There has always been a stigma around owning slaves. Even large plantation owners knew holding humans in bondage was "wrong" (a loaded term we won't unpack here) and it was also incredibly expensive, requiring a huge investment and a bit of a gamble. But what was a small(er) farmer or a family in town to do if they just needed a little extra help, without the negative implications of purchasing a human being? They rented one, of course.
Please note: the author is not implying that the rental of enslaved persons was in any way less immoral than outright purchasing one. We are discussing this through a historic context, and it should remain thus.
The process of slave rentals in the United States dates back to the early 1700s, and was, of course, a rather informal affair. Without the consent of the enslaved, terms of employment were decided upon between two white men. Money was exchanged, and the enslaved person in question was then ferried off to a new location to work for a set amount of time, usually a few months or a year. At the conclusion of the terms, a new lease could be arranged, or the enslaved person would return to their home.
By the 1800s, the process became more formalized, and contracts were often drawn up and signed by each party, like the one above once belonging to Robert Randolph. Note the spaces left to fill in specific information: names, monetary amounts, dates, etc. and the list of what the renter was required to provide for the enslaved - it was expected that the renter would care for the enslaved property well. Many contracts were negotiated in late December, and were set to take effect after the turn of the year.
In a region like the Shenandoah Valley, where slave owning white families were clustered together and not spread out as much as they were elsewhere in the state, renting enslaved help was both cost effective and practical. It was cheaper to rent property than it was to buy it outright (often, especially in the 19th century, buyers would take out a mortgage of sorts to purchase enslaved persons at auction), and the initial enslaver would continue to collect revenue from his property as the rent was paid.
These sorts of transactions were very common in the Valley, and particularly so in Clarke. We see evidence of rentals from the Randolph Family, the Burwell Family, and the Page Family, to name a few to all kinds of people in the area. Often different slave owning families were renting to the same people, sometimes at once, and sometimes not.
For the purpose of this post, the process of renting enslaved persons has been simplified. For further, more detailed reading, check out these titles:
Davis, David Brion. Inhuman Bondage: The Rise and Fall of Slavery in the New World. Oxford, U.K.: Oxford University Press, 2006.
Franklin, John, and Alfred Moss. From Slavery to Freedom: A History of African Americans. 8th ed. New York: McGraw-Hill, 2000.
Greene, Harlan; Harry S. Hutchins, Jr.; and Brian E. Hutchins. Slave Badges and the Slave-Hire System in Charleston, South Carolina, 1783–1865. Jefferson, NC: McFarland, 2004.
Johnson, Michael P., and James L. Roark. Black Masters: A Free Family of Color in the Old South. New York: W. W. Norton, 1984.
Melanie is the current archivist for the Clarke County Historical Association, in Berryville, Virginia. She is a graduate from Shepherd University, where she earned a degree in History.