American chattel slavery was a unique institution that emerged in the English colonies in America in the seventeenth century. Enslaved peoples were held involuntarily as property by slave owners who controlled their labor and freedom. By the eighteenth century, slavery had assumed racial tones as white colonists had come to consider only Africans who had been brought to the Americas as peoples who could be enslaved. Invariably, the earliest white settlers who moved into Arkansas brought slave property with them to work the area’s rich lands, and slavery became an integral part of local life. Slaves played a major role in the economic growth of the territory and state. Their presence contributed to the peculiar formation of local culture and society. The existence of slavery ultimately helped to determine the political course of the territory and state until the end of the Civil War and slavery’s abolition in 1865 with the ratification of the Thirteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution.

Slavery’s Origins in Arkansas
The first slaves entered what was to become Arkansas in about 1720, when settlers moved into the John Law colony on land given to them on the lower Arkansas River by the king of France. The Law colony failed within two years, but a small number of inhabitants, including African Americans who probably were slaves, remained in the area for the rest of the French and Spanish territorial periods. In the first official U.S. census of Arkansas as the “District of Louisiana” in 1810, the census takers found 188 slaves in a total population of 1,062 people. The development of this area and its creation as Arkansas Territory in 1819 spurred a rapid growth in the slave population. By 1820, it had risen to 1,617. These trends continued through the territorial period and up to the Civil War. By 1830, the slave population reached 4,576; then 19,935 in 1840; 47,100 in 1850; and 111,115 in 1860. As the slave population grew, it also constituted a larger and larger portion of the total population, growing from eleven percent in 1820 to twenty-five percent by 1860.

Slaves lived in every county and in both rural and urban settings in antebellum Arkansas. Historian Orville Taylor estimated that roughly one in four white Arkansans either owned slaves or lived in families that did. Many more probably benefited from slavery, however, as leasing slaves was not an uncommon practice. Although slavery clearly touched the lives of many white Arkansans, most slave owners possessed only a few slaves. The largest number of slaves were the property of the owners of large plantations in the state’s lowlands, particularly in the rich valley and delta lands along the state’s waterways. A relatively large slave holding would have been ten slaves, a work force valued at about $9,000 on the average in 1859, an amount equal to approximately $200,000 in 2002. By 1860, seventy-three percent of slaves were on plantations and farms of that size. They were owned, however, by only about twenty-six percent of the state’s slave owners. Elisha Worthington of Chicot County was the state’s largest slave owner, holding more than 500 slaves on the eve of the Civil War.

Legal Protection for Slavery
The Code Noir, or Black Code, of French Louisiana and additional legislation during Arkansas’s territorial and statehood periods established the basic legal definition of slavery and helped determine the world in which the individual slave lived. By law, a slave was subject to all laws involving personal property. Like cattle, horses, or other types of possessions, slaves formed part of the owner’s estate. This meant slaves had no legal identity of their own, making it impossible for them to engage in contractual relations for labor, business, or even marriage. The owner, on the other hand, could dispose of slaves just like any other asset, including hiring them out, selling them, or even sending children away from their parents. Heirs inherited slaves upon an owner’s death.

Even though it defined slaves as less than human, the law recognized slaves as a unique form of property. Numerous statutes made it clear that the white community knew their slaves were human beings and could not be dealt with in the same way as livestock. Slaves had to be controlled, and laws attempted to achieve that goal and provided for punishment of slaves that broke these laws. Statutes restricted their movement, required passes to leave their home plantation, limited their rights of assembly, and prohibited their possession of firearms, clearly indicating that whites saw their property as restless and potentially dangerous. An 1825 law created the slave patrol, an institution that enforced such limits across the countryside, the existence of which further indicated the contradictory character of white perceptions of their slave property. The patrol, upon which all adult white men served periodically, policed the countryside, punishing slaves off a farm or plantation without a pass, searching for runaways, and ensuring against slave revolts.

Contemporary whites often looked at their peculiar institution as a benevolent one and saw the lack of any notable slave revolts in Arkansas as reflecting its benign character. The majority of slaves probably did not see it that way. The weekly newspaper advertisements placed by owners attempting to recover runaway slaves clearly indicated the dissatisfaction of slaves with their condition and a willingness to risk extreme punishment to get away. The frequent need of slave owners to resort to physical punishment to secure obedience from their slaves also indicates the refusal of individual slaves to be satisfied with their condition. Impudence, disobedience, and a refusal to work—all behaviors that led to whippings by Arkansas planters—demonstrated the efforts by slaves to establish some degree of personal independence within the slave system. In the end, only the use of force made possible this critical labor system through the antebellum years.

