Slavery on the Southwestern Borderlands:
Anglos, Slaves, and Receding Spaniards

a paper presented at the annual meeting
of the Society for Historians of the Early Republic

Lexington, Ky.
July, 1999


Andrew McMichael
Vanderbilt University
[Thanks to the folks at H-Shear who did the initial HTML coding]- Andrew


The West Florida frontier area presented both slaves and slaveowners with a unique set of problems as they grappled with an influx of Americans into an area under the legal control of the Spanish. They lived in an area that from 1785-1810 was controlled by the Spanish legal system, but whose population retained many of the sensibilities of American slavery. This dualism created a unique set of assumptions regarding the role of slaves in the social and legal system. At the same time, the American and then French Revolutions spawned slave revolts in Pointe Coupee across the river, St. Domingue, a major trading area for Louisianans, and back in Virginia, from where many of West Florida's residents had migrated. The adult slaves, predominantly African, constituted a foreign population within the borders of West Florida. Between 1785, at the beginning of British Tory migration into West Florida, and 1807, when Louisianans firmly protected slavery through the Black Code and the Act of 1806, the institution of plantation slavery in the southwest was characterized by instability for masters living in a land controlled by a foreign government.

The immigration into and settlement of West Florida by Europeans is perhaps as confusing as the political and geographical wrangling. Spain initiated colonization of this region on a large scale beginning in 1778 when two thousand immigrants arrived and populated lower Louisiana and West Florida[1]. During the same decade the British promoted migration, using the headright system to encourage loyalists and their slaves to enter West Florida en masse[2]. According to one estimate, the entire West Florida area including the area from the Mississippi River in the West, to the Chattahoochee in the East, North to present northern boundary Florida, contained some seven thousand residents. A more general estimate places the population at nearly 60-70% British loyalist refugees from the thirteen American colonies cum states[3]. Feliciana Parish, north of Baton Rouge and part of that city's district, was first permanently settled by Europeans in 1785[4]. A river stop along the Mississippi, served as a waystation for flatboats on their way from Natchez to New Orleans[5]. Plots of land in the district ranged in size from 31 to two thousand arpents. Twenty-one of the plots listed contained no indication of size. Of the 161 plots only thirty-nine, or just under 25%, were larger than the initial 800 arpent limit imposed by Spanish law. One hundred four plots, or 65%, were smaller, and eighteen were exactly 800 arpents[6]. Of the thirty-nine plots above 800 arpents, twenty-two, or 56%, measured exactly one thousand arpents. Women held title to twelve of the 161 plots of land. The largest single landowner was John Turnbull, who held two separate 2000 arpent plots. Although several landholders owned more than one plot of land, only a few managed to accumulate more than 1000 total arpents before 1799. The average plot was 644 arpents, or about 766 acres-large enough to comfortably support plantation slavery and host of products grown in the area between 1785 and 1810 such as cattle, sugar, indigo, cotton, corn and wheat.

The social and legal status of slaves in the Baton Rouge district under the Spanish presents historians with something of a conundrum. The Spanish government operated under the aegis of the Siete Partidas as administered by the King's agents in the New World[7]. Yet those laws did not include derecho indiano, or law of the Indies, which came about as a result of the need for a strong body of law formulated to apply only to the New World[8]. While derecho indiano allowed New World laws to diverge from Iberian Spanish Law, the Partidas remained the foundation of the Spanish legal system in the New World, and informed Spanish legal and social relations with their slaves[9]. A body of law that protected slaves, the Partidas, recognized the slave as a human being with some rights, provided for the removal of slaves from cruel masters, and tried to protect the slave family from abuse at the hands of either the master or any other freeman[10]. For example, myriad laws existed that governed the ways in which slaves might become free. However, coartación, the right of self-purchase, was perhaps the most important example of the differences between the American and Spanish systems. By Spanish law, any slave who so desired could purchase themselves out of slavery using what we might call an installment plan. In short, slavery under the Spanish system functioned as something of a contractual arrangement where the state could function as an intermediary between master and slave. The implications for African slavery in Louisiana under the Spanish are varied, but for the Spanish slavery did not carry quite the same stigma as it did for the Americans, and at the same time, for the Spanish "freedom" was the natural state for all people-slavery was not.

