Slavery:  Side 1

In late August 1619, the first Africans brought to British North America were sold at Jamestown, Virginia, more than a century after slave trade and slavery began in the Caribbean and Latin America.  Although the institution of slavery was defined legally by the 1660s, indentured servants from Europe were the principal labor force employed in the early colonies until Bacon’s Rebellion in 1676.  Thereafter, slavery grew rapidly, particularly in the southern colonies—with the black population increasing from under 50,000 in 1700 to over 1,000,000 in 1800, and eventually to over 4,400,000 in 1860.

Slavery crossed the Appalachians with the early setters of Kentucky.  Although some objected strongly to the institution on moral or religious grounds, the land- and slave-holding interests of the transplanted Virginia gentry prevailed and were protected by the first Kentucky constitution in 1792.  Anti-slavery efforts in later years were largely symbolic, conservative and committed to the goal of colonization, i.e., the removal of free African Americans.

The invention of the Cotton Gin (1793) made cotton cultivation immensely profitable, but Kentucky’s temperate climate and comparatively short growing season would not support the large plantations and large slave-holdings that became common in the Gulf States after the War of 1812.  As a result, only an estimated 20 percent of Kentucky families owned slave property and those who did owned an average of only 4.3 bondspersons per slaveholding family, both much smaller averages than in the deep South.  By 1860, African Americans were more than 20 percent of the state population, compared to slave majorities in Mississippi and South Carolina, and near majorities in Alabama, Georgia and Louisiana.

Paradoxically, Kentucky need not have been a slave state, since slavery was marginal to its core economy.  However, once slavery took root, its roots in Kentucky society and life-ways went deep indeed.


Slavery:  Side 2

At least two African Americans were present at the founding of Louisville.  One was Cato (Watts), the semi-legendary enslaved African American fiddler who was later executed for killing his owner.  Another was Caesar (1758-1836), who accompanied George Rogers Clark on the campaigns against Kaskaskia and Vincennes.  Other settlers recalled the presence of “Negroes in the cabins,” although precise numbers remain elusive.

As Louisville grew into a major urban center, slavery declined in importance and the percentage of enslaved African Americans in the city shrank from 36.5 percent in 1810 to 10.0 percent in 1860.  Still, declining numbers did not translate into better conditions.  Enslaved African Americans worked primarily as laborers and domestic servants.  Urban slave quarters were often out buildings or backrooms.  Clothing was coarse and limited in variety.  Less and lower quality food was available.  The lash was applied liberally, although less often publicly, and enslaved African Americans were sometimes executed for stealing a few dollars’ worth of goods.  At least one slave conspiracy was discovered in the area in 1812, for which an enslaved African American named Reubin was executed, and there were many other conspiracy “scares.”  And, on May 14, 1857, one African American committed suicide and three others were lynched after being acquitted of killing the Joyce family in December 1856.

Perhaps the most controversial feature of Kentucky slavery was the domestic slave trade—which shifted thousands of enslaved African Americans each year from the upper South to the cotton-growing regions of the lower South.  By the 1840s, numerous domestic slave trade businesses could be found in Louisville as well—with slave pens located in the old downtown area of the city.

Slavery was both an economic and social institution, a way of life in which the myth of black inferiority was used to rationalize the inherent evils of human bondage.  Essential to this necessary fiction in Kentucky was the popular belief that slavery was mild and that relations between blacks and whites were good.  However, there is no evidence to support this belief and certainly no testimony from African Americans to corroborate it.

Selected Sources

Bancroft, Frederic.  Slave-Trading in the Old South (Baltimore: J. H. Furst Company, 1931).

Coleman, J. Winston, Jr.  Slavery Times in Kentucky (Chapel Hill, NC: The University of North Carolina Press, 1940).

Eslinger, Ellen.  “The Shape of Slavery on the Kentucky Frontier, 1775-1800.”  The Register of the Kentucky Historical Society, 92(1994): 1-23.

Hudson, J. Blaine.  “References to Slavery in the Public Records of Early Louisville and Jefferson County, 1780 - 1812.”  The Filson History Quarterly, 73, 4(1999): 325-354.

Hudson, J. Blaine.  “Slavery in Early Louisville and Jefferson County, 1780 – 1812.”  The Filson History Quarterly, 73, 3(1999): 249-283.

O’Brien, Margaret.  “Slavery in Louisville during the Antebellum Period: 1820-1860,” unpublished Master’s thesis, University of Louisville, 1979.

Stafford, Hanford D.  “Slavery in a Border City:  Louisville, 1790-1860,” unpublished Ph.D. dissertation, University of Kentucky, 1987.

U. S. Bureau of the Census.  Historical Statistics of the United States:  Colonial Times to 1957 (Washington: Government Printing Office, 1960):  8-15.

Wade, Richard C.  Slavery in the Cities: The South, 1820‑1860 (New York: Oxford University Press, 1969).

Yater, George H.  Two Hundred Years at the Falls of the Ohio:  A History of Louisville and Jefferson County (Louisville: The Filson Club, 1987): 2-6.

Young, Amy L., and Hudson, J. Blaine.  “Slavery at Oxmoor.”  The Filson History Quarterly, 74(Summer 2000):  195-199.