum North Carolina (1784-1860)

Slavery continued to grow in North Carolina after the end of the Revolution. In 1790 North Carolina possessed an estimated one hundred thousand slaves, making up one quarter of North Carolina’s population. In the antebellum era, North Carolina gained significance as marketplace for slaves for the newly opened slave territories out west. The invention of the cotton gin increased migration rates towards the western territories and entrepreneurs purchased slaves from North Carolina prior to moving out to the western territories. A land rush increased populations in territories such as Alabama, Mississippi and eventually Texas. Between the years of 1810 and 1860 an estimated one hundred forty thousand enslaved African Americans were either sold or transported out of North Carolina. [7]

Slave and Family Life

The majority of slaves in North Carolina worked as farm laborers. The work week was five and a half days, sunup to sundown. Children and the elderly often worked in the vegetable gardens and took care of the livestock.Common crops included corn, cotton, and tobacco. Oral histories collected from the Federal Writers Project of the Works Progress Administration for the state of North Carolina illustrate the difficulties faced by slaves on a daily basis. Former slave Sarah Louise Augustus spoke frankly about slave life, “My first days of slavery (was) hard. I slept on a pallet on the floor of the cabin and just as soon I wus able to work any at all I was put to milking cows.” [8] The majority of the enslaved population lived in huts or log cabins referred to as “quarters.” Slaves typically received three to five pounds of smoke and salted pork per week along with cornmeal. Some slaves were fortunate enough to receive ample rations from their masters, others were fed the bare minimum. Slaves typically received two suits of clothes throughout the year. During the summer slaves wore clothes made of cheap cotton, winter clothing was made from linsey-woolsey cloth. Children’s clothes were commonly made of old flour or gunny sacks. Clothing was commonly given out at Christmas. [9]

Social and leisure time played a significant role in slave life. Holidays, religion, family life and music provided an escape from harsh working conditions. Former slave Charlie Barbour recalled the New Year festivities stating: “On de night ‘fore de first day of January we had a dance what lasts all night. At midnight when de New Year comes in marster makes a speech an’ we is happy dat we is good, smart slaves.”According to Barbour and other slaves, Christmas was the most important holiday in the social calendar, “At Christmas we had a big dinner...De fust one what said Christmas gift ter anybody else got a fit, so of cour’se we all try to ketch de masters.” [10]

Social occasions also allowed slaves the opportunity to visit neighbouring plantations. Social gatherings included corn huskings, candy pullings, and watermelon slicings. Slaves commonly found marriage partners at these occasions. Slaveholders often encouraged relationships to occur because it resulted in the birth of children, which equated to profit. Many slave owners expected their slaves to marry and encouraged slaves to have children. [11]

Dueling Viewpoints

The Society of Friends has a long history in North Carolina. In 1777 at the North Carolina Yearly Meeting a proposal was drafted that admonished Quakers to free their slaves. [12] In 1778 the North Carolina Yearly Meeting issued an order that prohibited the buying and the selling of slaves by Quakers. One of the reasons the Society of Friends stressed abolition was the Quaker belief that slavery was a sin; manumissions (the freeing of slaces) allowed Quakers to cleanse their souls of impurities. Other Quakers freed their slaves based on ideas of Natural Rights or personal preferences. [13] The Society of Friends in North Carolina also created a Manumission Society that promoted abolition outside of the Quaker faith. The North Carolina Manumission Society, founded in 1816, lasted for only fifteen years. During that time frame the Society placed anti-slavery advertisements in the Greensboro Patriot newspaper. The Society also sent antislavery petitions to the North Carolina legislature. [14]

Slave Codes and Punishment

The era after the American Revolution led to an increase regulations through the Black Codes which limited the rights of blacks. Slaves would not be able to testify against whites, would not be able to move in the countryside without a pass, could not gamble, raise or sell livestock, read or write. Slaves were not allowed to own weapons or even hunt. One common form of vigilante justice emerged when black men were accused of raping white women; it involved lynching and burning the black man without a trial. [15]

Punishment for a disobedient slave varied. Whipping and other forms of physical violence were common. Eli Colemna, a slave born in Kentucky in 1846 remembered:

Massa whoooped a slave if he got stubborn or lazy. He whopped one so hard that the slave said he’d kill him. So Massa done put a chain round his legs, so he je’s hardly walk, and he has to work in the field that way. At night he put ‘nother chain around his neck and fastened it to a tree. [16]

