Mapping Slavery

Edwin Hergesheimer. “Map Showing the Distribution of the Slave Population of the Southern States of the United States Compiled from the Census of 1860.” Washington: Henry S. Graham 1861. Geography and Map Division.

According to the 1860 census, the population of the United States that year was 31,429,891. Of that number, 3,952, 838 were reported as enslaved. The 1860 census was the last time the federal government took a count of the Southern slave population. In 1861, the United States Coast Survey issued two maps of slavery based on the census data: the first mapped Virginia and the second mapped Southern states as a whole.

The landmark map of the Southern states provided a graphic breakdown of those census returns, specifically focusing on slave population per county as a percentage of the total population in the southern portion of the nation. Using statistical cartography, low percentages were shown in light grey while higher percentages were illustrated using more intense shading. This provided a dramatic representation of slavery across the region. The counties along the Mississippi River and in coastal South Carolina show the highest percentage of slaves, while Kentucky and the Appalachians show the lowest.

According to Susan Schulten, history department chair at the University of Denver, the map reaffirmed the belief of many in the Union that secession was driven not by a notion of “states’ rights,” but by the defense of a labor system. A table at the lower edge of the map measured each state’s slave population, and contemporaries would have immediately noticed that this corresponded closely to the order of secession. However, the map also illustrated the degree to which entire regions – like eastern Tennessee and western Virginia – were largely absent of slavery and thus potential sources of resistance to secession.

(Schulten spoke about the map at a Library of Congress symposium last year. You can view the webcast here.)

The Southern stages slavery map is a featured item in the “The Civil War in America” exhibition, opening next month, and has never before been displayed by the Library to the public.

This map was, by some accounts, consulted by Abraham Lincoln throughout the course of the Civil War. It even appears in the famous 1864 painting of the president and his cabinet, titled “First Reading of the Emancipation Proclamation by President Lincoln,” by artist Francis Bicknell Carpenter — a print of which is in the Library’s collections.

Next Wednesday’s post will be the final spotlight on items from the exhibition. You can read about others in these previous blog posts:

Dear Diary

A Presidential Fundraiser

A Letter Home

A Grief Like No Other

The Bull Run of the West


  1. R. Brookover
    October 31, 2012 at 3:32 pm

    Did the census report 3,952,838 as enslaved or as Negroes? How many Negroes did the census report as freed? Documentation exists that states between 1.5 million and 2 million of the 3.9 million Negroes had been freed by 1860. Please clarify these numbers.

  2. Leish Clancy
    October 31, 2012 at 4:06 pm

    I would love to see a larger version of this map. When I click on it, it opens in another window but stays the same size.

  3. Erin Allen
    November 1, 2012 at 9:44 am

    Thanks for you interest Leish. Here is the direct link to the map:

  4. Erin Allen
    November 1, 2012 at 10:31 am

    Thanks so much for your interest. I’ve consulted a few of our exhibition curators in an effort to answer your question.

    The table summarizing 1860 census population figures, located in the lower right hand portion of the map, provides a total of “free population” of “8,289,953” and a “slave population” of 3,950,343. There are no statistics provided other than “free” or “slave.” A better image of the map can be linked to here or here

    There were two separate censuses in 1860; one representing the free population and another representing the slave population (listed by owner, not under their own names). Slaves were counted as 3/5ths of a person for the purposes of allotting congressional representation by population, thus making a separate slave schedule necessary. Free slaves would have been counted as part of the free population on the “regular” federal census. With two censuses, it would have been an easy matter for the creators of the map to differentiate the free population from the slave population.

    Also the map we’re discussing only cited 3.9 million slaves according to the 1860 census. The 1860 census is only one data set. You cite the numbers of slaves freed BY 1860, which would be an aggregate number of slaves freed anytime before 1860, which could potentially include a couple of centuries worth of slave emancipations, not just those counted in 1860. Slaves freed anytime by 1860 would be a second data set.

    And finally, according to “Appendix A: Negro and White Population of the United States in 1860″ [compiled from the Census Returns of 1860] in James McPherson’s book, “Negro’s Civil War,” there were 3,953,760 slaves in the United States in 1860 and 488,070 free African Americans. So, though the numbers are slightly different, the 3.9 million figure on the map should refer to enslaved people — at least according to this source.

  5. Mr. B
    September 17, 2014 at 7:15 am

    You can find a scalable map of the 1860 distribution of the slave population from the 1860 census that you can zoom-in/zoom-out and move around at:

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