In this case the flexible legal system begat a social system that might have been considered at best excessively permissive and at worst almost sacrilegious by American standards. Because the law did not firmly define race and ethnic status with regard to slavery, the social status of persons of color in the Spanish empire, from an American standpoint, was similarly flexible. The Spanish social system that created and maintained slavery and race relations was characterized by fluid racial lines, and a slave system that acted not as much as a system of racial control but rather a more purely economic system that could be exploited by black, white, mulatto or Indian, as long as the slaveowner adhered to the social mores, and abided by the forms of the Siete Partidas. In practice, the Partidas, and the social system it gave rise to, could not mitigate the essential brutality of the system of slavery, which, like all other slave systems in the New World, relied on abuse and punishment as a means of control in the mines, cane and cotton fields, as well as other jobs in which slaves found themselves. But the process engendered by the Partidas, and the basis they formed for the derecho indio places the Baton Rouge district, and by extension the whole of Spanish Florida, in something of an exceptional position with regard to American history.

When the United States took control of Louisiana in 1803, it tried to institute Spanish law in the territory, and may have assumed that the American forms of race relations would follow, although the fear among inhabitants was that Jefferson would ban slavery in the new territories, citing as precedent the actions of the Continental Congress with regard to the Northwest Territories[11]. Indeed, the United States had banned new slave importations into the Louisiana territory, and Jefferson endorsed closing the foreign trade into Louisiana altogether. The 1808 slave law for the most part was based on the more stringent measures of French Code Noir[12]. This law solidified Louisiana's Black Code of 1807 that had negated or weakened several components of Spanish law, and seemed directed toward establishing the American system of racial and social control that had evolved over the previous two hundred years, and succeeded in erasing what Americans found as "the objectionable aspects of Spanish slaved law.[13]" This more restrictive code may have given slaveowners in Feliciana something to envy in terms of greater control of slaves and a more definite sense of the slaves' place in society.

The American system that existed across the river, south, and north of Baton Rouge, was for all intents and purposes static in its assumptions about race and the place of blacks of whatever mixture in the social hierarchy, yet could not have been more different, socially, from its Spanish counterpart in 1800. That institution has been correctly described as a biracial society in which white was white and all else was black. More importantly, slave law for Americans for the most part required enforcement not by de jure law, but by a de facto master-class system of "plantation law."[14] This more individualistic system of slave control did not mean that slaves had no direct experience with de jure law. Indeed, slaves could be put on trial for any number of crimes, from rape and murder to arson, theft, or insurrection. However, it is probably most accurate to follow the observation of historian Ariele Gross that slaves "were persons when convicted of a crime and property the rest of the time" in the United States[15]. Any other legal relationship between master and slave, for Americans, threatened the social order, because allowing a slave to testify threatened a white man's honor by allowing the possibility that a slave could deceive a white man, and thereby threaten the carefully constructed social order. Compare this to the Baton Rouge district of the early 1800s where in three separate cases slaves testified against their masters. In 1806 three slaves accused of an unsuccessful poisoning their master gave testimony in court that resulted in their acquittal, two slaves testified against their master in 1807 when their master was accused of whipping another slave to death, and finally in 1808 two slaves gave testimony in their own defense in a case of arson[16]. However, American slaveowners had little chance for contact with their slaves outside of the master-slave relationship, so formal contracts, as recognized by the state, between master and slave did not exist and, in fact, would have challenged the social order.

The West Florida mentalité with regard to slavery, then, combined several powerful elements. The institution presented frontier settlers with a unique set of operational guidelines and assumptions regarding the nature of the institution in their part of the world. One the one hand the Spanish legal system, with regard to slavery, brought with it certain attitudes, and produced certain assumptions regarding the place of blacks in society, and the protections that a slave might expect from the legal system. This, in turn, required a more liberal view of blacks and mulattoes as persons deserving not only of some legal rights, but of some consequential human rights as well. At the same time the circum-Caribbean region, of which West Florida was a part, with its economic, social, and political connections, experienced tremendous slave upheaval from 1789 to 1806. Slaveowners entering the region, and residents purchasing slaves must have been aware of the regional turmoil. At the same time, while slavery seemed particularly threatened in Louisiana, and as rumors surrounding the closure of the slave trade and the prohibition of slavery swirled, while in Spanish West Florida, directly across the Mississippi, the long-term survival of the institution was not in doubt. Slaveowners on the Spanish West Florida borderlands built the peculiar institution in an area like no other in the United States.