Economics of Slavery
Slavery served primarily to provide labor for the state’s economy, and slaves added greatly to its development. Slavery made possible the rapid expansion of the cotton frontier within Arkansas, and slaves’ labor contributed greatly to the state’s material wealth, adding at least $16 million to the economy each year and making Arkansas the sixth largest cotton producer in the United States by 1860. Historians have debated whether or not slavery was profitable for the South, but in Arkansas there is no question that slave labor produced profits for some individual slave owners. Nothing shows more clearly that contemporaries considered the system profitable as much as the inflation in the price of slaves through the antebellum period. Orville W. Taylor has shown that average prices in Arkansas rose from $105 in the 1820s to nearly $900 by 1860, taking into account children as well as adults. Adult slaves with skills such as carpentry or blacksmithing could bring enormous prices, with some such slaves costing as high as $2,800. These prices were comparable to approximately $2,200, $20,000, and $61,000 in 2002 dollars.

A Slave’s Life
Much is known about slavery from the perspective of whites, but less is known about the slaves themselves, especially from their point of view. White sources affirm that slave labor often was harsh. The vast majority of slaves worked as field hands, usually from sunrise to sunset every day of the week except Sunday. They devoted most of their time to the cultivation of cotton—plowing fields and planting the crop in late February, keeping the fields clear of grass and weeds until what was called lay-by time. At this point, usually in July, crops generally did not require intensive cultivation, and field work ended. Field slaves then labored at building and repairing fences, clearing land, and performing a wide variety of other plantation chores. All hands went back into the fields in August, however, when picking began and stayed there often until the end of the year. Some slaves did not engage in field work, however. Tending livestock, working as skilled craftsmen, or performing housework were typical of the jobs performed by those not in the fields. Whatever job the slaves performed, the owner usually attempted to extract as much labor from them as possible. Despite the power of the owner, however, slaves proved to be very resourceful at controlling their working conditions within limits. They often could secure concessions from masters or overseers by sabotaging crops or outright defiance against their demands.

Slaves usually lived in small log or lumber cabins in separate quarters from their white owners, although slaves might live with their owner on a small holding. Slaves’ cabins usually had dirt floors, contained very little furniture, and perhaps even lacked doors and windows. Slaves’ clothing was usually manufactured on the plantation out of coarse or low-quality cloth. Owners usually purchased shoes, but slaves often did without them except in the winter. Slaves’ diet varied from plantation to plantation but mostly consisted of pork and corn supplemented with some vegetables grown on the farm. In some cases, the supplements came from plantation gardens. Some planters allowed slaves to tend small patches of their own. In cases where a master allowed slaves to carry arms and hunt, they added wild game and fish to their diet. The slave’s diet was barely adequate, as the death rate of slaves relative to whites showed. While barely adequate, slaves survived such conditions and, in Arkansas, possibly did relatively better than slaves in other Southern states. The 1850 census indicated that the death rate among Arkansas slaves was 1.83 per thousand, considerably lower than the overall national average of 2.13. On the other hand, the death rate among slaves was thirty percent higher than that of the state’s free population.

Slave Culture
Less is known about slave society and culture, although it is clear that slaves successfully created unique institutions among themselves despite the limits imposed on them. For the most part, slaves attempted to establish family life in the slave quarters even though the law prevented legal marriage. Efforts at reuniting family members who had been separated by masters and at legalizing slave marriages at the end of the Civil War demonstrate the importance of family to slave culture.

A religious life also developed within the slave community, especially variations on Protestant Christianity. Many masters encouraged religion among their slaves, sometimes for benevolent reasons but at times because they believed it would make their property more docile. Slaves quickly transformed the beliefs of their masters, however, into a faith emphasizing equality before God and ultimate release from slavery. Music also constituted an important part of slave culture. As in the case of religion, the slaves molded their music into a form that voiced their feelings about their enslavement. Even though the connection of most slaves to Africa was remote by the nineteenth century, elements of their African background appeared in their formulation of social and cultural institutions.

The Civil War and the End of Slavery
Slavery in Arkansas encouraged the state’s economic development in the antebellum period, but it also played a major role in determining the state’s catastrophic course in the sectional crisis of the 1850s. Through that decade, convinced that a rising Republican Party in the North threatened the future of the institution, leading Arkansas politicians joined others from the South in demanding protection of slavery and threatening a disruption of the Union if the institution’s future was not guaranteed. In the secession crisis during the winter of 1860–1861, following the election of President Abraham Lincoln and the secession of South Carolina, Arkansas leaders such as Congressman Thomas Hindman and Governor Henry Rector pushed for the state to leave, too. Strong Unionist sentiment delayed that action, but ultimately the outbreak of war between the United States and the Confederacy in April of 1861 turned the tide in favor of secession locally.

