Texas was the last frontier of chattel slavery in the United States. In the fewer than fifty years between 1821 and 1865, the "Peculiar Institution," as Southerners called it, spread over the eastern two-fifths of the state, an area nearly as large as Alabama and Mississippi combined. Slavery thus linked Texas inextricably with the Old South.
There were a few slaves in Texas while it was a Spanish province, but slavery did not really become an institution of significance in the region until the arrival of Anglo‑American settlers. The original empresario commission given Moses Austin by Spanish authorities in 1821 did not mention slaves, but when Stephen F. Austin was recognized as heir to his father's contract later that year, it was agreed that settlers could receive eighty acres of land for each enslaved person they brought to the colony. The motivation for bringing slaves to Texas was primarily economic – using their labor to grow cotton, which was by 1820 the most valuable commodity in the Atlantic world. To Anglo-American slave owners slavery was a practical necessity in Texas – the only way to grow cotton profitably on its vast areas of fertile land. Stephen F. Austin made this clear in 1824: “The principal product that will elevate us from poverty is cotton,” he wrote, “and we cannot do this without the help of slaves.”
Most of the early slaveholders owned only a few enslaved people, but a few brought enough to build plantations immediately. For example, Jared Groce arrived from Alabama in 1822 with ninety slaves and set up a cotton plantation on the Brazos River. The first census in Austin's colony in 1825 showed 443 slaves in a total population of 1,800.
Even as Austin’s colonists began to establish slavery on the lower Brazos and Colorado rivers, the independence of Mexico cast doubt on the future of the institution in Texas. Leaders of the Mexican nation tended to oppose slavery, in part from revolutionary idealism and in part because slavery was not essential to the new nation’s economy, and therefore regularly threatened to limit or abolish the institution. The Federal Constitution of 1824 did not mention slavery, but the 1827 Constitution of the State of Coahuila and Texas prohibited the further introduction of slaves and declared all children born thereafter to slaves already in the state to be free at birth. Anglo‑American settlers were very alarmed, but within a year the State Congress of Coahuila and Texas, some of its Tejano leaders impressed by the pleas of Austin's colonists concerning the need for labor and others distracted by debates over different issues, passed a law that used the familiar practice of indentured servitude to permit the bringing in of slaves under a different name. Before being brought to Texas, enslaved persons signed contracts with their masters by which they technically became free but, in return for their "freedom," agreed that they and their children would, in effect, be indentured to the master for life. In 1829, President Vicente Guerrero issued a decree abolishing slavery in all of Mexico, but within months he exempted Texas from that order. In short, from 1821 to 1836, the national government in Mexico City and the state government of Coahuila and Texas often threatened to restrict or destroy African-American servitude, but always allowed settlers in Texas a loophole or an exemption.
Although Mexican governments did not adopt any consistent or effective policy to prevent slavery in Texas, their threats worried slaveholders and possibly retarded the immigration of planters from the Old South. In 1836 Texas had approximately 5,000 enslaved persons in a total population estimated at 38,470. The number likely would have been larger but for the attitude of the Mexican federal and state governments.
Disputes over slavery did not constitute an immediate cause of the Texas Revolution, but the institution was always in the background as what the noted Texas historian Eugene C. Barker called a "dull, organic ache." In other words, it was an underlying cause of the struggle in 1835‑1836. Moreover, once the revolution came, slavery was very much on the minds of those involved. Texans worried constantly that the Mexicans were going to free their slaves or at least cause servile insurrection. And when they declared independence and wrote a constitution for their new republic, they made every effort, in the words of a later Texas Supreme Court justice, to "remove all doubt and uneasiness among the citizens of Texas in regard to the tenure by which they held dominion over their slaves." Section 9 of Constitution of the Republic of Texas read in part as follows:
All persons of color who were slaves for life previous to their emigration to Texas, and who are now held in bondage, shall remain in the like state of servitude... Congress shall pass no laws to prohibit emigrants from bringing their slaves into the republic with them, and holding them by the same tenure by which such slaves were held in the United States; nor shall congress have the power to emancipate slaves; nor shall any slave holder be allowed to emancipate his or her slave without the consent of congress, unless he or she shall send his or her slave or slaves without the limits of the republic.
Thus, slavery was not the immediate cause of the revolution, but the institution was always there as an issue, and the revolution made it more secure than ever in Texas.
Slavery expanded rapidly during the period of the republic. By the end of 1845, when Texas joined the United States, the state was home to at least 30,000 enslaved people. After statehood, in antebellum Texas, slavery grew even more rapidly. The census of 1850 reported 58,161 slaves, 27.4 percent of the 212,592 people in Texas, and the census of 1860 enumerated 182,566 slaves, 30.2 percent of the total population. Slaves were increasing faster than the population as a whole.
The great majority of slaves in Texas came with their owners from the older slave states. Sizable numbers, however, came through the domestic slave trade. New Orleans was the center of this trade in the Deep South, but there were slave dealers in Galveston and Houston, too. A relatively few slaves, perhaps as many as 2,000 between 1835 and 1865, came through the illegal African trade.
