Virginia Magazine of History and Biography
The Quarters and the Fields: Slave Families in the Non-Cotton South • Damian Alan Pargas • Gainesville: University Press of Florida, 2010 • xii, 264 pp. • $69.95
Reviewed by Michael B. Chesson, Founding Professor of History at the American College of History and Legal Studies. He is the coeditor of Exile in Richmond: The Confederate Journal of Henri Garidel (2001).
This masterful study attempts to answer two important questions about slave families, both the subjects of considerable controversy. First, what was the relative power of masters against the desires of slaves? Second, though antebellum specialists have minimized geographic differences among families, which aspects of family life were typical? To answer these questions, Pargas examines three quite different areas in his detailed and engrossing work: Fairfax County in Virginia; the Georgetown District of low-country South Carolina; and St. James Parish, midway between New Orleans and Baton Rouge.
Fairfax County suffered from soil exhaustion because of colonial tobacco cultivation. Slaveowners raised grains, potatoes, dairy products, and meat, supplying Alexandria and Washington markets. They forced slaves into frantic multitasking. Not needing a surplus, they sold enormous numbers. Moderate-sized plantations became farms through estate divisions. The slave population fell by 47 percent between 1810 and 1860, declining even more if natural population growth is considered. By 1860 a majority of slaves lived in holdings of ten or fewer, making it difficult to find sex partners or maintain family life. For Fairfax slaves, bondage was worse in some ways where it was weakest and declining. Perhaps one in three first slave unions were broken; as many as one in five children were separated from both parents.
Georgetown District's huge rice plantations were a slave society, more Caribbean than American. Slaves there constituted at least 85 percent of the population throughout the antebellum era. The slave population rose by 53 percent between 1800 and 1860. By 1850, 74 percent of slaves lived in holdings of more than a 100. The grueling work continued throughout the winter, but it was done on the task system. Rice slaves had more free time than others in the South. Families worked for themselves, engaged in internal production, and even accumulated property. They had a degree of self-sufficiency virtually unknown elsewhere. The sex ratio was relatively balanced throughout the era; partners were widely available. Slave women were not at risk; there were very few mulattoes, only 0.5 percent of the slave population in 1850, against Fairfax's 22 percent. Georgetown was a net importer of slaves; few were ever sold. Most families enjoyed relative peace and stability.
The lot of slave families in St. James Parish was midway between Fairfax and Georgetown. Sugar cane after 1800 created a rapidly developing slave society. In 1810 slaves represented 48 percent of the population; by 1860, 70 percent. They worked with military precision in an unhealthy environment. The labor demanded speed, efficiency, and industrial discipline to cultivate a crop requiring careful supervision in a race against time because of the unpredictable climate. Slaves worked from dawn until dark and eighteen-hour days in the fall grinding season. They had the least amount of free time, but they achieved moderate family-based economies. Planters preferred robust male slaves; the sex ratio was always skewed. The population failed to reproduce naturally; deaths exceeded births by 28 percent in 1850 against a ratio of births over deaths by 61 percent in Fairfax. Even in the Georgetown District there was a 9 percent positive ratio. Almost half the slaves in sugar parishes probably lived in two-parent households; it may have been even higher in St. James. Family disruptions were midway between the worst level in Fairfax and the stability of Georgetown. Estate divisions were rare, with heirs choosing to own plantations jointly.
Pargas makes a persuasive case that "'typical' slave families may have existed" in these areas, "but a typical American slave family surely did not exist" (p. 205). If that is true, it calls into question many of the generalizations about slavery in recent generations and poses a serious challenge for scholars of the peculiar institution.