The wealth that they built rested, not surprisingly, on owning slaves, and as in the rest of the US South, the majority of a slaveowner's wealth was tied up in slaves. The Spanish government was meticulous about conducting estate inventories, and whenever someone made out a will, died, was involved in a legal dispute, or needed to use their plantation as credit, the Spanish government would conduct an inventory. In the period from 1785 through 1795 the Spaniards conducted twenty-two usable inventories for everything from death to lawsuits to a property estimation intended to establish credit. Slaveholders comprised nine of the inventories, non-slaveholders the other thirteen. The distribution of wealth among slaveholding estates, and the wealth disparity are unsurprising but bear mentioning. The thirteen non-slaveholder inventories during this period averaged 455 pesos in wealth, ranging from nineteen to 5925 pesos[17]. Of the thirteen non-slaveholders, eight owned land, three were artisans (one of whom owned land), two were farm laborers and one was of indeterminate profession.

The nonslaveholding landholders were, on average, 230 pesos more wealthy than the non-slaveholding non-landholders, and their landholdings, including domiciles, constituted about 29% of their personal value. Livestock and personal items made up for the remainder. None of the landless was worth more than 200 pesos, except for Claude Guidry, worth 614 pesos and carrying 233 pesos in French silver at the time of his death. The two farm laborers, as might be expected, possessed the least wealth, at nineteen and twenty pesos, at the time of their deaths. One of the men, Thomas Callahan, an Irish sharecropper from Cork who died when he fell out of a boat, drunk, in the Mississippi, left nothing but a trunk full of clothes[18]. For non-slaveholders the majority of wealth, if they had more than two hundred pesos, was in land and livestock[19].

The slaveholders averaged 10,229 pesos of wealth, distributed from 2182 to 25,500 pesos[20]. Land formed 18% of a slaveholders net worth-only 2% less than that of the non-slaveholders. As with the non-slaveholders, a great deal of wealth was tied up in livestock although the slaveholders also tended to have more diverse crops such as indigo, corn, wheat, tobacco, cotton and sugar. George Proffit, one of the larger planters in the area when he died in 1790, and at forty-five slaves the largest slaveowner on record during this period, grew five different cash crops on his 2100 arpent plantation-tobacco, corn, wheat, cotton, and sugar[21]. The buildings on his plantation, a far cry from the simple buildings listed in the inventories of the non-slaveholders, reflected his status. Aside from a large house set on pillars, his property also contained a not-yet completed grinding house, a separate kitchen, barns, slave quarters, and a pigeon house. When John Fitzpatrick died he was worth 6,200 pesos. The assessors valued his 440 arpent estate, with a house, at 2000 pesos and his livestock was worth 726 pesos[22]. At the same time he owned an enormous book collection that included several histories of England, eleven volumes of Jonathan Swift, works of Milton, Pope, general histories, and books on philosophy, among other things[23]. But it was his eleven slaves, at 2590 pesos, that provided the bulk of his net worth. As mentioned, slaves made up 59% of the slaveowner's net wealth during this period. As with the rest of the US South, not only were slaveowners more wealthy, but the wealth in West Florida resulted in diverse crop growth for the planters, brought more leisure activities, and enabled slaveowners to increase their wealth more easily. In short, owning a plantation and several slaves was already a sure way to wealth on the West Florida frontier. By the late 1700s slaveowning in West Florida, like the rest of the US South, was a direct path to wealth for anybody who could afford the initial investment. All that was required was to bring slaves into the territory and make them work.

The slave demographics for the Baton Rouge area tell a significant story. Of the 282 slaves who appear in the Baton Rouge records between 1785 and 1795, 228, or 80%, are either listed with either their ages or some indication of their status as adults[24]. The population of sixty children was composed of thirty-one females and twenty-nine males, for a roughly equal sex ratio, while the adult population of 162 was skewed at 68 females and 94 males. Of more interest for West Floridians was the origins of the slaves. In their attempts to ensure that all citizens received a classification by race or nationality, the Spanish tried very hard to note the origins of all slaves sold in the empire. Records from Baton Rouge list national origin for the slaves in sixty-one percent of the transactions.

The population statistics provide an interesting insight into the nature of slaves as property on the Spanish/American frontier. For the most part all slave inventories list slaves by their age, name, national origin, and value. The usual exception in the West Florida records are the small children. These slaves were usually listed along with their mothers, as part and parcel of the mother/child package. Most often mother and child would be sold together, with an inflated price that the mother alone probably would not have brought. However, at some point that slave child ceased to be an infant or toddler and acquired "value" as a commodity-as a unit of property whose labor could produce income for the master. At what age, then, did a slave child cease to be simply a child with no intrinsic monetary value, and when did it become worth something as a valuable piece of chattel? This is no small question. Samuel Steer, for instance, inventoried his entire estate in 1793 for the purpose of using it as credit[25]. Every one of his slaves was assessed a monetary value-even down to the one year old infants priced at one hundred pesos each. Steer's motivation there, however, is clear-he needed to make his estate look as valuable as possible, and so he probably asked the assessors to place a monetary value on everything. Other inventories and sales might provide an answer.