Slave prices inflated rapidly as the institution expanded in Texas. The average price of a slave, regardless of age, sex, or condition, rose from approximately $400 in 1850 to nearly $800 by 1860. During the late 1850s, prime male field hands aged eighteen to thirty cost on the average $1,200, and skilled slaves such as blacksmiths often were valued at more than $2,000. In comparison, good Texas cotton land could be bought for as little as six dollars an acre. Slavery spread over the eastern two-fifths of Texas by 1860 but flourished most vigorously along the rivers that provided rich soil and relatively inexpensive transportation. The greatest concentration of large slave plantations was along the lower Brazos and Colorado rivers in Brazoria, Matagorda, Fort Bend, and Wharton counties. Truly giant slaveholders such as Robert and D. G. Mills, who owned more than 300 slaves in 1860 (the largest holding in Texas), had plantations in this area, and the population resembled that of the Old South's famed Black Belt. Brazoria County, for example, was 72 percent slave in 1860, while north central Texas, the area from Hunt County west to Jack and Palo Pinto counties and south to McLennan County, had fewer slaves than any other settled part of the state, except for Hispanic areas such as Cameron County. However, the north central region held much excellent cotton land, and slavery would probably have developed rapidly there once rail transportation was built. The last frontier of slavery was by no means closed on the eve of the Civil War.
American slavery was preeminently an economic institution—a system of unfree labor used to produce cash crops for profit. Questions concerning its profitability are complex and always open to debate. The evidence is strong, however, that in Texas slaves were generally profitable as a business investment for individual slaveholders. Slave labor produced cotton (and sugar on the lower Brazos River) for profit and also cultivated the foodstuffs necessary for self-sufficiency. The effect of the institution on the state's general economic development is less clear. Slavery certainly promoted development of the agricultural economy; it provided the labor for a 600 percent increase in cotton production during the 1850s. On the other hand, the institution may well have contributed in several ways to retarding commercialization and industrialization. Planters, for example, being generally satisfied with their lives as slaveholders, were largely unwilling to involve themselves in commerce and industry, even if there was a chance for greater profits. Slavery may have thus hindered economic modernization in Texas. Once established as an economic institution, slavery became a key social institution as well. Only one in every four families in antebellum Texas owned slaves, but these slaveholders, especially the planters who held twenty or more slaves, generally constituted the state's wealthiest class. Because of their economic success, these planters represented the social ideal for many other Texans. Slavery was also vital socially because it reflected basic racial views. Most Whites thought that Blacks were inferior and wanted to be sure that they remained in an inferior social position. Slavery guaranteed that.
Although the law contained some recognition of their humanity, slaves in Texas had the legal status of personal property. They could be bought and sold, mortgaged, and hired out. They had no legally prescribed way to gain freedom. They had no property rights themselves and no legal rights of marriage and family. Slave owners had broad powers of discipline subject only to constitutional provisions that slaves be treated "with humanity" and that punishment not extend to the taking of life and limb. A slave had a right to trial by jury and a court-appointed attorney when charged with a crime greater than petty larceny. Blacks, however, could not testify against whites in court, a prohibition that largely negated their constitutional protection. Slaves who did not work satisfactorily or otherwise displeased their owners were commonly punished by whipping. Many slaves may have escaped such punishment, but every slave lived with the knowledge that he or she could be whipped at his owner's discretion.
The majority of adult slaves were field hands, but a sizable minority worked as skilled craftsmen, house servants, and livestock handlers. Field hands generally labored "from sun to sun" five days a week and half a day on Saturday. House servants and craftsmen worked long hours, too, but their labor was not so burdensome physically. Theirs was apparently a favored position, at least in this regard. A small minority (about 6 percent) of the slaves in Texas did not belong to farmers or planters but lived instead in the state's towns, working as domestic servants, day laborers, and mechanics (see SLAVERY, URBAN).
The material conditions of slave life in Texas could probably best be described as subsistence, in that most slaves had the food, shelter, and clothing necessary to live and work effectively. On the other hand, there was little comfort and no luxury. Slaves ate primarily corn and pork, foods that contained enough calories to provide adequate energy but were limited in essential vitamins and minerals. Most slaves, however, supplemented their basic diet with sweet potatoes, garden vegetables, wild game, and fish and were thus adequately fed. Slave houses were usually small log cabins with fireplaces for cooking. Dirt floors were common, and beds attached to the walls were the only standard furnishings. Slave clothing was made of cheap, coarse materials; shoes were stiff and rarely fitted. Medical care in antebellum Texas was woefully inadequate for Whites and Blacks alike, but slaves had a harder daily life and were therefore more likely to be injured or develop diseases that doctors could not treat (see HEALTH AND MEDICINE).
