Slavery in the Shenandoah Valley was an integral part of the local economy and culture. Although Shenandoah-style slavery differed considerably from the stereotypical image of Virginia tobacco fields and Deep South cotton, no section of the South was typical, and regional variation was the norm.
Slavery in the Valley was a transition zone between heavily enslaved eastern Virginia, where approximately 50% of the population labored in permanent bondage, and the lightly enslaved western mountains, with less than 10% in slavery.
In 1860 the Valley was 19% slave although considerable differences existed within the region. Clarke County, for example, was almost 50% slave, much like the plantation system east of the Blue Ridge, but only 5% of Shenandoah County was in slavery and this part of the Valley more resembled Trans-Appalachia. In Rockingham County one out of ten persons was an African American slave.
Even in lightly enslaved areas, typical Southern patterns of owning existed, and big people owned the most slaves. Generally, however, slaves in the Valley worked on small to modest-sized wheat farms rather than large plantations, and they avoided the harsh labor consistent with Deep South cotton and rice plantations. On the other hand, slaves on small Valley farms were more closely supervised than on large estates, and their masters of modest wealth were more likely to sell off human property if the economy slumped. Traders regularly advertised in Valley newspapers for persons they could take to slave markets further south.
Life as a slave in the Valley was difficult, as it was everywhere. Physical punishment was part of the system. Hiring, often considered an especially severe form of slavery, was prevalent in the Valley. Under this system, masters, often from slave-rich eastern Virginia, sent their surplus bondpersons elsewhere to labor for a fee. The term of service typically was one year, and it removed slaves from their homes and families, instead saddling them with year-to-year instability.
Slaves resisted when they could. Runaways were particularly common in the Valley because of its nearness to free territory, and the region also served as a pathway to freedom for fugitives further south.
The above text was written by Dr. Stephen L. Longenecker, Edwin L. Turner Distinguished Professor of History.
Shown here are the demographics of prisoners from an 1834 report on the Virginia Penitentiary. While Virginia had a penitentiary at that time, there was not yet a statewide system of prisons. These demographics show that inmates at the state penitentiary were mostly white as of 1833-1834. There are a few explanations for why there were fewer Black prisoners.
First, much of the African American population were enslaved at the time and punishments were harsher for them than whites. Crimes such as arson were more likely to result in execution rather than imprisonment.
Second, according to the same document the penitentiary may only be made for freed peoples. One quote from the report states, "It is proper to remark that although the law proves the no free person of colour shall be sentenced to confinement in the penitentiary for a less term than five years, cases have occurred of sentences for one, two, and three years. There are five free persons of colour now confined for terms of less than five years." Here, there is no mention of enslaved people, and nowhere on the document they would be listed.
Finally, as they were sending freedmen in for lesser offenses than what was required to confine someone, it is not a far stretch that freedmen were also punished harder for greater offenses. Were the punishments as harsh for freedmen as the enslaved? With the introduction of the 1902 Virginia constitution, an official prison system would be created and felons were forbidden from voting. These things remained in the 1971 constitution.
Among the witnesses to chattel slavery in the Shenandoah Valley of Virginia is this receipt for enslaved African American mother, Betsy, and child, George, who were sold to Dutton D. Norman by James M. Hodnett on October 8, 1850. The receipt was handwritten on blue paper. It was donated to Bridgewater College Special Collections by John Gatt, who donated several documents of regional importance.
Tax slip from 1859 detailing property taxes, probably for Thomas Sterling. Taxes were charged on male and female slaves. This receipt indicates Sterling paid taxes on one enslaved African American man. “Tithe” is a percentage paid annually.