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Slave Family Life Previous Next
Digital History ID 3042


Slave marriages and family ties were not recognized by American law. Any owner was free to sell husbands from wives, parents from children, and brothers from sisters. Many large slaveholders had numerous plantations and frequently shifted slaves, splitting families in the process.

The most conservative estimates indicate that at least 10 to 20 percent of slave marriages were destroyed by sale. The sale of children from parents was even more common. As a result of the sale or death of a father or mother, over a third of all slave children grew up in households from which one or both parents were absent.

On large plantations, one slave father in three had a different owner than his wife, and could visit his family only at his master's discretion. On smaller holdings, divided ownership and mother-headed households occurred even more frequently. Many slaves had to share their single room cabins with relatives or other unrelated slaves. Even on model plantations, children between the ages of 7 and 10 were taken from their parents and sent to live in separate cabins.

Despite the frequent breakup of families by sale, African-Americans managed to forge strong and durable family and kin ties within the institution of slavery. Most slaves married and lived with the same spouse until death, and most slave children grew up in two parent households. To sustain a sense of family identity, slaves often named their children after parents, grandparents, recently deceased relatives, and other kin. Slaves passed down family names to their children, usually the name of an ancestor's owner rather than their current owner's. The strength of slave families is nowhere more evident than in the advertisements slaveowners posted for runaway slaves. Over a third of the advertisements indicate that fugitives left an owner to visit a spouse, a child, or other relatives.

Ties to an immediate family stretched outward to an involved network of extended kin. Family destruction and dispersal created extended kinship networks stretching across whole counties. Whenever children were sold to neighboring plantations, grandparents, aunts, uncles, and cousins often took on the functions of parents. When blood relatives were not present, strangers cared for and protected children.

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