Factory System

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"...nothing but hard work and cruel treatment." 
Easter Jones, ex-slave, remembers her life before freedom

The system where a person was bought and sold by another person for the purpose of forced labor was the system of slavery.  Slavery was a system that dominated  the Southern states in the 1800's.  In the beginning, slaves were brought to the United States to do some work, and were then supposed to be freed.  It was triangular trade, plantation agricultural growth, and the industrial revolution that prevented the slaves from gaining their freedom.  Word about this new business of slavery was spreading in the South and as more and more people became interested, the harder it was to put a stop to it.  With cash crops such as cotton, rice, corn, hemp, sugar, tobacco, and more, a very large work force was needed.  The slaves were the ones chosen because they could work long hours, and withstand new diseases.

 In the late 1700's to early 1800's, 400,000 people were brought to the United States to be sold as slaves.  By 1860, that number had jumped to 4,000,000 people.  A trip to the United States consisted of a journey that was usually 6-10 weeks long.  After a breaking-in period, slaves were often put up for sale on an auction block.  Slaves were considered property just like livestock and cattle, and could be bought and sold at any time the owner chose to.  After a slave was bought, the owner would brand the slave with "estate marks" to identify the plantation that slave belonged to, and to identify the slave if the slave tried to run away.  Used primarily by the South, slaves were forced to do jobs on plantations that no one else would do such as pick cotton.  Since a master owned the slaves, they were not paid.  They were often treated with a great deal of abuse, but many were able to keep a high level of spirit just the same.  At the bottom of this page is a list of additional resources that will help you in your additional research on slavery.

Whether it was through song and dance, or story telling, culture is one thing that slavery could never beat.  Despite all the hardships slaves faced, the telling of their heritage through stories was one way they were able to keep the culture of their families alive.  Singing songs, dancing, and poetry were other ways the slaves were able to maintain their culture.  There was never a large amount of time, except on Sundays, when  slaves could socialize, so song and dance, poetry, and story telling usually had to be done after work had been completed for the day.  Listed below is a poem written by a slave.  Socializing was also a way for the slaves to obtain news.  Families were often broken up with a sister going to one plantation, a brother to another plantation, and cousins going to yet a different plantation.  Some owners allowed weekend visits to friends and family at neighboring plantations.  Slaves often went without permission if their owner did not allow any weekend visits.  In attempts to keep up on events and locations of friends and family, culture and socialization were very important tools for the slaves.     Religion was a very important part of life for many slaves.  It was a way for the slaves to maintain a level of hope that their misery would be over some day. Worship was even encouraged by the plantation owners.  Occasionally the owners would even provide a chapel for the slaves with the hope that religion would make the slaves less likely to run away.  When a preacher wasn't provided for the slaves, they did their own preaching with rhythmic chanted sermons and gospel hymns. 
slave chapel

Well may I say my life has been
One scene of sorrow and pain;
From early days I grief's have known,
And as I grew my grief's have grown.
Dangers were always in my path,
And fear of wrath and sometimes death;
While pale dejection in me reign'd
I often wept, my grief constrain'd.

When taken from my native land,
By an unjust and cruel band,
How did uncommon dread prevail!
My sighs no more I could conceal.
 - Olaudah Equiano

Plantations & Underground Railroad

    Unfortunately there is not a great deal known about the operations of a plantation because very few records, or no records at all were kept.  The plantation was the only home a slave ever knew.  Plantations were large enough that the slave quarters, blacksmith shop, farm, cotton storage facility, and the owner's house were all on the same property.  The slaves worked the fields of the plantation, and came right back to  their quarters at the end of the day.  Some slaves were fortunate to work in the owner's house where there was easier work, but at the end of the day, they too, had to go back to their quarters.  The quarters for slaves were quite simple since the slaves didn't have any money.  They were made out of wood, and had one or two bedrooms.  Each house would house up to 12-15 people.  Instead of a bed, there was straw on the floor.  The slaves cooked outside and their diet consisted of corn mean, salt pork, and home grown vegetables if their masters allowed it.  The household tools doubled as the cooking utensils, and the eating utensils were usually wooden bowls and spoons. 

slaves in fields

    Slaves were put into one of two forms of labor.  They were either forced to do gang labor, or work under the task system.  Gang labor was a system where slaves would leave together for work every morning, work together, and return back to their houses at night together.  The work day was from sunrise to sunset. 80% of slaves worked under this system.  The task system was made up of specialized tasks such as cooking, child care, and house cleaning.  Slaves who worked under the task system typically had better food, clothes, and quarters.  The down side to the task system is that those slaves were on call seven days a week.  Lack of economic means made the slaves completely dependent upon their masters, which gave the masters all the power and control in the world, including the power of fear over the slaves. 