Texas slaves had a family-centered social life and culture that flourished in the slave quarters, where slaves were largely on their own, at least from sundown to sunup. Although slave marriages and families had no legal protections, the majority of slaves were reared and lived day to day in a family setting. This was in the slave owners' self-interest, for marriage encouraged reproduction under socially acceptable conditions, and slave children were valuable. Moreover, individuals with family ties were probably more easily controlled than those who had none. The slaves themselves, however, also insisted on family ties. They often made matches with slaves on neighboring farms and spent as much time as possible together, even if one owner or the other could not be persuaded to arrange for husband and wife to live on the same place. They fought bitterly against the disruption of their families by sale or migration and at times virtually forced masters to respect family ties. Many slave families, however, were disrupted. All slaves had to live with the knowledge that their families could be broken up, and yet the basic social unit survived. Family ties were a source of strength for people enduring bondage and a mark of their humanity, too. Religion and music were also key elements of slave culture. Many owners encouraged worship, primarily on the grounds that it would teach proper subjection and good behavior. Slaves, however, tended to hear the message of individual equality before God and salvation for all. The promise of ultimate deliverance helped many to resist the psychological assault of slavery. Music and song served to set a pace for work and to express sorrow and hope (see AFRICAN-AMERICAN CHURCHES).
Slaves adjusted their behavior to the conditions of servitude in a variety of ways. Some felt well-treated by their owners and generally behaved as loyal servants. Others hated their masters and their situation and rebelled by running away or using violence. Texas had many runaways and thousands escaped to Mexico. Although no major rebellions occurred, individual acts of violence against owners were carried out. Most slaves, however, were neither loyal servants nor rebels. Instead, the majority recognized all the controls such as slave patrols that existed to keep them in bondage and saw also that runaways and rebels generally paid heavy prices for overt resistance. They therefore followed a basic human instinct and sought to survive on the best terms possible. This did not mean that the majority of slaves were content with their status. They were not, and even the best-treated slaves dreamed of freedom.
Slavery in Texas was not a matter of content, well-cared for servants as idealized in some views of the Old South. Slavery was a complex institution that varied according to time and place. In Texas, like other southern states, the treatment of slaves varied from plantation to plantation, from master to master. Legally slaves were categorized as chattel (moveable property), but they were men, women and children who clearly despised their condition of servitude. Yet, they did not live every day in helpless rage. Instead, slaves exercised a degree of agency in their lives by maximizing the time available within the system to maintain physical, psychological and spiritual strength. In part this limited autonomy was given by the masters, and was taken by slaves in the slave quarters which provided them resilience to assert self-determination within the confine of bondage. Slaves increased their minimal self-determination by taking what they could get from their owners and then pressing for additional latitude. For example, slaves worked hard, sometimes at their own pace, and offered many forms of nonviolent resistance if pushed too hard. Slaves in general did not lash out constantly against all the limits placed on them – that would have brought intolerable punishment – but they did not surrender totally to the system, either. One way or another they had to endure. This fact is not a tribute to the benevolence of slavery, but a testimony to the human spirit of the enslaved African Americans.
Slavery was a labor system and although slaves obviously freed their owners from the drudgery of manual labor and daily chores, they were a troublesome property in many ways. Masters disciplined their slaves to get the labor they wanted, and yet had to avoid many problems of resistance such as running away and feigning illness. Many owners wished to appear as benevolent “fathers,” and yet most knew that there would be times when they would treat members of their “families” as property pure and simple. Most lived with a certain amount of fear of their supposedly happy servants, for the slightest threat of a slave rebellion could touch off a violent reaction. Slavery was thus a constant source of tension in the lives of slaveholders.
White society as a whole in antebellum Texas was dominated by its slaveholding minority. Economically, slave owners had a disproportionately large share of the state's wealth and produced virtually all of the cash crops. Politically, slaveholders dominated public office holding at all levels. Socially, slaveholders, at least the large planters, embodied an ideal to most Texans.
The progress of the Civil War did not drastically affect slavery in Texas because no major slaveholding area was invaded. In general, Texas slaves continued to work and live as they had before the war. Almost certainly, however, many came to believe that they would be free if the South lost. They listened as best they could for any war news and passed it around among themselves, and no doubt many heard of Abraham Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation, announcing that all slaves behind Confederate lines on January 1, 1863, would be freed. Of course, because Texas did not consider itself part of the United States, Lincoln’s proclamation could have no effect until federal troops gained control of the state.
Slavery formally ended in Texas after June 19, 1865 (Juneteenth), when Gen. Gordon Granger arrived at Galveston with occupying federal forces and announced emancipation. As news of emancipation spread across the state, a few owners angrily told their slaves to leave immediately, but most asked the freedmen, as they soon became known, to stay and work for wages. The emancipated slaves celebrated joyously (if whites allowed it), but then they had to find out just what freedom meant. They knew that they controlled their own bodies and therefore were free to move about as they chose and not be forced to labor for others. But how would they make their way in the world after 1865? Enslaved African Americans had maintained human strength and dignity even in bondage, and Texas could not have grown as it had before 1865 without the slaves' contributions. Nevertheless, slavery was a curse to Texans, Black and White alike, until 1865 and beyond.