Ironically, the war contained the seeds of destruction for the institution it was intended to protect. The removal of thousands of white men from the countryside weakened the hold of masters on their slaves. Even the Confederate government’s appropriation of slaves for laborers changed the character of the institution behind Rebel lines. Ultimately, however, the successful movement of Union forces into Arkansas in 1862 saw thousands of slaves flee their plantations to secure freedom behind federal lines, and Union victory in 1865 ensured their ultimate freedom. New relationships between slaves and white Arkansans would have to be forged after the war, although white people proved reluctant to surrender the power over the freedmen that they had exercised for so long over their slaves.

County 1840 slaves 1840 total 1850 slave 1850 total 1860 slave 1860 total
Arkansas 361 1,346 1,538 3,245 4,921 8,844
Ashley 644 2,058 3,761 8,590
Benton 168 2,228 201 3,710 384 9,306
Bradley 1,226 3,829 2,690 8,388
Calhoun 981 4,103
Carroll 137 2,844 213 4,614 330 9,383
Chicot 2,698 3,806 3,984 5,115 7,512 9,234
Clark 687 2,309 950 4,070 2,214 9,735
Columbia 3,599 12,449
Conway 192 2,892 240 3,583 802 6,697
Craighead 87 3,066
Crawford 618 4,266 933 7,960 858 7,850
Crittenden 454 1,561 801 2,648 2,347 4,920
Dallas 2,542 6,877 3,494 8,283
Desha 407 1,598 1,169 2,911 3,784 6,459
Drew 915 3,276 3,497 9,078
Franklin 400 2,665 472 3,972 962 7,298
Fulton 50 1,819 88 4,024
Greene 50 1,586 53 2,593 189 5,843
Hempstead 1,936 4,921 2,460 7,672 5,398 13,989
Hot Spring 249 1,907 361 3,609 613 5,635
Independence 514 3,669 828 7,767 1,337 14,307
Izard 141 2,240 196 3,213 382 7,215
Jackson 276 1,540 563 3,086 2,535 10,493
Jefferson 1,010 2,566 2,621 5,834 7,146 14,971
Johnson 591 3,433 731 5,227 973 7,612
Lafayette 1,644 2,200 3,320 5,220 4,311 8,464
Lawrence 267 2,835 388 5,274 494 9,372
Madison 83 2,775 164 4,823 296 7,740
Marion 39 1,325 126 2,308 261 6,192
Mississippi 510 1,410 865 2,368 1,461 3,895
Monroe 148 936 395 2,049 2,226 5,657
Montgomery 66 1,958 92 3,633
Newton 47 1,758 24 3,393
Ouachita 3,304 9,591 4,478 12,936
Perry 15 978 303 2,465
Phillips 905 3,547 2,591 6,935 8,941 14,877
Pike 109 969 110 1,861 227 4,025
Poinsett 67 1,320 279 2,308 1,086 3,621
Polk 67 1,263 172 4,262
Pope 215 2,850 479 4,710 978 7,883
Prairie 273 2,097 2,839 8,854
Pulaski 1,284 5,350 1,119 5,657 3,505 11,699
Randolph 216 2,196 243 3,275 359 6,261
St. Francis 365 2,499 707 4,479 2,621 8,672
Saline 399 2,061 503 3,903 749 6,640
Scott 131 1,694 146 3,083 215 5,145
Searcy 3 936 29 1,979 93 5,271
Sebastian 680 9,238
Sevier 725 2,810 1,372 4,240 3,366 10,516
Union 906 2,889 4,767 10,298 6,331 12,288
Van Buren 59 1,518 103 2,864 200 5,357
Washington 883 7,148 1,199 9,970 1,493 14,673
White 88 929 308 2,619 1,432 8,316
Yell 424 3,341 998 6,333
STATE 19,935 97,574 47,100 209,897 111,115 435,450
Note: As the above chart indicates, every county in Arkansas, from the moment of its establishment, recorded slaves in the three censuses taken following the state’s admission to the Union. Twenty counties were created after 1860 from parts of earlier counties; therefore, not every county existing today is shown on the chart. As a percentage of the population, slaves ranged from less than one percent (in Newton County) to over eighty percent (in Chicot County) in 1860.

