Slavery in Kentucky, Indiana, & Ohio

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Slave Coffle near Paris, KY 1850s

Slaves in Frontier Kentucky worked alongside their owners on small farms.  Agrarian antebellum Kentucky relied on slaves to build infrastructure and assist with tobacco and hemp cultivation.  In 1790, over twelve thousands slaves lived in Kentucky.  One in three Kentuckians owned an average of 4.3 slaves per household.[1]  By 1860, 225,483 slaves lived in Kentucky and comprised of 19.5% of the population.[2] Unlike Kentucky, slavery in Indiana and Ohio played an insubstantial role frontier development.  In 1800, one hundred seventy-five slaves lived in Indiana and the state legislature abolished slavery in 1816.  Ohio outlawed slavery in its territory and never established servitude clauses in its constitution.

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Site of the former slave pen owned by Matthew Garrison.

Louisville slaves maintained a tremendous amount of autonomy compared to slaves in rural Kentucky.   Twenty percent of Louisville bondsmen hired themselves out and lived within the free African American community.[3]  Slaves frequently crossed the river to Indiana for business.  Slaveholders used slaves as house servants or hired them out for factory work.  For the slaves  that lived with their owners, they also lived in the house rather than separate quarters.[4]  Slaves in rural Kentucky had few liberties.  Many counties enforced regulations on meetings and church services and bondsman could not be away for more than four hours without a pass.  Living conditions for rural slaves were rudimentary and harsh. 

Louisville slave markets supplied southern cotton plantations with extra workforce.  Known as a slave breeding state, Kentucky exported 22 percent of its young adult male population.[5]  Slave pens markets on the east side of First Street and on Second Street reminded Louisville African Americans they were a small step away to be sold down river.  Slaveholders did not hesitate to ship discommodious slaves south.  “Sold down the river” is a saying first coined by Kentucky slaves.[6] The threat of being sold down river for Kentucky slaves meant death.  Kentucky slave Harry Smith explained, “ . . . going to New Orleans was called Nigger Hell, few ever returned. . ..”[7] By the 1830's fifty merchants and brokers dealing with the slave trade existed in Louisville.  Matthew Garrison, the area's largest slave trader, paid a runner twenty dollars for every African-American brought to his pen to be sold.  Garrison did not verify if the African American were free or enslaved.  Once sold, slaves marched down Main Street to Portland Wharfs and boarded steamships bound for New Orleans.

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Cabin of former slave Sarah Graves.

[1] 1790 slave statics US Census (accessed November 23, 2012).  Slave holding statistics (J. B. Hudson 2002) 14.

[2] Darrel Bingham, On Jordan's Banks (Lexington: University of Kentucky Press, 2006) 13.

[3] Bridget Ford, "Black Spiritual Defiance and the Politics of Slavery in Antebellum Louisville," The Journal of Southern History 78, no. 1 (February 2012) 77.

[4] Bingham, On Jordan's Banks, 16

[5] Salafia, Matthew. "Searching for Slavery: Fugitive Slaves in the n the Ohio River Valley Borderland, 1830–1860." Ohio Valley History 8, no. 4 (2008) 46

[6] Karolyn Frost, I’ve Got a Home in Glory Land, New York: Farrar, Straus, and Giroux (2007), 5.

[7] Salafia, "Searching for Slavery," 47.

Slavery in America
Slavery in Kentucky, Indiana, & Ohio