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Slaves in Livestock Production


Wilma A. Dunaway

This is a copyrighted document from the electronic archive for Wilma A. Dunaway,  Slavery and Emancipation in the Mountain South: Evidence, Sources, and Methods, Virginia Tech Library.  How to Cite   Contact the Author

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Slave Labor Management to Produce Livestock

Appalachian slaveholders engaged in an activity that did not characterize most U.S. plantations; they produced large surpluses of cattle, hogs, sheep, horses, mules, geese, and turkeys for export. To transport those herds to distant markets, mountain plantations organized massive annual livestock drives. In 1860, Southern Appalachian farms exported "on the hoof" to the Lower South more than 1 million hogs, nearly one-half million cattle, and more than 90,000 horses and mules. Although fowl were not enumerated in the Census records, newspapers recorded annual turkey drives, as well. In West Virginia, sheep drives and wool exports were more important than the beef industry. In many years, livestock production and marketing of animal byproducts were more profitable for small Appalachian plantations than crop cultivation. Although not as labor-intensive as crop cultivation, livestock raising required Appalachian masters to employ slaves who were specialists in this type of agricultural production. Moreover, the processing of animal byproducts consumed considerable labor throughout the work year.

Slaves in Livestock Production

Slaves tended chickens, turkeys, and milk cows as part of their daily work assignments on the farms. Kitchen servants and pre-teens fed fowl and milked cows everyday. Slaves "raised turkeys in de 500 lots" for one Patrick County, Virginia plantation that exported annual drives of the birds. Blue Ridge, Virginia plantations raised geese for export to northeastern cities. A few weeks before Christmas, slaves penned flocks of geese, fattened them, and sent them to market alive. Young slave children fed and watered fowl and gathered eggs twice a day. Milk cows were brought to barns or sheds in the evenings and turned out to pastures in the mornings by slave children. Jim Threat's mother was the cook, but her "daily task" included milking seven cows twice a day. A Tullahoma, Tennessee teenage girl was assigned to "churn 12 times" on Mondays. After she skimmed off the butter and cream, she "pour[ed] the milk to the hogs." Children were assigned to keep milk cows out of crops. Before they were old enough for field work, Perry Madden and his brother "minded gaps." A rail fence "would zigzag, and the rails could be lifted down at one section, and that would leave a gap." When laborers went to the fields in the mornings, they dropped the rails. "It took time to lay the rails down and more time to place them back up again." To maximize labor time in the fields, "they would leave them down" till the end of the workday. "If you left a gap, the stock would go into the field. When there was a gap, my brother would stay in it and keep the stock from passing."

Appalachian slaveholders produced and exported more swine than any other livestock because they required so little labor. More than half of the Appalachian slave narratives report that "hogs was wild, they just roved about in the woods trying to find something to eat." To dispose of food scraps and garbage, masters also turned a few hogs loose near the big house and slave quarters. Pre-teens were responsible for "slopping" hogs and for keeping them away from crops. Sometimes supervised by an adult female, feeding crews of boys and girls carried grain to hogs that were still running wild in the mountains and forests. Thomas Cole recalled that his Jackson County, Alabama master "jest fed [the hogs] enough ter keep dem close ter home." Twice a year, sows had piglets in the wild, so "when de hogs increased," the owner needed "ter keep dem comin' up sos [they] could mark de young pigs." Following a custom that had been diffused to the Appalachians from England, adult slaves earmarked hogs in the spring. Some masters put bells on them to facilitate feedings in the wild. When hogs were fattened in the wild on chestnuts and acorns, their lard and meat would be dark and bitter in taste. Thus, owners selected and penned hogs about a month prior to slaughtering. Thomas Cole's master "allus tak his hogs and fattens 'em and feeds a little corn ter dem, he said it cleans de meat sos dat it is fittin' to eat." Concerned about loss of slave labor time to locate swine in the mountains, James Hervey Greenlee "put up 30 Odd hogs to feed for next year to make an experiment whether it is cheaper to keep them up or let them run out."

Sheep were the second most plentiful type of livestock on Appalachian plantations. In West Virginia and western Maryland, there were 1.6 sheep to every head of cattle; and sheep drives and wool exports were more important than the beef industry. After they were "marked and belled," sheep were turned loose to forage for themselves from June through late January. In northern Georgia, slaveholders would "turn [their] sheep out in the spring and they'd go to the mountains. Maybe they'd come back in the field onst in awhile, but not very often in the summer." In the fall, slaves "got out and hunt 'em up and bring 'em in through the winter." Sheep would range further away than cattle, so slaves trained a castrated male "bellwether" to lead the flock. Every two weeks, slave children "left out piles of salt, corn, and cornmeal" for sheep; however, "they'd eat acorns up till Christmas."

