Data Critiques

Data Critique: Slave Sales and Appraisals, 1775-1865

The spreadsheet is divided into nine columns: the state in which the sale and appraisal occurred, the specific geographic county within each state, the purchase year, and the sex, age (one column for years and a second for months), appraised value, any listed skills, and possible defects of a slave.  A row correlates to each individual slave found in the probate records housed in the Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints library.

By creating this spreadsheet, Fogel and Engerman showcase the massive significance that the institution of slavery had on the U.S. economy and society from the country’s founding to its abolishment.  The probate records housed at this single library alone generated enough information to represent the sale and appraisal of 76,786 slaves.

By digitizing the records they also make it easier to recognize patterns and fluctuations in what slave owners took into account when purchasing a slave and how much money they were willing to spend.  Relationships can then be discovered using the data compiled by Fogel and Engerman and known significant events throughout the country’s history.  For example, their spreadsheet illustrates that slave appraisals skyrocketed during the 1860’s throughout the American Civil War. 

There are a few things that researchers using this data sheet must be aware of. First, Fogel and Engerman’s work is important, because it adds to the digitized records of slave sales.  This spreadsheet does not contain all sales, including those conducted in states and county’s not contained within the Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints library, and purchases of slaves that were never officially recorded.

Secondly, there is a problem with how the information from the probate records is being displayed on the spreadsheet.  Instead of leaving a column blank to represent information that was not given in a probate record, Fogel and Engerman have chosen to input a zero.  This can lead to some confusion when researchers are evaluating the age of a slave that was sold.  For example, in row thirty-two, with the data unfiltered, the age of a male slave is put at zero, yet a listed defect is that they were ‘old.’  Furthermore, the fact that the age was not recorded in the probate records is important.  It is possible that, in this particular sale, the owner did not know the exact age of the person being sold.  Accurately displaying this information as a blank cell provides a researcher with greater insight into the relationships between masters and slaves, and the society as a whole.  

Lastly, and most important, researchers must understand that slaves cannot be solely viewed as numbers on a spreadsheet created from the records of slave owners.  Each of the 76,786 rows on this spreadsheet represent a human being.  Statistical analysis is an important tool in understanding the slave trade and the dynamics of a slave society, but it can only go so far in representing the people who were forced into subjugation.  More descriptive primary source documents, such as diaries and slave narratives, and archaeological evidence also need to be evaluated.  This provides a more comprehensive understanding of U.S. society during slavery, and provides greater agency to the people who were enslaved.

It must have been a tremendous effort for Robert W. Fogel and Stanley L. Engerman to compile a data set of the sales and appraisals of slaves in the probate records housed at the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints Genealogical Society Library.  It certainly adds to the collection of information on slavery in America.

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One Comment

  • Maeve Kane

    Nota bene, the LDS library only holds microfilm of the records, not the records themselves. The probate records are held by other institutions throughout the country.