For additional information:
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———. Fugitivism: Escaping Slavery in the Lower Mississippi Valley, 1820–1860. Fayetteville: University of Arkansas Press, 2019.

———. “Slavery and the Defining of Arkansas.” Arkansas Historical Quarterly 58 (Spring 1999): 1–23.

Duncan, Georgena. “Manumission in the Arkansas River Valley: Three Case Histories.” Arkansas Historical Quarterly 66 (Winter 2007): 422–443.

———. “‘One negro, Sarah… one horse named Collier, one cow and one calf named Pink’: Slave Records from the Arkansas River Valley.” Arkansas Historical Quarterly 69 (Winter 2010): 325–345.

Durning, Dan. “Henry Jacobi’s Brace Deed: Helping Seven Escaped Slaves as the Confederacy Ended in Little Rock.” Pulaski County Historical Review 69 (Summer 2021): 57–64.

Gigantino, James J. III. “Slavery and the Creation of Arkansas Territory: A Reconsideration.” Arkansas Historical Quarterly 78 (Autumn 2019): 231–247.

Gigantino, James J. II, ed. Slavery and Secession in Arkansas: A Documentary History. Fayetteville: University of Arkansas Press, 2015.

Griffith, Nancy Snell. “Slavery in Independence County.” Independence County Chronicle 41 (April–July 2000).

Hancox, Louise M. “Picturing a Nation Divided: Art, American Identity, and the Crisis over Slavery.” PhD diss., University of Arkansas, 2018.

Howard, Rebecca A. “No Country for Old Men: Patriarchs, Slaves, and Guerrilla War in Northwest Arkansas.” Arkansas Historical Quarterly 75 (Winter 2016): 336–354.

Jones, Kelly Houston. “Black and White on Slavery’s Frontier: The Slave Experience in Arkansas.” In Race and Ethnicity in Arkansas: New Perspectives, edited by John A. Kirk. Fayetteville: University of Arkansas Press, 2014.

———. “Bondwomen on Arkansas’s Cotton Frontier: Migration, Labor, Family, and Resistance among an Exploited Class.” In Arkansas Women: Their Lives and Times, edited by Cherisse Jones-Branch and Gary T. Edwards. Athens: University of Georgia Press, 2018.

———. “Bondswomen’s Work on the Cotton Frontier: Wagram Plantation, Arkansas.” Agricultural History 89 (Summer 2015): 388–401.

———. “Chattels, Pioneers, and Pilgrims for Freedom: Arkansas’s Bonded Travelers.” Arkansas Historical Quarterly 75 (Winter 2016): 319–335.

———. “‘Doubtless Guilty’: Lynching and Slaves in Antebellum Arkansas.” In Bullets and Fire: Lynching and Authority in Arkansas, 1840–1950, edited by Guy Lancaster. Fayetteville: University of Arkansas Press, 2018.

———. “The Peculiar Institution on the Periphery: Slavery in Arkansas.” PhD diss., University of Arkansas, 2014. Online at (accessed April 28, 2021).

———. “‘A Rough, Saucy Set of Hands to Manage’: Slave Resistance in Arkansas.” Arkansas Historical Quarterly 71 (Spring 2012): 1–21.

———. A Weary Land: Slavery on the Ground in Arkansas. Athens: University of Georgia Press, 2021.

———. “White Fear of Black Rebellion in Antebellum Arkansas, 1819–1865.” In The Elaine Massacre and Arkansas: A Century of Atrocity and Resistance, 1819–1919, edited by Guy Lancaster. Little Rock: Butler Center Books, 2018.

Lack, Paul D. “An Urban Slave Community: Little Rock, 1831–1862.” Arkansas Historical Quarterly 41 (Autumn 1982): 258–287.

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Lankford, George E., ed. Bearing Witness: Memories of Arkansas Slavery: Narratives from the 1930s WPA Collections. 2d ed. Fayetteville: University of Arkansas Press, 2006.

Moneyhon, Carl H. “The Slave Family in Arkansas.” Arkansas Historical Quarterly 58 (Spring 1999): 24–44.

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———. “Slavery in Washington County, Arkansas, 1828–1860.” MA thesis, University of Arkansas, 1995.

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Van Deburg, William L. “The Slave Drivers of Arkansas: A New View from the Narratives.” Arkansas Historical Quarterly 35 (Autumn 1976): 231–245.

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West, Cane W. “Learning the Land: Indians, Settlers, and Slaves in the Southern Borderlands, 1500–1850.” PhD diss., University of South Carolina, 2019.

Carl H. Moneyhon
University of Arkansas at Little Rock

Last Updated: 02/10/2020