In western North Carolina, sheep would "come 'round closer to the fields during the winter" because some plantations "had sheds for 'em." In January, slaves herded sheep down from the hills to prepare for lambing between February and May. Slave shepherds hand-fed orphan lambs and culled surplus rams. Extra male babies were slaughtered and consumed as part of the slaves' food supply. Sheep were sheared between March and May. Working in teams of two, trained slaves "could shear about forty head a day." One slave lay the sheep on a table and tied its feet or held it down while a second slave sheared it. Within twenty or thirty minutes, each shearing generated two to three pounds of wool. In the Appalachian counties of Virginia, Maryland, and West Virginia, large plantations produced wool for export, so slaves sheared sheep a second time in the early fall. In West Virginia, graziers produced black and white wool while western Maryland plantations specialized in merino sheep, a Spanish breed characterized by soft, lightweight wool. After sheep were sheared, slave women washed the wool in hot water with lye soap while children spread it to dry. In east and middle Tennessee, second-grade wool was used to produce slave clothing, but most plantations would "sell the best wool." Tallow was rendered for use in waterproofing slave shoes.

The production of large herds of cattle, horses, and mules was much more labor-intensive than tending hogs, sheep, fowl, or milk cows. Beginning in the eighteenth century, Appalachian farms combined open-range cattle raising with winter feeding in pastures or lots near barns. Cattle were branded or earmarked in the early spring and turned loose to forage in the forests and mountains. On rainy days in March and April, one Wilkes County, North Carolina small plantation reassigned slaves from plowing and planting tasks to bell, brand, and "alter" cattle. To keep them near mountain gaps or trails, slaves regularly put out salt for the foraging cattle.

Some slaves specialized in "cattle rustling" for their masters. One Franklin County, Tennessee master "would steal in order to make their provisions hold out." This small planter "taught" several of his male slaves "to steal from neighboring plantations." Assigned slaves "would slip out at night and steal a cow or hog and bring it home and lock it up in the smoke-house." Henry Johnson detailed the manner in which his Patrick County, Virginia master would make his slaves steal from neighbors. The master would have them Asurround a herd of his neighbor's cattle, round dem up at night, and make us slaves stay up all night long and kill and skin every one of dem critters, salt the skins down in layers in de master's cellar, and put de cattle piled ceiling' high in de smoke house so nobody could identify skinned cattle." Such thefts occurred regularly enough that Appalachian county governments maintained public registries of livestock brands and earmarks.

Adult slaves were assigned to construct pens, fences, shelters, and stables during the early fall. Most Appalachian plantations of all sizes "had lots in pasture for de cattle and sheeps and goats." Following a custom that had been diffused to the Appalachians from England, the owners "had de slaves ter cut rails and build a fence round de fiels and fence off a pasture fer de stock." Boys separated young calves from large herds and moved them to sheltered lots near barns. Slave women shifted cattle between fields, as necessary. To salt and feed the large herds regularly, masters organized adult males and older boys into feeding crews. Liza Tanner's father "helped with the young calves and de feeding." On a small Kanawha County, West Virginia plantation, most adult slaves "had to get out and tend the stock" everyday during cold weather. On a large livestock farm in Warren County, Tennessee, Pierce Cody's father "was one of the feeders, and this group arose at least two hours before sunrise to feed the stock. A Large number of horses and more than two hundred head of cattle had to be fed by sunrise when they were to be turned into the pastures or driven to the field to begin the day's work."

Nearly 10 percent of the adult male slaves identified themselves in the Appalachian narratives as artisans and specialists who worked full-time tending or training livestock. In addition, about one-fifth of the slave children were assigned to feed, milk, pasture, and tend livestock before they were old enough to work in the fields. In addition to livestock production, Appalachian slaveholders utilized slaves who were skilled at beekeeping and "honeycomb robbing." Cockfighting was brought to the Southern Mountains by eighteenth-century British settlers, and it became a favorite gambling sport of slaveholders in the region. In northern Georgia, western North Carolina, and Blue Ridge Virginia, some masters valued male slaves who could train their roosters. The use of oxen as work animals required the skills of slave experts. Slave drovers also assisted with the annual drives of cattle and hogs to market. Peter Bruner contracted with Estill County, Kentucky farmers to drive their horses to New Orleans. West Virginia plantations utilized skilled slave drovers to export livestock down the Ohio River. One West Virginia slave "look[ed] out for the horses" that were exported to New Orleans by steamboat. One of West Virginia's largest graziers used slaves to handle the cattle shipped "in flat Boats for New Orleans." Appalachian masters regularly used slaves to drive their livestock to market. Larkin Payne and his two older brothers were sent by their western North Carolina master "to drove hogs" to South Carolina. Their white laborers "come back in buggies or on the train-- left [the slaves] to walk back." An east Tennessee master regularly used slaves to drive cattle to Greenville, South Carolina where he maintained a small livestock farm to fatten cattle, horses and hogs until prices rose. Led by a slave driver, the laborers traveled without white supervision and worked temporarily under a white tenant while in South Carolina.