Roberta Manson commented that it was the overseer who whipped slaves, stating, “Mars Mack’s oversee, I doan know his name, waus gwine ter whup my mammy onct, an’ pappy do’ he ain’t neber make no love ter mammy comes up an’ take de whuppin’ fer her.” [17]

Everyday Acts of Defiance

Numerous slaves practiced day to day resistance against their masters. Many of the crimes practiced were property destruction. Slaves would commonly pull down fences; destroy farm equipment; steal livestock, money, liquor, tobacco, flour, and numerous other objects belonging to their master. To many slaves this was not considered stealing, but instead “taking.” Other slaves would work slowly or purposely damage the crops to delay production. Some slaves would drink to relieve their frustrations. [18] Many esacaped. There were any number of underlying reasons for escape. Many slaves ran away to reunite with their family members. Slaves also ran away from their owners to avoid being sold. Fear of being whipped and flogged also prompted many slaves to escape. Running away, however, was probably the most extreme form of resistance against slave owners.

The majority of slaves who ran away were male. Female slaves were less likely to attempt an escape; they began to have children during the mid-to-late teens and were the primary caregivers for children. It was generally too risky to take young children on the run. In addition, male slaves had more experience with the countryside than their female counterparts. [22] The majority of slaves who ran away were in their teens and twenties.

Perhaps one of the most famous slaves to have escaped from North Carolina was Harriet Jacobs. Jacobs is the author of Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl that was published in 1861 . Jacobs’ work was instrumental because it was the first autobiography to be written that examined slavery from a woman's perspective. Jacobs claimed “Slavery is terrible for men; but it is far more terrible for women .” Jacobs famously lived underneath her grandmother’s crawl space for seven years prior to escaping to Philadelphia in 1842. Most importantly, Jacob’s work also alluded to the high number of sexual abuse suffered by female slaves.

Life On The Run

One of the most important decisions faced by slaves, was where to run. Some slaves decided to run in the direction of lost family members while others fled to locations where they thought capture was unlikely. Many ran to the cities, hoping to get lost in the crowd. Some slaves attempted to run away in the direction of the northern United States or Canada, the mythical “Promiseland.” Slaves, while on the run, were faced with numerous obstacles to overcome. To avoid detection many attempted to pass as free persons. Free blacks differed greatly from slaves on account of their manner, language, behavior, and appearance. Slaves who knew how to write could forge a free pass that would aid in their escape. Many escaped slaves managed to incorporate themselves into the free population and worked in various occupations such as barbers, butchers, and builders.

Runaway slaves often found refuge in the swamps that populated North Carolina. One of the most popular swamps, the Dismal Swamp, located in Northeastern North Carolina provided shelter for runaway slaves for more than two hundred years. The woods and swamplands of eastern North Carolina offered many runaway slaves an opportunity to work and hide. Escaped slaves worked as shinglers, on flatboats, and in the naval stores industry.

Slaves not only had to risk the elements but also had to be weary of slave patrols. In 1802 the North Carolina’s legislature passed a law enabling each county to carry out and administer its own patrol system. [19] These patrols ranged in size from two or three to a dozen men. Patrols were granted the authority to ride on to anyone's property and search buildings. Slave catchers, who specialized in hunting and capturing slaves, also posed a risk to slaves on the run. Slave catchers were commonly hired by planters and plantation managers and could typically earn upto fifty dollars for returning a runaway.

The coasts of North Carolina possessed a unique slave culture and economy. Numerous jobs on the coast were filled by slave labor. Slaves were used as sailors, pilots, fishermen, ferryman, deckhand, and shipyard workers. [20] The coast also provided many opportunities for slaves to escape. Many advertisements, such as this one from the State Gazette of North Carolina , published in Edenton on February 2nd, 1791, warned “All masters of vessels are forbid harbouring or carrying them [slaves] off at their peril.” Many slaves who attempted to escape via the waterways traveled to port towns such as Wilmington, Washington, or New Bern. [21]

Slave Advertisements

Slaveowners suffered massive economic loss when a slave ran away. Owners, in a effort to find their missing slave, posted advertisements in newspapers to have their property returned. Slave advertisements were a common tool employed by slave owners to find their escaped property. Many of the advertisements varied from a brisque several lines to a lengthy description. Slave owners often placed advertisements in newspapers as a last resort and would wait for several months or even years before they placed advertisments. And by no means would every owner place an advertisement for a missing slave.

