What Were the Biggest Slave States?

by Edwin Thomas

In many ways, slavery was like a cancer that ate away at early America. As slavery became one of the key social and economic institutions of the South in the early and mid-19th century, the determination to at least halt its spread into the American West crystallized in the North. As the south's wealth was largely bound up in slaves instead of factories, ships, canals and railroads, where most of the slaves lived and who owned them is critical in understanding the crisis that led to the Civil War.


The state with the single largest population of slaves in 1860 was Virginia, with a total population of 490,865. This might be surprising, since Virginia was not one of the "King Cotton" states of the Deep South. Yet in the antebellum South, Virginia helped supply the demand for slaves created by the abolition of the slave trade. After the decline of tobacco as a plantation cash crop in the early 19th century, breeding and selling slaves became a major industry in Virginia. It isn't a coincidence that the number of slaves born in Virginia between 1807 and 1860 is roughly equal to the total number bought elsewhere in the south. Virginia also had the most slaveholders, with its 52,128 exceeding the next ranking state of Georgia by more than 10,000.

Other Big Slave States

A handful of states join Virginia in the ranks of the big slaves states, each having a slave population over 400,000 in 1860. Alabama, Georgia, Mississippi and South Carolina, all states with big cash crop plantations, fell into this category. Louisiana and North Carolina came next, each with about 331,000 slaves. Tennessee with 275,000 and Kentucky with 225,000 rounded out the big slave states, although Arkansas, Missouri and Texas all had slave populations above 100,000.

Big Slaveholders

In the pre-Civil War South, most white men did not own any slaves, and most of those who did own slaves owned only a few. Even so, the big plantation-style of slaveholder, who owned large swathes of acreage and the vast number of slaves required to grow cash crops on it, is an indelible part of the image of American slavery. Louisiana was the biggest slave state in terms of concentration of ownership, with 547 slaveholders who owned 100 or more slaves. South Carolina, while having fewer magnates in this category, had the most mega-slaveholders. While four people in Louisiana owned 500 or more slaves in 1860, in South Carolina there were seven of these American-style aristocrats.

Slaves vs. Freeman

Another way to look at the biggest slave state question is to examine how the slave population stacked up against the free population. Virginia's place as the slave state with the most slaves is only logical in some ways, because it was also the most populous slave state in general, with an overall population of almost 1.6 million in 1860. Slaves therefore made up only about a quarter of the total population of Virginia. However, in South Carolina the slave population actually outnumbered the number of whites, with 402,406 slaves out of a total population of just over 703,000.

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