Unlike other livestock, horses and mules were kept in fenced pastures and required several types of specialists. Slaves fed work mules and horses three times a day and curried them nightly. Slave women plaited cornhusk horse collars, and slave blacksmiths regularly shoed work animals. To care for thoroughbred horses, Appalachian plantations employed slave grooms, and a knowledgeable artisan specialized in the "season of mares." To manage the work schedule related to the production and use of valuable work animals, Appalachian plantations owned slave "stable bosses." Some of these artisans "followed de races" in which their masters gambled, like Millie Simpkins' father who managed horse training for a Winchester, Tennessee plantation. To maximize the use of horses and mules, Appalachian slaves also worked as teamsters, wagoners, and carriage drivers.

Livestock Transhumance

Appalachian slaves also supplied labor to the livestock transhumance that characterized Southern Appalachia's production of large export surpluses. During warmer weather, cattle, hogs and sheep were turned loose to forage in the forests, and higher mountain balds and meadows were used to for seasonal pasturage. As weather conditions changed or grass and mast were depleted, livestock were shifted between higher and lower grazing areas. Appalachian graziers regularly burned over mountain balds and forested areas to create fresh spring pastures. Slaves completed this deforestation for many masters. During July and August, herds were periodically shifted to higher mountain pastures and water, and slave cowboys assisted with this process. Because of livestock transhumance and annual drives, "cowboy" was a term common in the Appalachian dialect long before the American Revolution. One east Tennessee slave remembered that mountain pastures were highly beneficial because "de cattle am always fat. Deys am in de blue grass, tall as de cow's back." After the fall harvest, masters organized their annual roundups, sending slaves "to go out into the woods to get the cattle." To facilitate herding with the fewest laborers and to keep investment capital low, Appalachian slaveholders developed an unusual type of tenancy. Valley planters and large farmers engaged tenant farmers to tend their cattle on small upland parcels. The owners supplied initial numbers of livestock and assigned slaves to be supervised at the mountain sites. During the driest summer months, many Appalachian valley slaveholders engaged poor whites to supervise their slaves on seasonal cattle drives to mountain pastures. On an isolated mountain farm, for instance, a West Virginia tenant contracted on a one-third share basis with a large livestock dealer to "take your land and pay you fair rent in corn and will be glad to take your stock of hogs and pay you in pork." The tenant was also willing to share-crop cattle with the landlord "on such terms as are fair and just."

In order to expand their cattle production, Virginia lowlands farmers purchased mountain pastures that were used by cowboy-tenant farmers to graze great herds. One Charleston, West Virginia real estate agent advertised "grazing lands a specialty." From the early 1800s through the Civil War, Billy Bradshaw managed on shares a year-round livestock complex at the Blue Ridge Penland Meadows. Bradshaw supervised several slaves who were horse and cattle specialists. Colonel Jim Horton, a prosperous gentleman-farmer of Lenoir, employed on shares a white farm manager to tend his large herds of sheep and cattle near Deep Gap, North Carolina. Three of Horton's slaves assisted. In Yancey County, North Carolina, Thomas George Walton contracted with a poor white farm manager to establish a mountain farm at Eagle Cliff solely "for the purpose of raising stock." For his half share of the profits, Walton supplied 33 cattle, 25 sheep, 17 hogs, 2 mares, and slave assistants. Initially, Walton assigned "two able bodied hands" to the livestock venture, promising that the number of slave tenders "may be increased" as their herds expanded.

