I found a great difference between the work in a steamboat cabin and that in a corn-field.Former slave migrant William W. Brown, 1847
When cotton planter Bennet H. Barrow, of West Feliciana Parish, Louisiana, decided to expand his operations in the early 1830s, he initially followed the conventional wisdom of the day and looked to the Upper South to provide him with the necessary augmentation to his slave labor force. Determined to circumvent the inflated prices of the domestic slave trade, Barrow departed his Highland plantation in 1834 to accompany his brother on an extended trip to Virginia to purchase slaves, returning home with a few able-bodied hands to work in his vast cotton fields. Much to his dismay, however, he discovered in the months that followed that his Virginia slaves – unaccustomed to the staple crops in the Deep South – were painfully slow learners at cotton cultivation. By the harvest season of 1836, Barrow’s patience had worn out. Disgusted with his imported bondsmen, he recorded a note to himself in his diary on October 18, 1836: “I will never buy grown negros from Va. – or upper Country – small boys and girls may do, but grown ones are not worth as much – by at least one third as our creoles – one creole will pick as much as two of them.” By the time he died in 1854, Bennet Barrow had amassed six plantations and nearly two hundred slaves but kept to his word and never bought another slave from outside Louisiana again.
Slave migrants were “nearly all bought and picked for work,” as one southerner bluntly put it to Frederick Law Olmsted in 1854. The forcible removal of their bodies in the antebellum period constituted first and foremost a reallocation of their labor. Barrow’s frustrated diary entry, however, illustrates some of the difficulties involved in transferring slaves’ labor power from one place to another. Upon arrival at their new destinations, many slave migrants were confronted with the necessity of acquiring new skills and learning new tasks or adjusting to new work tempos, a process that could last weeks, months, or even years.