Most of the slaves in Tennessee worked on farms or plantations.
These agricultural units were self-sustaining to a remarkable degree. A
few items such as material for the best clothes, salt and other necessities for
the table came from outside but otherwise almost every article consumed or worn
was produced on the farm or in the immediate neighborhood.
The beef and bacon came from the owner's cows and hogs, slaughtered in the fall
and salted down. Cows and wild game provided the leather as well.
The wool, which the women corded and wove and spun, was from the owner's sheep.
The winter fuel from his wood lot, and clothes for the entire population were
frequently made by women.
During the long winter, farm implements were fashioned and made, as were innumerable
utensils for the kitchen. Skilled slaves built, carved, or painted articles
which slowly filled the big house and added comfort to a frontier existence.
Most the work performed by slaves in the field had to be done by hand and with
draft animals such as mules and oxen. This included preparing, tending and
harvesting the crop. The chief crop on most plantations was cotton.
In March, the soil, having been fallow for the winter, was ridged. In April,
the ridge was split by the plow. Within a week the seed would show and when
it came up strong it was chopped with a hoe, spaced 10 to 12 inches apart.
After the root struck subsoil the seed increased its growth. Slaves were
then sent to the fields to thin and weed the plant and hand pick the cotton.
This was a painful and painstaking process due to the constant bending, stooping
and crawling. (Images of cotton picking, chopping, etc.)
Dr. Mitchell explains:(Dr. Mitchell on slave work) slaves were required to pick
a certain number of baskets each day, according to size and age. The overseer
(Overseers and work) would watch their progress from a convenient spot
in the field, or most often from the back of a horse. Thus situated he had
direct command of all the workers. It was his responsibility to bring in
the crop. Most were paid according to their ability to achieve an assigned
quota, and many took their responsibility very serious.
The work on the plantations was organize to maximize the amount of work a slave
could perform in a day. The day started around four o'clock in the morning,
usually before sunrise, when they were summoned from their cabins in the quarters
by a large horn or bell. (Getting them up for work) A typical work week
was Monday through a half day on Saturday. During the time of harvest, however,
slaves often worked Saturday afternoon, and even on Sunday if it were necessary
to get the crop in.
Generally, there was little distinction between work performed by men and women.
Women cut wood, plowed, pulled fodder, dug potatoes, picked cotton, pulled corn,
hauled rails, and commanded oxen teams. They were house servants and personal
body servants. On some plantations their work was broken down into task
system of washing, ironing, etc., Children too young to work in the fields
did light tasks around the plantation, everything from carrying water to field
hands to raking leaves. At the age of twelve they were classified as "quarter
hands", and sent to the field. Later they would advance to "half hand,"
"three quarter hand", and finally, "full" or "prime" field hand. They were
also employed as nurses for old or infirm whites, or house servants around the
big house. .(Slave children at work)
Most of the slaves worked in the fields, but some owners found it profitable to
employ them in non-agricultural pursuits as well. They worked along the
Mississippi, Cumberland, and Tennessee rivers and in all kind of mills, quarries
and aboard all kind of vessels. They dug iron ore and did all kind of work connected
with iron making. Others were employed in towns and cities of all sizes
and worked in virtually every skilled and, unskilled occupation in Tennessee.
(Slaves at Work)
Slaves monopolized the domestic services. Masters who owned skilled artisans such
as barbers, blacksmiths and cabinet makers made their services available to the
public for a price. Many white merchants employed a slave assistant.
As one white man remarked, the slave was "the third arm of every working man who
can possibly save enough money to purchase one." Slaves and Leisure
Time in Tennessee