Slave Branding

The law provided slaves with virtually no protection from their masters. On large plantations this power was delegated to overseers. These men were under considerable pressure from the plantation owners to maximize profits. They did this by bullying the slaves into increasing productivity. The punishments used against slaves judged to be under-performing included the use of the whip. Sometimes slave-owners resorted to mutilating and branding their slaves.

An advertisement was published in The North Carolina Standard on 28th July, 1838: "Twenty dollars reward. Runaway from the subscriber, a negro woman and two children; the woman is tall and black, and a few days before she went off burnt her on the left side of her face with the letter M." Another newspaper reported that a wealthy man from St. Louis had branded his slave Reuben with the words; "A slave for life."

Primary Sources

(1) Advertisement in the North Carolina Standard (28th July, 1838)

Twenty dollars reward. Runaway from the subscriber, a negro woman and two children; the woman is tall and black, and a few days before she went off burnt her on the left side of her face with the letter M. Her children are both boys, the oldest is in his seventh year; he is a mulatto and has blue eyes; the youngest is a black, and is in his fifth year.

(2) St. Louis Gazette (6th November, 1845)

A wealthy man here had a boy named Reuben, almost white, whom he caused to be branded in the face with the words; 'A slave for life.'

(3) Advert in Mississippi Gazette (23rd July, 1836)

A negro man who says his name is Josiah, that he belongs to Mr. John Martin, living in Louisiana, twenty miles below Nathchez. Josiah is five feet eight inches high, heavy built, copper colour; his back very much scarred with the whip, and branded on the thigh and hips in three or four places thus: "J.M." The rim of his right ear has been bitten or cut off. He is about 31 years of age. Had on, when committed, pantaloons, made of bed-ticking, cotton coat, and an old fur hat very much worn. The owner of the above described negro is requested to comply requisitions of law, in such, cases made and provided for.