BookTalk: They Were Her Property, Chapters 3 and 4…Bossing and Better Markets

Chapter 3. Missus Done Her Own Bossing
Chapter 4. She Thought She Could Find a Better Market

I’m winding down, and I have just a few more chapters before I finish the book I’ve been summarizing, They were her property (Jones-Rogers, 2019). I’m really excited about reading and reflecting on Chapter 5 about wetnursing, but I won’t get ahead of myself. To review, the overarching theme of this book seems to be that white women slave owners were just as big and bad as white men slaveowners were supposed to have been, in every way. Not only did they own property, but they managed that property, and in most cases, did so very effectively and authoritatively. Former slaves’ testimonies even support this assertion. In Chapters 3 and 4, the author relates that many female slaveowners took primary responsibility for purchasing and selling slaves as well as for disciplining them.

In terms of acquiring slaves, historians apparently used to assert that women were shielded from the barbarity of the slave market. However, Stephanie Jones-Rogers relates that slave-owning women were well-versed in the world of the slave trade. They may have grown up witnessing transactions between their relatives and slave traders visiting their estates with coffles of shackled slaves, or they may have learned to haggle from their slave-trading husbands or other relatives. Whatever the case is, white slave-owning women knew the slave market well.

The author explains that, although, female slave-owners typically hired agents to manage their slave holdings, at least some female slave owners took the initiative to procure their own slaves and dispose of those they no longer needed or wanted. They negotiated the purchase and sale of their slaves, and they did so, not just in public, slave auctions, but also in the privacy of their own estates. These transactions often occurred low-key between individuals, but in some cases, slave-owners hosted their own auctions on their own property. Jones-Rogers (2019, p. 94) reported, “Hawkins also said that he saw ‘Old Miss sell de slaves what she trained. She made ’em stand up on a block she kept in de back yard, whilst she was a-auctionin’ ’em off.”

Because some of these deals were negotiated in the intimate setting of the home, slaves heard of the economic rationale and motivations for sales and developed their own knowledge base and strategies for anticipating sales and planning to purchase their own freedom. This happened because as the author writes,

For [formerly enslaved people], the slave market was a mobile, spatially unbounded enconomic network that connected urban commercial districts to plantation estates and incorporated boarding houses, rural pathways, urban streets, taverns, and coffee shops, as well as holding pens and auction houses. They also saw slaveholding households – their porches, it hens,d inning rooms, and bedrooms – and the fields and the quarters, along with the pathways and roads surrounding them, as fundamental parts of the slave market.”

Jones-Rogers, 2019, p. 82

That kind of living must have been a unique, constant, and ubiquitous kind of torture.

Regarding the discipline of slaves, certain laws enabled slaveowners to injure or kill slaves as a point of necessity and usually without penalty, unless perhaps it was indisputably and universally deemed cruel. “…decisions to abuse, maim, or kill slaves had…expressive value” in that it reinforced a slaveowner’s power and authority in the view of all enslaved people and thereby ensured their compliance and submission (Jones-Rogers, 2019, p. 79). Even female slaveowners could be exactingly savage in their treatment of their slaves. According to the author, one slaveowner, Elizabeth Sorrell, was described as “de pure debil” because of her particularly cruel way of punishing her slaves through malnutrition and whipping (p. 73). There were reports of seemingly temperate and even caring and compassionate mistresses; however, the author cautions the reader to remember that some or much of the positive treatment of slaves may be viewed as basic but disimpassionate respect for human dignity; passive but obligatory duty to provide food, clothing, and shelter as for a pet or work animal, or “calculated choices” to increase slaves’ value or marketability (p. 75).

Whatever the nature of the acquisition or discipline of slaves, the dynamic of female slaveowners’ wielding power independent of their husbands often caused problems within marriages, especially when there were disagreements over management styles and “in cases where husbands and wives each owned personal slaves or when women `owned slaves over which their husbands had no legal authority,” (Jones-Rogers, 2019, p. 60). For example, some women had rules about how their slaves would be disciplined, and those varied based on a variety of factors, including to whom the slave in question belonged, in which domain the slave worked (e.g., field or home), what the slave’s sex was, who must be present, the extent of the brutality inflicted, and who would be the punisher. When husbands, or anyone else for that matter (e.g., overseers, people to whom slaves were hired out) violated their rules, the female owners acted in accordance with all of the legal options available to them, as explained in previous BookTalks.


Jones-Rogers, S.E. (2019). They were her property:  white women as slave owners in the American South. Yale University Press.

Published by GenealogyGriot

Tameka Miller is a genealogist, psychologist, and full-time homemaker and homeschool educator. She has been a genealogy researcher and family historian for over 20 years.

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