It appears that once a child on the West Florida frontier reached the age of six, that person became a slave unto himself, a valuable commodity apart from his mother. This doesn't mean that he could be sold separately from his mother. Spanish law prohibited slaveowners from breaking up families except in extraordinary circumstances, and of 150 slaves sold in familial relationships between 1785 and 1800 I have yet to see a mother separated from her under-twelve child, and have even come across one estate sale where the buyers kept together three generations [grandmother, mother, son] of slaves. The West Florida database also contains no record of a child having any independent value assigned to it apart from its mother prior to the age of six, except in the cases of property assessments for either credit purposes or lawsuits. While assessors did assign several children under six monetary value, it was always in a case where no parent was present on the plantation, indicating that while family breakup was rare, it was not unknown. It would seem, then, that by the age of six a slave could expect to at least begin to exist as a commodity, if not as an integral part of the labor force. When a child ceased to be a child and became a slave with monetary value, the master slave relationship was forever altered, and the child abruptly entered adulthood.

The origins of the adult population are more significant. While the origins of twenty four adult men are unknown (15%), 100, or fully 68%, were African. Of the remaining slaves, known as creoles, seventeen came from the United States (10%), five from Baton Rouge and five from the Caribbean (3% each), and one man was from Portugal. The sex ratios, with regard to origin, remained in favor of Africans who made up roughly seventy percent of the men and sixty-four percent of the women. While the "unknowns" will forever remain that, even if we assume that they are not African but rather hail from one of the other four places, the numbers still tell of an overwhelmingly African slave population in Spanish West Florida[26].

These figures means several things for the residents. Sixty-four of the 282 slaves lived in some kind of family arrangement, whether as children or as husband or wife, which could be an indicator of future growth. From 1785 through 1795, however, a high proportion of Africans in the population could indicate either a high rate of mortality among the slaves, or a rapid introduction of new slaves to satisfy an expansion of settlement. Among the 101 slaves sold in Baton Rouge during this period, 49 came from slave dealers importing slaves from Africa, and the United States, and unknown parts. Non-slavedealing Baton Rouge residents conducted the remainder of the sales amongst themselves. This also means that there was something of a dual social system for the masters and slaves. While the masters might have had trouble verbally communicating with their African slaves, relying instead on third-party interpreters and force as a way to explain orders, no such barrier would have existed between masters and the creole children. The possibility exists, although unprovable, of a closer relationship between the masters and slave children than between masters and slave adults.

More importantly, though, this high proportion of African-born slaves had the potential to be distinctly dangerous for West Florida planters, for whom slaves represented 59% of their wealth. Natives of a foreign part of the world, speaking a foreign tongue, and chafing under the bonds of servitude, slaves would naturally resent their station. While freedom for slaves in the Spanish empire came more easily than it did under the French or Americans, freedom nevertheless remained elusive. Despite the fact that West Florida slaveowners possessed greater wealth than their non-slaveholding neighbors, area slaveholders had only to look at the world around them to see trouble on the horizon, and to see instability at home. The French Revolution had begun in 1789 and initially produced divided American loyalties. It also reverberated throughout the Caribbean world when the slaves of St. Domingue revolted against their masters. In 1793 refugees from St. Domingue began to show up in Louisiana. In early 1795 slaves, free blacks, and several whites in the Point Coupee Parish of then-Spanish Louisiana, directly across the Mississippi river from Feliciana Parish and Baton Rouge, plotted to overthrow the slave system through the murder of masters, uncooperative slaves and free blacks. In fact, during the period under consideration here, David Gaspar has counted fifty-two separate slave rebellions and conspiracies in the circum-Caribbean area[27]. Perhaps just as importantly for residents of West Florida, on Sunday August 31, 1800, word spread through Richmond of a plot by Thomas Prosser's slave Gabriel to incite a slave uprising. West Floridians, with relatives back in Virginia and Maryland, could not help but have heard of both these revolts.

The Revolutionary ideology that many planters fled during the Revolution could infect their slaves, too. The plantation economy was changing as well. As planters converted to cotton and moved further away from indigo, future economic fortune was not assured. Finally, the African population, speaking a foreign tongue, could plot their maters' demise right under their noses without the slaveowner's ever knowing. Such a problem was easily preventable, though, as long as the Spanish government helped West Florida's residents retain the tight control over their slaves. Any threat to the growing wealth, any signs of weakness on the part of the Spanish, any serious tests of the master/slave relationship in this diverse, but largely American area-in short any suggestions of an inability to control the slaves could have dire consequences for the Spanish.


