Prices of slaves on the Eastern Shore of Maryland before the Civil War – Part 3

Harriet Tubman Memorial Statue in Harlem, New York. Image courtesy of Adobe Stock.

This series of posts focuses on the prices of slaves and some of the economics of the slave system as discussed in the book Bound for the Promised Land: Harriet Tubman: Portrait of an American Hero, by Kate Clifford Larson.

First post:  introduction, why discuss prices, manumission

Second post: term slave, status of children


For context, a house and barn were built on the Brodess farm in 1820. Edward Brodess owned Tubman. Upon his death, his wife, Eliza took ownership of the slaves and bore the responsibility of running the small family farm.

The house was described in court documents (I won’t go into background on the messy issue) as

“a single story 32 by 20 ft two rooms below with two plank floors and brick chimney, and also a barn of good material.

Price of the 640 square foot house and a barn was $1,300 (location 521).

In 1829, one slave trader purchased 38 slaves for $6,610.47. Their ages ranged from 6 months to 31 years (location 749). That is an average of $173 per human.

In 1829, another trader sold 10 slaves to a landowner in Kentucky for $1,210 (location 758), for an average of $120 per person.

The ‘value’ of a slave in the deep south, say Mississippi or Louisiana was higher than in Maryland. Book says a slave could be bought in Cambridge for $400, transported to either Mississippi or Louisiana and be sold there for $800 (location 763).

Because of terms of his father’s will, Harriet, her mother, and siblings had a future manumission date set. As a result they were ‘term slaves.’

Mr. Brodess apparently sold two of Harriet’s sisters, Linah and Soph, ‘down south.’ (location 791)  In addition to ripping apart the family (not a concern to slave-owners and a constant fear of slaves), this was an illegal sale since term slaves couldn’t be sold outside the state.

Linah was sold for $400 according to rumors at the time.  In addition, the sale was subject to litigation by a creditor, who claimed in a deposition that

“slaves for life…as a general rule…sell for one-third more. (location 791).

According to the testimony, that would put the ‘value’ of an adult female term slave at $300 with slave for life price of $400.

The sale of Linah and Soph took place somewhere in the 1830s or early in the 1840s (location 1375).

(Are you catching on to the utter barbarity of the slave system?)

“Hire Out”

Another intriguing aspect of the slave culture is that sometimes a master would allow a slave to hire him or herself out to other slave-owners. An entrepreneurial or otherwise bold slave could reach an agreement with the owner to a fixed amount per year and then find work with other masters. This allowed a slave to pick and choose who to work for. Also, a skillful person could make more from the contract work than paid to the owning master and keep the difference.

Apparently, Harriet Tubman reached this agreement with her owner, Edward Brodess, on a regular basis (location 1361).

If I read the text correctly, the fee was around $50 or $60 a year (1363). That is quite the attractive return, since it would be somewhere around a 12% to 15% return on a market value of around $400.  (If you can stomach this whole series of posts, that hiring out concept is a slick deal, huh?) ((Yes, that is sarcasm.))

She was sufficiently successful at hiring herself out at a higher rate than she paid her owner that she had sufficient extra funds so she was able to buy “a pair of steers, worth forty dollars” (1366).

In turn, this allow her to hire herself out at a higher rate since she had her own oxen team. A decent achievement for anyone who didn’t own land, doubly so for a slave, and doubly more so again for a woman.

Another aspect of hiring out is that one slave owner might hire out a slave to another slave owner. This would happen if a master did not have enough work for all of his slaves. As an alternative to selling off the slave, the owner could rent out the unneeded slaves. A young male slave could be rented out for as high as $120 a year (location 862).

That would be quite attractive financially. With a sales price of around $400 or so, that might be somewhere around a 30% annual return.  Especially appealing when there were more hands than work to do.

Amazing how brutally effective the slave owners were, huh?

Text says Edward Brodess apparently had such a small, poorly performing farm that he often rented out his slaves.


Final post: rewards for capture, military pay

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