Distribution of Land and Slaves

Written By:
David Walbert

Distribution of land

Below is a table listing sizes of farms and the percentage of all North Carolina that were that size in 1860. We can look at this data and tell fairly quickly that most farmers owned less than 100 acres -- not a large farm, and not one that would require the work of more than a few slaves.

If we want to get a sense of the typical North Carolina farm in 1860, we have to be clearer about what we mean by "typical." This means something like "average," but there are two kinds of averages we could calculate: the median and the mean.

Median farm size

In a data set, the median is the data point in the middle. If you arranged all of North Carolina's 67,022 farms in order from smallest to largest, the one in the middle would be the median. That farm would represent the "typical" farm in antebellum North Carolina -- the one that most closely matched the experience of the most farmers.

From the table below, can you determine, roughly, the median farm size in 1860? Estimate, if you need to, and explain why you chose the number of acres you did.

Size of farms in North Carolina, 1860 1

Acres Number of farms % of total
3 and under 10 2,050 3.0
10 and under 20 4,879 7.3
20 and under 50 20,882 31.1
50 and under 100 18,496 27.6
100 and under 500 19,220 28.7
500 and under 1,000 1,184 1.8
1,000 and over 311 .5
Total 67,022 100.0

Mean farm size

The median may be quite different from the mean (which is what we usually mean when we say "average"). To determine the mean, we would divide the total number of acres by the total number of farms.

In 1860, North Carolina had 23,762,969 acres of farmland, a number we can get from historical census data. 2 Based on that information and the table above, determine the mean size of a North Carolina farm in 1860.

How does the mean differ from the median? Why were the mean and median -- or "average" and "typical" -- farm sizes so different? What does that say about the distribution of land in antebellum North Carolina?

Distribution of slaves

The tables below provide data on slave ownership in 1860. We can easily see that most "households" -- families headed by a free person -- did not own slaves, and that those who did own slaves owned only a few.

Slave population 3

Year Slave population Total population % enslaved
1790 100,572 393,751 25.5%
1850 288,548 869,039 33.2%
1860 331,059 992,622 33.3%
Slaveholding families 4
Year Percent slaveholding
1790 31.0
1850 26.8
1860 27.7
Slave ownership, 1790–1860 5
Number of Slaves Number of Slaveholders
1790 1850 1860
Number Percent Number Percent Number Percent
1 4,040 27.0 1,204 4.3 6,440 18.6
2–4 4,959 33.1 9,668 34.2 9,631 27.8
5–9 3,375 22.5 8,129 28.7 8,449 24.4
10-19 1,788 11.9 5,898 20.8 6,073 17.5
20–49 701 4.7 2,828 10.0 3,321 9.6
50–99 90 0.6 485 1.7 611 1.8
100–199 11 0.1 76 0.3 118 0.3
200–299 2 <0.1 12 <0.1 11 <0.1
300–499 0 <0.1 3 <0.1 4 <0.1
Total 14,966 100 28,303 100 34,658 100

Analyzing the data

  1. Was the fraction of North Carolina's population that was enslaved going up or down through the antebellum period?
  2. What was the mean number of slaves owned by a free North Carolinian in 1860?
  3. What was the median number of slaves owned by a free North Carolinian in 1860?
  4. What was the mean number of slaves owned by a North Carolinia slaveholder in 1860?
  5. What (roughly) was the median number of slaves owned by a North Carolinia slaveholder in 1860?
  6. Did these means and medians go up or down between 1790 and 1860?

Geography and slavery

North Carolina population: Percent enslaved by county, 1860
Enslaved population of North Carolina by county, 1860.

  1. Where in the state were there the most slaves? The fewest?
  2. Why would slavery have been most important in these parts of the state? What was the climate like there? The land?
  3. Why were there so few slaves in other parts of the state? What do you know about the geography and society of that part of the state that would help you to answer that question?

Summing up

Now let's put all this together.

  1. How did most white North Carolinians experience slavery in 1860? That is, how many slaves did the "typical" white person own? How many did the "typical" slaveholder own?
  2. By contrast, on what size plantation -- with how many other slaves -- did most slaves live? How and why is that answer different from your answer to the first question?
  3. How did where a person (white or black) lived in the state affect his or her experience of slavery?
  4. How would you describe the distribution of wealth in late-antebellum North Carolina? Was the historical trend toward more or less concentration of wealth? In other words, did "typical" people have a bigger or smaller share of the state's total wealth?