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Virginia Slave Population Map, 1860

  • Virginia Slave Population Map, 1860
This map used 1860 census data to show the distribution of slaves in Virginia just before the Civil War.
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    A Map of the British and French Dominions in North America by John Mitchell, 1755
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    Slave Cabin, Built ca. 1830, Photograph
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Virginia Slave Population Map, 1860

In 1860 Virginia had the nation's highest population of enslaved African Americans, nearly 500,000. Slavery was established an institution within the Virginia colony from soon after its founding early in the seventeenth century. In the 1600s nearly 40 percent of the slave population was involved in the production of tobacco. Throughout the nineteenth century, cotton replaced tobacco as the most important crop in the lower South, and as a result of the demand for slave labor in the lower South expanded at more than twice the rate of increase in the entire United States slave population. Between the years of 1790 and 1860 the enslaved population of the lower South nearly quadrupled as slaveholders in the upper South sold their excess slaves. In about 15 percent of the cases, the slaveholders themselves relocated, and attempted to make their way in the cotton industry.

This map shows the distribution of Virginia's slave population based on the information gathered in the census of 1860. The map was drawn by Edwin Hergesheimer and published by Henry S. Graham in Washington, D.C., in 1861. In the bottom left-hand corner is the notice that copies of the map were “Sold for the benefit of the sick and wounded of the U.S. Army.” A personal inscription on the bottom right-hand corner reads: “Presented to the Honorable the Secretary of the Navy by his obedient servant M. R. Palmoer, Capt. Topl Engineers U.S. Army.” Other important features of the map include a reference table along the left hand side that lists each county along with the population of whites, slaves, and the percentage of slaves to the population in that county. The map was made prior to West Virginia's separation from Virginia, and illustrates the relative insignificance of slavery in Virginia's most-western counties and cities.

The map shows that a vast majority of Virginia's slave population lived east of the Blue Ridge Mountains. Many of the counties in the “tobacco belt,” such as Nottoway and Amelia had population majorities of slaves rather than whites. In these counties most of the plantations had more than fifty slaves, including the Hairston estate in Pittsylvania which held more than 300 slaves. Because of the geography and environmental factors that discouraged plantations, the counties in the Shenandoah Valley and the Appalachians had far fewer slaves. As opposed to their counterparts in the “tobacco belt,” slaveholders in the western areas of Virginia did not keep more than fifteen slaves on an average.

The South's economy was dependent on slave labor, and as a result the institution remained in place through the Civil War and up to the ratification of the Thirteenth Amendment in 1865. After emancipation, many formerly enslaved African Americans left rural areas for the cities, seeking new opportunities, adventure, and the protection of Union troops. Some advancement for African Americans was made during the Reconstruction period that followed the war, but the last quarter of the nineteenth century saw the imposition of both de facto and de jure segregation and discrimination creating a system that continued to treat the former slaves as second-class citizens.

For Educators


1. What is a census? What census was used to make this map?

2. Which county had the highest proportion of slaves in 1860?

Further Discussion

1. Why were the slaves counted as a part of the census if they were not considered citizens? What impact did the method of counting enslaved people for the census have on the political power of the South as a region?

2. With the demand for slavery so drastically shifting to the lower South, why did Virginia still have so many slaves in 1860? How would things have changed if the state abolished the practice of slavery?


Civil War Maps Site

Suggested Reading

Dew, Charles B. Apostles of Disunion: Southern Secession Commissioners and the Causes of the Civil War. Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 2001.

Dunaway, Wilma A. The African-American Family in Slavery and Emancipation. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2003.


Noe, Kenneth W. Southwest Virginia's Railroad: Modernization and the Sectional Crisis. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1994.