[1] Daniel Usner, Indians, Settlers, & Slaves in a Frontier Exchange Economy: The Lower Mississippi Valley Before 1783 (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press 1992), 110.
[2] Ibid., 111-112.
[3] Ibid, 113; J. Barton Starr, Tories, Dons, and Rebels: The American Revolution in British West Florida (Gainesville: University Press of Florida, 1976), 230-231.
[4] Stanley Clisby Arthur, The Story of the West Florida Rebellion, 16; Usner, Indians, Settlers, & Slaves in a Frontier Exchange Economy, 110.
[5] Arthur 18; Hyde, Pistols and Politics, 3.
[6] Ibid.
[7] Frank Tannenbaum, Slave and Citizen: The Negro in the Americas. (New York: Random House, 1946), 48.
[8] Ibid., 31, 32.
[9] Cutter, 107; "Castilian legal procedure rested on the thirteenth century Siete Partidas of Alfonso X... had been elaborated by a juridical community steeped in the ius commune tradition, the product of both Roman and canon law.  Transplanted to the New World, the procedure rules in the Indies as applied in the high tribunals conformed to those found on the peninsula." (Cutter, 107); Frank Tannenbaum recognized this more than fifty years ago when he noted that "Spanish law made [the slave] the beneficiary of the ancient legal heritage" in reference to the Siete Partidas. (Tannenbaum, 48).
[10] Tannenbaum, 50.
[11] Ibid.
[12] Judith Kelleher Schafer, Slavery, the Civil Law, and the Supreme Court of Louisiana. (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1994), 5
[13] Stephen Webre "The Problem of Indian Slavery in Spanish Louisiana, 1769-1803" in Louisiana History, 134
[14] Tannenbaum, 47.
[15] Ariele Gross, "Pandora's Box: Slave Character on Trial in the Antebellum Deep South" in Slavery and the Law, ed. Paul Finkelman. (Madison: Madison House, 1997), 291; Ibid., 318-319.
[16] Archives of the Spanish Government of West Florida (Baton Rouge; Survey of Federal Archives in Louisiana, 1937-40) (hereafter cited as WFP) Vol. XII, p.212-229; WFP VOl. X, beginning on 185; WFP XIII 132-140.
[17] WFP. A peso during the early nation period was equal to one dollar.  Figures taken from inventories in the WFP.  Individual records cover many pages per record, but totals for each are found on the following: I:45; I:86; I:154; I:217; I:274; I:363; II:32; II:109; II:150; II:249; II:314; II:319; II:418;. Wealth distribution (in pesos): 19, 20, 212, 137, 186, 315, 379, 495, 499, 614, 653, 1102, 1294.
[18] WFP, II:42.
[19] Ibid., II:109.
[20] The records for these are found in WFP I:117; I:192; I:204; I:258; I:338; I:379; II:198; II:383; II:460. I've left out four people in whihch their estate inventories seem skewed or incomplete.  Wealth distribution (in pesos): 2182, 2705, 4571, 4604, 6200, 6661, 16925, 23346, 25500. Slave distribution: 5, 6, 8, 10, 19, 20, 39, 45.
[21] Ibid., I:338.
[22] Ibid., II:454,460.
[23] Ibid., II:459.
[24] All the slave numbers were taken from the WFP, which contain records of slave slaves and other transactions.  I created a database with entries for each individual that contained all information known, including race, sex, age, among other items.  The slave demography data are composed of a variety of transactions, including sales (101, or 35.8%), estate inventories (90, or 31.9%), successions (63, or 22.3%), property estimations (23, or 8.1%), rental (3, or 1%). 1 mortgage, and one return of a runaway caught in the United States.  This distribution effectively negates any bias that might favor one type of transaction over another.  In a few cases the exact age was not listed, but could be determined by the language.  For instance the records listed some slaves as "infants," "at the breast," "old," "very old," etc.  I define "adult here to mean any slave over 13, the age at which slaves usually went to work full-time in the fields.  The percentages that follow will not always equal one hundred percent due to rounding.  Numbers taken from this database are hereafter cited as SD for "Slave database."
[25] WFP, II: 197.
[26] SD
[27] David Patrick Geggus "Slavery, War and Revolution in the Greater Caribbean" in David Barry Gaspar and David Patrick Geggus, eds., A Turbulent Time: The French Revolution and the Greater Caribbean (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1997), 48-49.