Southern Appalachian slaveholders often engaged farm managers to produce livestock on their most rugged surplus lands, particularly the more mountainous sections. In order to cultivate small amounts of corn and tobacco in 1860, Abraham Chandler had improved only ten acres of the 135-acre Lawrence County, Kentucky farm he managed. Chandler's landlord placed greater priority on utilizing the unimproved woodlands to graze twenty-four sheep, thirty-six cattle and forty-nine swine. In similar fashion, James Ogle managed a 525-acre farm in mountainous Fannin County, Georgia. Using a slave, eleven horses and mules and farm implements supplied by his landlord, Ogle produced 1,700 bushels corn, nineteen cattle, and 120 swine-- reflecting no doubt his landlord's interest in marketing pork to the burgeoning company towns at nearby copper mines.

Meat Production on Appalachian Plantations

Meat processing was one of the most important work regimens on Appalachian plantations. Slaveholders prepared meat for their own use, but they also marketed surplus pork, beef, mutton, bacon and lard. Benjamin Johnson sold more than 11,000 pounds of his Blue Ridge pork every year to Tidewater planters. For forty years, West Virginia's McNeill family barreled beef and pork to ship to Baltimore butchers. Sometimes, skilled slave drivers organized and managed the slaughtering and preservation of meats. On the Cole Plantation of Jackson County, Alabama, slaves killed and processed 300 to 400 hogs every winter. They would "have two killings, de first in November and de last one in January. . . . Bout two or three weeks fore killin time, [the slaves] would all gits out and round up what [they] wanted ter kill and puts dem in a big rail pen and feeds nuff corn ter dem ter sorter harden de flesh and den go ter killin."

The slaughtering and salting stages had to be completed within two days, so every slave "had a job till hit was ovah." Preparations were made the day before slaughtering, and laborers were assigned to work teams. "Big iron pots and heavy tables were moved out doors; [slaves] were everywhere. Some scrubbed wooden tables and the hand sausage mill, some were put to crushing rock salt." All the slaves "took a hand in the hog killing time," even the children who "trotted to and from the rock furnace with a basket of chips and arm loads of wood." The hog was killed, then dipped in hot water repeatedly to loosen hair. On a small Blue Ridge, Virginia plantation, the slaves "built a big fish an put on stones an' when dey git hot [they] throw 'em in a hogshead dat has watah in it. Den moah hot stones till de watah is just right for takin' de hair off de hogs." On a western North Carolina farm, they "would take the hog, plunge it head first into the scalding water of a big iron pot, quickly swing it over, catch the front legs, drop the other end, throw it over on a low platform. Others with a long knife or old blades from the scythe held in both hands quickly scraped off all the steaming bristles."

Slaughtering became an assembly line in which "some would be killin and stickin, some would be scalding and scrapin' and some would be dressing dem, some cuttin em up." After scalding and scraping, the hog was hung, cut, gutted and washed down. "One would split the hind leg of each hog and slip a seasoned hickory stick under the strong sinews to hold the legs apart. Then up went the hog, to hang from a strong bar, fastened between two trees." Males cut the meat into sections while the women processed lard and prepared the head and intestines. "De women folks would be fixin de meat fer lard and renderin de lard. And some de women would be fixin chitlins, hog head sauce, sausage." Women also boiled the heads to prepare "souse meat," cleaned and prepared pigs feet, ground and packed sausages.

After cooling, the meat was salted, packed in wooden boxes or on shelves, and stored in the smokehouse. This final preparation was critical, so slave artisans were often assigned to oversee salting and smoking. On one small plantation in Warren County, Tennessee, a male slave single-handedly "had charge" of "fixin' de meat," especially "ham an' bacon." Women also directed this crucial process, like Ursula Jefferson who supervised meat preservation at Monticello. Pork required four months to cure in salt; then it was "smoked wid hick'ry wood." During this process, "the chillun would have to pick up chips to smoke the meat." When it was time to begin the final stage of preservation, slaves "would haul in plenty of hickory wood ter smoke de meat." In a "big log smokehouse," they would "hangs hit full of meat and den builds a smoke fire in de middle of hit and den de men folks would work in shifts ter keep dis wood fire goin fer several days, den dis meat was ready ter hang up in another building made specially fer meat." Other plantations utilized underground storage. On one east Tennessee farm, "the fresh meat would be placed in the upper cave and covered with walnut leaves." The hillside cavern maintained such a cool temperature that the meat "would keep there just as though it were a refrigerator."


1. Slave, 13: 81.

2. Dunaway, First American Frontier, pp. 218-21, 137-41. Letters dated 18 Feb. 1820, 16 Jan. 1821, 24 Feb. 1823, McNeill Family Papers.

3. Slave, 11 (b): 208, 8 (a): 324, 10 (a): 192, 307, 43, 16: 87, 1: 115, 13: 148, 16: 18, 22-23. Janney and Janney, Janney's Virginia, p. 80. Slave I, 5 (b): 296, 12: 334. Slave II, 4: 1164. Fisk, pp. 97-98, 131.

