Slavery and Subsistence Economy

Enslaved African Americans working and living on Mississippi’s plantations faced conditions of abject poverty. Food rations provided by owners often did not provide enough calories or variety. In most cases, it was cheaper for slave owners to allow the slaves to raise and acquire their own food than to provide full rations. Within this economic context, slaves overcame nutritional deficits by supplementing their diets with food resources they acquired themselves. Their primary methods included tending their own gardens, raising their own livestock, and hunting, fishing, and gathering wild food resources. Slaves practiced these subsistence activities not only to supplement rationed food but also to participate in a trade network with their self-acquired goods and to achieve some autonomy in their lives.

Accounts by former slaves provide some of the most direct evidence regarding the subsistence economy practiced within the slave quarters. Former slaves who were interviewed in the 1930s through the Federal Writers’ Project of the Works Progress Administration (WPA) provided rich detail regarding the subsistence economy. Charlie Davenport, a former slave from Natchez, recounted that “almost every slave had his own little garden patch and was allowed to cook out of it.” Most of the upkeep in the gardens was carried out on Saturdays and/or Sundays, which were free days on many plantations. Favorite garden items mentioned in the WPA accounts included corn, sweet potatoes, onions, squash, and collard greens. The WPA accounts provide additional information regarding other subsistence practices, including hunting, fishing, and collecting. Favorite game included deer, rabbits, opossums, raccoons, wild turkeys, and rattlesnakes. Davenport also mentioned collecting dewberries and persimmons for wine and gathering black walnuts and storing them under the cabins to dry.

A number of archaeological investigations at antebellum plantations throughout the South have confirmed that slave owners often permitted their slaves to tend gardens and raise livestock within the slave quarters area of plantations and to hunt, fish, and gather wild food resources. Evidence shows that slaves cultivated small garden plots adjacent to their cabins and kept livestock in small pens. A variety of fruits and vegetables were grown in the gardens, including beans, peas, collard greens, corn, squash and pumpkins, onions, okra, potatoes (including sweet potatoes), watermelons, and muskmelons. Poultry were the most common livestock raised by slaves, though many also raised pigs and goats. Archaeological evidence indicates that slaves harvested a wide range of wild species. At Saragossa Plantation near Natchez, bones of wild animals discovered within the slave quarters area indicated that slaves there regularly hunted and fished for wild food, including opossum, deer, turtle, gar, sucker, and catfish.

The WPA slave narratives offer evidence that the food resources grown, raised, hunted, fished, and gathered by the slaves provided a basis on which they entered an informal market economy. Many sold surplus food goods to their masters, to overseers, or at markets and were allowed to keep the proceeds of their sales, which they used to purchase other goods. Former Mississippi slave Pete Franks reported saving ten dollars from selling vegetables grown in his garden, which he used to buy “lots of pretties.”

For many slaves, exercising self-sufficiency through subsistence activities was a way to work for their own interests. Tending their gardens, raising their livestock, and fishing, hunting, and gathering wild resources undoubtedly allowed slaves to feel some control in their lives and were likely precious occupations and pastimes.

Further Reading

  • Maria Franklin, “‘Out of Site, Out of Mind’”
  • The Archeology of an Enslaved Virginian Household, c. 1740–1778” (PhD dissertation, University of California at Berkeley, 1997)
  • Maria Franklin, in Race and the Archaeology of Identity, ed. Charles E. Orser Jr. (2001)
  • Barbara Heath and Amber Bennett, Historical Archaeology (Summer 2000)
  • Michael W. Tuma, Mississippi Archaeology 33 (1998)

Citation Information

The following information is provided for citations.

  • Article Title Slavery and Subsistence Economy
  • Author
  • Website Name Mississippi Encyclopedia
  • URL
  • Access Date June 7, 2020
  • Publisher Center for Study of Southern Culture
  • Original Published Date
  • Date of Last Update April 15, 2018