Many of the advertisements included descriptions such as demeanor, dress, abilities, skills and background. Often the slave’s moral character would be described in the advertisement as well. In an advertisement from the Raleigh Register on October 14th, 1843, John White described his slave, Thompson, as having “a down look & is slow spoken.” Likewise, many slave owners described their slaves as intelligent. In an advertisement from November 11th, 1835, from the Greensboro Patriot, owner W.W. Williams stated that his slave, Davy, had "an intelligent countenance, and a very genteel form for a negro.”

The color of the slave commonly appeared in advertisements. Slaves who ran away who had light skin had advantages. Biracial slaves (known at the time as mulatto) were more likely to be believed as free persons. A January 16, 1824advertisement from the Raleigh Register read, “Ran-away from the subscriber ... a likely bright mulatto girl named BARBARY... and very probable she may have a free pass.” [02520901-1824-01-16-03] Other advertisers claimed that their slaves were “nearly white” or could easily “pass for white.” Biracial slaves were often employed as house slaves and in skilled positions such as waiters and tailors. With this training a biracial slave had a greater chance of passing as a free person.

Many factors went into deciding the reward amount for a slave. If the owner was confident the slave would be quickly returned, the reward was low. Conversely, if a slave was believed to have left the county or the state, the reward amount increased. Rewards for slaves ranged from twenty-five cents to five hundred dollars. The most commonly advertised reward was ten dollars. Slaves who possessed a specialized skill, or were especially handsome or clver, often fetched a higher price.If the slave was known to be out of state the price typically increased. On average runaway female slaves commanded a lower amount than their male counterparts. Reward amounts, however, were 5 percent or less of the value of the runaway. When an owner placed an advertisement in the newspaper there were many factors to contend with. Legal costs, hiring slave catchers, transportation charges, were all on the mind of the owner affecting reward amounts. If an owner realized that someone was harboring their slave, the price would often rise. [23] For example, in an advertisement placed in the Edenton Gazette on July 20th, 1819 by Thomas Palmer, the initial price for two runaways was fifty dollars but “if stolen and offered for sale by a white person, 100 Dollars Reward will be given for appreheading[sic] and giving information so that I may recover them.”


It is unknown how many slaves were returned to their owners because of advertisements. But rich details about slave life are available for the scholar and an analysis of these advertsiements can provide insight not only into conditions and lifestyles experienced by the slaves but also into the plantation economy and the perspective of slave owners. Perhaps most importantly, though, they provide documentation of a very early chapter in the civil rights movement--an assertion of freedom that preceeded more fomalized movements by many decades.


  1. >Marvin L. Michael Kay and Lorin Lee Cary, Slavery in North Carolina, 1748-1775 ( Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press, 1995), 97.
  2. Freddie L. Parker, Running For Freedom: Slave Runaways in North Carolina 1755-1840, (New York: Garland Publishing, 1993), 7.
  3. Kay & Cary, Slavery in North Carolina, 11.
  4. Clayton E. Jewett and John O. Allen, Slavery in the South: A State-by-State History, (Westport: Greenwood Press, 2004), 189.
  5. Parker, Running For Freedom, 8.
  6. Jewett, Slavery in the South, 191.
  7. Jewett, Slavery in the South, 192.
  8. Federal Writers' Project. The American Slave: A Composite Autobiography. (Westport,: Greenwood Pub. Co, 1972), 51.
  9. Jewett, Slavery in the South, 194.
  10. Federal Writer’s Project, The American Slave, 74.
  11. Maria Jenkins Schwartz, Born in Bondage: Growing up Enslaved in the Antebellum South. ( Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2000), 187.
  12. Hiram H. Hilty, By Land and By Sea: Quakers Confront Slavery and its Aftermath in North Carolina. (Greensboro:North Carolina Friends Historical Society, 1993), 3.
  13. Hilty, By Land, 28.
  14. Hilty, By Land, 42.
  15. Jewett, Slavery in the South, 194.
  16. George P. Rawick, From Sundown to Sunup: The Making of the Black Community. ( Westport: Greenwood Publishing Company, 1972). 57.
  17. Federal Workers Project, The American Slave, 101.
  18. John Franklin & Loren Schweninger, Runaway Slaves : Rebels on the Plantation. ( Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1999),18.
  19. Parker, Running For Freedom, 39.
  20. David Cecelski, The Watermen’s Song: Slavery and Freedom in Maritime North Carolina. ( Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2001), xviii.
  21. Cecelski, The Watermen’s Song, 124.
  22. Parker, Running For Freedom, 72.
  23. Franklin, Runaway Slaves, 176.