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A series of pages exploring
various aspects of enslavement in Pennsylvania

Pennsylvania Agricultural Slave Labor



We know that the majority of slaves in Pennsylvania lived and worked on farms, but how they were used by the slaveholders differed significantly from the large plantations of the lower south, with its rows of slaves planting and harvesting crops under the supervision of an overseer. Factors such as climate, variety of crops, diversity in the work force, and estate size tended to cause Pennsylvania slaveholders to employ agricultural slaves in a manner unique to the Middle Atlantic states.

Did Pennsylvania Have Plantations?

Few slaveholders in Pennsylvania held enough slaves at one time for their estate to be considered a plantation, in the sense of the term as it applies to large agricultural estates common in the southern states. That term implies, to our modern minds, a vast planted landholding, worked by a large force of resident slave laborers. In fact the term was used fairly frequently in 18th century newspaper advertisements to describe substantial Pennsylvania farms. A typical example is the following description from the Pennsylvania Gazette:

To be Sold, at Private Sale,
A VALUABLE Plantation or Tract of Land, containing 140 acres, be the same more or less, situate in Whitpain township, Montgomery county, on the Skippack road, 18 miles from Philadelphia, and 4 miles from Norristown, bounded by lands of George Wentz, John Wentz, Esq. and others, late the estate of Thomas Fitzwater, deceased; there are on the said premises a two story stone dwelling-house, with a never failing spring of good water near the door, and a stone spring house over the same, a good barn and stabling, two good bearing apple orchards, and a variety of other fruit trees, a good proportion of wood land, and meadow well watered; the plough-land is of a good quality, very natural to clover, divided into suitable fields, and under good fence. Any person inclining to purchase may know the conditions, by applying to the subscribers.
11th Mo. 10th, 1800.

Although 140 acres pales by comparison to the thousands of acres, and even tens of thousands, common to southern plantations, this advertisement accurately describes a very typical Pennsylvania farm of the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. The term "plantation" is here used in the older sense of a relatively self-sufficient farm, easily worked by a family, perhaps with, but not requiring, the aid of one or two hired men, servants, or slaves.

There were, of course, landholders in Pennsylvania with vast amounts of land in their estates. Few, however, had most of that land under cultivation. These large estates were often subdivided into smaller farms and woodlots, with at least some of the acreage under lease to tenant farmers. There were other factors however, in addition to size, which differentiated Pennsylvania (and other Middle Atlantic state) farms from southern plantations.

The Northern Climate

The northern climate dictated strict seasons for planting, tending, harvesting and processing crops. Typically only about five months of the year were spent in the labor-intensive planting to harvesting cycle. The other seven months were spent in less labor intensive work, such as the processing and marketing of crops, clearing land, maintenance, and even domestic chores. Northern agricultural slaves, therefore, experienced a wide variety in their daily work. In his work Many Thousands Gone: The First Two Centuries of Slavery In North America (Belknap Press of Harvard University, Cambridge, 1998) Ira Berlin notes "Moving from job to job as labor demands changed, slaves found themselves in the field one day and in the shop the next, smithing horseshoes, tanning leather, making bricks, or repairing houses, barns, and furniture. On other days, they could be back in the field or driving a wagon, piloting a boat, or delivering a message." (page 56)

A Diversity of Forced Labor

Pennsylvanians also were not dependant upon slaves for their supplemental labor needs, but seemed equally divided among using European indentured servants and Black slaves. While the influence of Philadelphia Quakers in the latter half of the eighteenth century cannot be discounted in discouraging slave use, the average Pennsylvania gentleman farmer--the term "yeoman" was particularly favored among this group--seemed more influenced by the relative costs of slaves versus indentured servants. War, economic downturns and import duties all played a part in pushing the prices for slaves and indentured servants and redemptioners either up or down (see the associated article, "Buying a Slave" for a more detailed discussion of slave import duties).

A Variety of Crops

The type and variety of crops being planted in Pennsylvania also differed from those being grown in the south. Grains such as wheat, rye, and corn were popular, with few farmers giving most of their acreage over to one specific crop. Tobacco was grown in small quantities and in certain areas, but cotton, rice, indigo and sugar cane were too tender for the climate. The Pennsylvania farmer therefore grew a great variety of crops, both for his own use and for market, all on considerably fewer acres. This meant that there was no need for work gangs, but more commonly one or two slaves working side by side with the farmer in the field.

Living Arrangements

This close working arrangement mirrored the living arrangement most common among slaves and slaveholders in Pennsylvania. Instead of separate slave quarters or cabins common on plantations, most slaves lived in the slaveholder's house, although often in the attic, loft, cellar or a small back room. Sometimes the slave's only living space was a sleeping pallet near the fireplace. Meals were most often taken together with the family, or in the case of wealthy slaveholders in large stylish houses, particularly in the city, in the kitchen immediately after the family had been served.

Some Exceptions

As described above, Pennsylvania did not utilize the plantation system of slave labor on farms, however there were some estates that are considered to be similar to plantations in their method of management. They are:

Dauphin County:

Tinian, from Egles Notes and Queries, Fourth Series, LXXXII, p. 242.Fort Hunter Owned by Archibald McAllister, Fort Hunter held anywhere from three to seven slaves at one time and hired laborers as needed by seasonal demands. McAllister raised traditional crops, distilled whiskey and make cider for sale and for use in his tavern, and ran a saw mill and possibly a dairying operation. The estate consisted of about 300 acres, 120 of which was under cultivation at one point in his slaveholding status in 1796.

Tinian Owned by Colonel Edward Burd near Middletown, PA. A typical agricultural estate that held from four to seven slaves at one time, possibly more. Burd's father James founded his estate in 1755, and the house was probably constructed in the mid 1760's on land granted to James Burd for his service during the French and Indian Wars.  See the picture of Tinian, with this article.

Various Pennsylvania Iron Industries Although not an agricultural operation, the Pennsylvania iron industry utilized large amounts of slave labor. Even small furnaces used a handful of slaves in a system similar to plantation management. Perhaps the best documented example is Cornwall Iron Furnace in Lebanon County. Cornwall, owned initially by the Grubb family and later by the Coleman family, held six or seven slaves as furnace laborers in addition to domestic slaves. Slaves generally lived in separate quarters. Cornwall also hired large numbers of slaves from neighboring farms as its workload demanded. This operation was very typical of Pennsylvania iron producers in the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries.


Pennsylvania slaveholders, even those who owned large amounts of land, therefore did not manage plantations as we now think of them. Rather they owned farms or estates consisting of a great variety of crops, an admixture of a labor supply consisting of slaves, indentured servants, and hired hands, and greatly diversified duties and chores that depended upon the weather, season, market conditions, and family needs.


Berlin, Ira. Many Thousands Gone: The First Two Centuries of Slavery in North America. The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press. Cambridge, Massachusetts, 1998.

Cornwall Furnace Collection, 1768-1940 (MG-203). Pennsylvania State Archives, Harrisburg, PA.

Dickson, Carl A. "Archibald McAllister at Fort Hunter" in Cumberland County History, 7 (1990). Page 27.

Egle, William Henry. Notes and Queries Third Series, Vol. 3. Harrisburg, PA. Page 231.

Walker, Joseph E. Hopewell Village: The Dynamics of a Nineteenth Century Iron-Making Community. University of Philadelphia Press. Philadelphia, 1966.

Wax, Darold D. "Negro Import Duties in Colonial Pennsylvania," in Pennsylvania Magazine of History and Biography, 97 (1973), 24-25.

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