    To make life even harder on the slaves, authorities in the South passed a set of laws known as the Slave Codes.  The Slave codes sometimes varied from state to state, but always had the same principle driving them; that slaves were property, not people, and were to be treated in such a fashion.  The Slave Codes put restrictions on the slaves that prevented them from testifying in court against a white person, making contracts, leaving the plantation without permission, striking a white (even in self-defense), buy and sell goods, own firearms, gather without a white present, possess any anti-slavery literature, or visit the homes of whites or free blacks. If a slave broke any of the specified Slave Codes, the slave was to be disciplined.  Discipline on the plantation was handled by the drivers, overseers, and the owners.  Things a slave could be punished for included not working fast enough, being late getting to the fields, for defying authority, for running away, or other various reasons.  Discipline was not restricted to one form of punishment.  Discipline took on the form of many kinds of punishment such as whippings, torture, imprisonment, and being sold away from the plantation and family. 


    Slavery was a system based on fear.  Many plantation owners, and their over-seers, were very brutal people and used fear to keep the slaves in order.  Such brutal treatment often tempted slaves to consider running away.  Rebellions also broke out as a result of the brutal treatment.  Many slaves did not run away out of fear for their owners.  Many slaves, however, did decide to take the incredible journey to the North.  The journey required bravery and an incredible amount of trust.  Harriet Tubman, better known as "Moses," is one of the most well known names in the fight against slavery.  A former slave herself, she led many people to freedom in the North.  Here is a map of possible routes slaves took to get to freedom.  Would you have had the bravery and trust to make the trip to the North?  Click the photo of Harriet Tubman and see if you can make the journey to freedom.


    Not every plantation owner was a brutal person.  There were some masters who genuinely cared for his slaves and had formed some sort of relationship with them.  The relationship was limited, however, due to the power the owner had over the slaves.  There were caring owners and there were brutal owners, but the people who owned slaves at all made up a very small population of the south.  In fact, 3/4 of Southern whites did not own slaves at all, and out of the people who did own them, 88% owned twenty slaves or fewer.  Owning slaves was seen as a symbol of wealth and power.  Many people in the South wanted to own slaves just to achieve that high symbol of status.  It was also a way to simply build themselves up.  Some maintained the attitude that they may have been poor, but they were not slaves, and they were not black.  It gave them a sense of power simply by being white.

Additional Resources

Fugitive Slave Bill of 1850

Understanding Slavery

 The Abolitionist

The African American: A Journey from Slavery to Freedom


Enter search for slavery, then select the second option listed slavery, look for following topics 
History of slavery 
Underground railroad 
Plantation Life 

Resources used to create this page:

American History.  (2000).  Fugitive Slave Act of 1850.  Retrieved on April 25 from the World Wide Web:

America’s Library.  (2003).  “Portrait of Harriet Tubman.”  Courtesy of the Moorland-Springam Research Center, Howard University.  Retrieved on April 3 from the World Wide Web:

Bayless, Charles N.  (1977).  Slave Chapel at Mansfield Plantation, Georgetown County, South Carolina.  Retrieved on April 3 from the World Wide Web:

Foner, Eric, and Garraty, John A.  (1991).  The Reader’s Companion to American History.  Houghton Mifflin Company.  Retrieved March 9 from the World Wide Web:  (1998).  The hovel of a Negro family.  Retrieved on April 3, from the World Wide Web:

Gerber, Amy, Mohamed, Abeer, and Papa, Maggie.  (2003).  African American Culture through Oral Tradition.  George Washington University.  Retrieved March 14 from the World Wide Web:

Library of Congress. (2003). The Illustrated London News (September 27, 1856.)  “Slave Auction at Richmond Virginia.”  Wood engraving.  Prints ad Photographs Division.  Retrieved March 12, 2003 from the World Wide Web:

Library of Congress.  (2003).  The Largest Slave Auction March 3, 1859.  Retrieved March 12, 2003 from the World Wide Web:

MacMillan, Aaron.  Reconstruction: An Interactive Outline.  Retrieved on April 7 from the World Wide Web:

Nash, Andy.  Bristol and Slavery: Life on the Plantations.  Retrieved on April 7 from the World Wide Web:

National Geographic.  (1996-2003).  The Underground Railroad.  Retrieved March 9 from the World Wide Web:

No Author Given.  (2003).  Possible Escape Routes.  Microsoft Maps.  Retrieved March 14, 2003 from the World Wide Web:

No Author Given.  (2000).  The Abolitionist.  Retrieved March 9 from the World Wide Web:

No Author Given.  (2002).  Understanding Slavery.  Retrieved March 9 from the World Wide Web:

No Author Given.  Aboard the Underground Railroad: A National Register Travel Itenerary.  Retrieved on April 7 from the World Wide Web: 

No Author Given.  Conditions of antebellum slavery.  Retrieved on April 7 from the World Wide Web:

No Author Given.  Slavery.  Retrieved on April 7 from the World Wide Web:

No Author Given.  Slavery.  Retrieved on April 7 from the World Wide Web:

Sylvester, Melvin.  (2003).  The African American: A Journey from Slavery to Freedom.  Long Island University.  B. Davis Schwartz Memorial Library.  Retrieved from March 9 from the World Wide Web: