Understanding the Complexities of Slavery in Kentucky


By Tony Curtis

The Kentucky Department for Libraries and Archives (KDLA), in Frankfort, Kentucky, houses the largest collection of papers concerning Kentucky’s Civil War-era governors. Comprising a large portion of this collection are “Official correspondence and petitions related to appeals for pardons, remissions, and respites.” Each appeal for executive clemency provides historians with new glimpses into the complexities of Civil War-era Kentucky. One particular document, from the papers of Governor Thomas E. Bramlette, opens a window on two relatively unknown aspects of slavery in Kentucky: slave hiring and slave marriages.

Slave hiring was a common practice across the commonwealth of Kentucky, throughout the larger Border South, and in many other slave states. While plantations did not comprise the majority of farms across Kentucky, slavery lay at the foundation of every aspect of the economy, society, and culture of the state. Many farmers, from small farmers to the urban businessmen, hired or hired out the enslaved on contract. In a March 1864 letter,[1] Alanson Trigg, a plantation owner, merchant, and banker from Western Kentucky, petitioned Governor Bramlette to “remit the fine imposed upon him” by the Warren Equity & Criminal Court “for permitting as was alledged [sic] two negro men slaves to go at large & to hire themselves.” “Owing to the condition of the County will,” he wrote, he was unable to “bring these negroes from Warren to Barren County, in which your petitioner resides.” As Trigg further states, “he placed them in the care & control of John Pelty and Wm G. Hendrick who promised to take care of & manage them as his own & if the law has been violated your Petitioner says others & not he violated it” and that “there are not better behaved & more honest slaves any where to be found than the two mentioned in the Indictment.” Not only did Trigg shift the blame from himself, he shifted the blame away from the two enslaved men and toward the two individuals who promised to “take care of & manage them.” According to an endorsement written by Trigg’s lawyer, J. B. Underwood, the two men accepted blame at the court hearing. However, Trigg was convicted and fined. Another endorsement by R. B. Hawkins supported Trigg’s claims and added, “The same privileges are given many other negroes in the town & country.”

Little is known about slave hiring across Kentucky, both in the urban and rural setting. Historians have noted that approximately 12 percent of the slave population in Lexington and 16 percent of the Louisville slave population were hired out in 1860, which is higher than Eugene Genovese’s estimate of 5 to 10 percent across the entire South.[2]

Alanson Trigg’s letter to Bramlette also includes a discussion of slave marriages—another important subject, about which historians continue to learn. Trigg states that he left his two enslaved men in Warren County under the auspices of supervision, and due to the fact that, “Each of them had a wife in Warren County near a farm owned by this Petitioner for many years & on which he had kept his slaves. On selling his farm he did not wish to sell his slaves & allowed them to remain in Warren out of humanity.” Why might historians and other researchers find this statement valuable? We still do not know enough about the prevalence of slave marriages and unions in Kentucky. Yet, while not supported by Kentucky law, marriages were often recognized by slave-owners on the same plantation or farm, or across property boundaries. Slaveowners engaged in this practice for several reasons, as a method to sustain the institution of slavery, as a means to increase their personal value, and as an avenue for increased connectivity of the slave economy. In short, more slaves, more slaveowner capital, more interconnectedness —the more sustained and entrenched the slave economy in Kentucky.

This document suggests several questions for future research on slavery in Kentucky: How common were cross-plantation or cross-farm marriages in Kentucky? What structures and networks sustained slave communities? What kinship ties existed among nuclear families and larger kinship networks, including enslaved women, and perhaps free blacks as well? Were enslaved men and women allowed to negotiate their own hiring out, or was this a relatively isolated incident that occurred within the context of black enlistment and the ultimate destruction of slavery? To answer questions like these, many more documents of this type will need to be found! But Trigg’s letter suggests we have more to learn about slavery in Kentucky.

[1] Alanson Trigg, et al., to Thomas E. Bramlette, March 1864, Office of the Governor, Thomas E. Bramlette: Governor’s Official Correspondence file, Petitions for Pardons, Remissions, and Respites 1863-1867, Box 9, BR9-508 to BR9-509, Kentucky Department of Library and Archives, Frankfort, Kentucky.

[2] Aaron Astor, Rebels on the Border: Civil War, Emancipation, and the Reconstruction of Kentucky and Missouri (Baton Rouge, Louisiana: Louisiana State University Press, 2012); Eugene D. Genovese, Roll, Jordan, Roll: The World the Slaves Made (New York: Vintage, 1974); and Jonathan D. Martin, Divided Mastery: Slave Hiring in the American South (Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, 2004)

For Reading:

Barton, Keith C. “‘Good Cooks and Washers’: Slave Hiring, Domestic Labor, and the Market in Bourbon
County, Kentucky.” Journal of American History 84 (September 1997): 436-60.

Blassingame, John W. The Slave Community: Plantation Life in the Antebellum South. New York: Oxford University Press, 1979.

Burke, Diane Mutti. On Slavery’s Border: Missouri’s Small-Slaveholding Households, 1815-1865. Athens, Georgia: University of Georgia Press, 2010.

Glymph, Thavolia. Out of the House of Bondage: The Transformation of the Plantation Household. New
York: Cambridge University Press, 2008.

Kaye, Anthony. Joining Places: Slave Neighborhoods in the Old South. Chapel Hill: North Carolina, 2007.

Lucas, Marion B. A History of Blacks in Kentucky: From Slavery to Segregation. Frankfort: Kentucky
Historical Society, 2003.

Martin, Jonathan D. Divided Mastery: Slave Hiring in the American South. Cambridge, Massachusetts:
Harvard University Press, 2004.

O’Neil, Patrick. “Posses and Broomsticks: Ritual and Authority in Antebellum Slave Weddings,” Journal of Southern History 75 (February 2009): 29-48.

West, Emily. Family or Freedom: People of Color in the Antebellum South. Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 2012.

—. Chains of Love: Slave Couples in Antebellum South Carolina. Urbana: University of Illinois
Press, 2004.

—. “Debate on the Strength of Slave Families.” Journal of American Studies 33 (August 1999): 221-41.

—. “Surviving Separate: Cross-Plantation Marriages and the Slave Trade in Antebellum South Carolina.”
Journal of Family History 24 (April 1999): 212-31.