4.. Fisk, pp. 107, 59. Slave II, 5: 1865, 3: 796, 785. Slave, 8 (a): 326-27, 6: 269. Earmarking was an old British practice; see Otto, Southern Frontiers, p. 48. Wiggintgton, Foxfire 3, p. 112. Wiggington, Foxfire 2, p. 189. Greenlee Diary, 30 December 1848.

5. Dunaway, First American Frontier, p. 141. Slave I, 5 (b): 297. Wiggington, Foxfire 2, pp. 174, 176. Wiggington, Foxfire 3, pp. 104-105. Weevils, p. 165.

6. Wiggington, Foxfire 2, pp. 176, 104, 179, 181. Great Slave Narratives, p. 210. Wiggington, Foxfire 3, p. 103. Slave II, 3: 791. Greenlee Diary, March through May, 1847. Letters dated 22 Sept. 1841 and 9 October 1853 and 1845 Account book, McNeill Family Papers. Fisk, p. 5.

7. Macmaster, "The Cattle Trade," pp. 127-49. Wiggington, Foxfire 3, pp. 84, 88. Greenlee Diary, March to April 1847, 8 Jan. 1847, 16 April 1847, 23 July 1847.

8. Claiborne County, Tennessee Livestock Brands, 1853-1879. Frederick County, Maryland Livestock Brand Registry, 1851-1853. Ohio County, West Virginia Brand Registrations, 1772-1935.

9. Silver, New Face, pp. 129-31. Letter dated 18 Aug. 1824, McNeill Family Papers. Lambert, Undying Past, p. 137. Weevils, p. 166. Schlotterbeck, "Internal Economy," p. 179. Greenlee Diary, Sept. to November 1847, Jan. to March, 1847, 30 December 1848, 15 October 1850. Slave II, 5, 1793, 1554, 3: 796. Enclosing fields with rail fences to protect crops from grazing livestock was an old British practice; see Otto, Southern Frontiers, p. 48. Slave, 10 (b): 254, 12 (a): 196.

10. Table 2.3 and Illustration 2.4, website. Wiggington, Foxfire 2, pp. 32-47. Scott, History of Cockfighting, pp.99-108. Wiggington, Foxfire 8, pp. 385-487. "A Dying Tradition," Winston-Salem Journal, 31 Jan. 1994, pp. A1, A5. Slave, 4 (a): 180, 11 (a): 255, 10 (a): 306. Slave II, 5: 1792. Coleman Papers, p. 61. Drew, North-side View, p. 281. Letter dated 22 Feb. 1820, McNeill Family Papers. Contract dated 3 October 1854, Walton Papers. Letter dated 4 Jan. 1859, Caperton Family Papers. Hill, Herbert Walters, pp. 29-31.

11. Wiggington, Foxfire 3, pp. 107-10. Greenlee Diary, November, 1847 and March, 1848. Benjamin Johnson Account Book, 1801-1806, Barbour Family Papers. Bouwman, Traveler's Rest, p. 164. Slave I, 11: 17-18, 10 (a): 178, 16: 12-13. Slave, 16: 66, 4 (a): 180, 19: 216, 11 (b): 208. Slave Testimony, p. 482.

12. Dunaway, First American Frontier, p. 105. Lord, Blue Ridge Guide, # 272.6, # 339.5, #417.8, #422.4. Letter dated 20 Jan. 1843, Wilson-Lewis Papers.

13. Calling card, Forsythe Papers. Lambert, Undying Past, Ch. 11. Lord, Blue Ridge Guide, # 272.6. Letter dated 3 October 1854, Walton Papers.

14. Dunaway, First American Frontier, pp. 226-27. Slave, 13: 77.

15. Greenlee Diary, Feb. to April, 1847. Bouwman, Traveler's Rest, pp. 119-21. Janney and Janney, Janney's Virginia, p. 3. Entry dated 31 December 1801, Benjamin Johnson Account Book, Barbour Family Papers. Letter dated 1 November 1820, McNeill Family Papers. Betts, Jefferson's Farm Book, pp. 219-20. Slave II, 3: 498, 787. Illustration 2.5, website.

16. Slave II, 3: 787. Fisk, p. 11. Slave, 16: 11. Slave I, 3: 482-83.

17. Slave II, 3: 787. Slave I, 3: 483. Greenlee Diary, 2 December 1847. Janney and Janney, Janney's Virginia, p. 27.