When Africans were taken from their homes and forced into slavery, they were separated from mothers, fathers, sisters and brothers and were torn from extensive kinship networks. Enslaved in the British colonies of North America or the free states of the American Union, the ability of Africans to reestablish nuclear families and familial support systems depended on many factors including the needs and desires of the slave owner. As the circumstances of slavery changed across time and place, the opportunities for slaves to marry, have children, and create stable family units fluctuated.
Slave trade to the original thirteen colonies was slow and sporadic. In places like New York and Virginia, where small farming units were the norm, slaves were bought by handfuls rather than shiploads. The preference for male laborers limited the ability of most black slaves in early colonial society from developing relationships with black women. Among the Atlantic Creole population in New Amsterdam, however, a more balanced male to female ratio made as many as twenty-six marriages possible. These unions took place within the Dutch Reformed Church. The church became an institution through which New Amsterdam blacks were able to form independent familial units. In addition to marriage papers, archives of the Dutch Reformed Church contain baptism records that list children according to fathers rather than owners and name black godparents as witnesses.
Enslaved blacks attempted to provide for their family members financially, as well as spiritually. At a time when slavery was still a concept rather than a legal institution, blacks from New Amsterdam to the Chesapeake Bay used the courts to ensure the well-being of family members. Numerous slaves made bequests of property to wives or children in wills. The fluidity of the status of black people also allowed greater opportunities to achieve freedom for kin. Some parents contracted their children to masters under terms that guaranteed the children would be released from service after a specified number of years. Others attempted to buy loved ones out of slavery. Occasionally black men married white women, ensuring that their children would be born free.
As the plantation revolution swept across the South in the late seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries and the terms of racial slavery were concretized in law, slaves found it increasingly difficult to form families. Not only did the law forbid interracial wedlock and deny blacks legal rights to marry each other, but the agricultural demands of Southern slave societies also continued to generate a disproportionate population of black men in the colonies.
By the early 1700s, however, planters in both the Chesapeake region and in the Southern low country were becoming aware that they could profit economically by promoting the families their slaves were struggling to create. Marriage, they reasoned, would make slaves content and therefore docile. What is more, stable unions would lead to reliable reproduction cycles. This idea of a self-renewing slave labor force was exploited on a grand scale for the first time on the plantations of late eighteenth century America, increasing in intensity after 1807 when Congress outlawed international slave trade.
The nature of the slave family varied depending on the form of agrarian activity taking place in a given region. Because tobacco planting required fewer slaves on a single farm, Chesapeake slave families were often spread across several plantations. Men and women in this region often “married abroad,” meaning that spouses had different owners and lived apart. In such cases, a husband, either with permission or surreptitiously, would usually visit his wife and children once or twice a week. The divisiveness of agricultural production in this area helped to foster a vast kinship network that linked several plantations. In contrast, the largest of “Cotton Kingdom” plantations required dozens of hands, making it more common to find whole families working and living together.
As industry attempted to keep up with agricultural output in the South, the number of African slaves in the North increased, rapidly replacing the first generation of Atlantic Creoles who had successfully organized into autonomous families. Unlike their Southern contemporaries, Northern slave owners had little interest in family formation among slaves. The nature of urban life and small-farm production made large workforces untenable and unnecessary. While the plantation master approved of, oversaw, and often arranged marriages among his slaves, the Northern master discouraged marital union and dissolved existing bonds by separating husbands and wives…