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Slavemaster PresidentThe Double Career of James Polk$

William Dusinberre

Print publication date: 2008

Print ISBN-13: 9780195326031

Published to Oxford Scholarship Online: January 2010

DOI: 10.1093/acprof:oso/9780195326031.001.0001

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(p.186) Appendix B Capital Investment in the Polk Plantation, 1835–60

(p.186) Appendix B Capital Investment in the Polk Plantation, 1835–60

Slavemaster President
Oxford University Press

(p.186) Appendix B

Capital Investment in the Polk Plantation, 1835–60

This appendix explains the basis for table 5.1. Two major sources confirm that the totals are approximately correct. (1) The assessors of Polk’s estate in December 1849 (JP, 1849 inventory) valued the plantation’s animals and equipment at $3,830 [the figure that appears in the 1849 subtotal of table 5.1, column (b)], and Daniel Graham’s slight correction in 1850 (Inventory Book E, p. 33) of the original inventory set the value of the slaves at $27,100. My subtotal of columns (d), (f), and (g) agrees with Graham’s figure. (2) When Sarah Polk sold a half-share of the plantation and its fifty–six slaves in January i860 (SP, i860 agreement), the plantation was valued at $60,000; this is the total that appears at the bottom of my column (h). Furthermore, the principal figures in columns (b), (c), and (d) are exact. The figures in columns (e), (f), and (g), however, are estimates. The sources for the figures and estimates in each column of table 5.1 are specified below.

Column (b): Animals and Equipment

1834: Silas Caldwell to JP, Feb. 11, 1835, Corr., Ill, 94.

1838: Caldwell’s 1834 investment in animals and equipment was about $1500 (ibid.). I surmise that this figure was the same when Caldwell sold out to WHP at the end of 1836 and when WHP sold out to JP at the end of 1838.

1845–49: In December 1849 the animals and equipment were valued at $3830 (JP, 1849 inventory). As John Mairs—soon after he had become overseer in 1845—had made the plantation self-sufficient in food (even producing a surplus), I infer that he was also efficient in building up the number of animals on the plantation. For example, the number of stock hogs, pork hogs, and sheep nearly doubled between January 1846 and December 1849 (RC to JP, Jan. 17, 1846;JP, 1849 inventory). Therefore I attribute the $1000 increase since 1838 to Mairs’s administration, and I distribute this increase equally over the first five years after Mairs became overseer.

1850–60: The overseer in 1860 (G. W. Peale) told the census taker that the plantation’s animals and farming equipment were worth $3050 on June 1, 1860. I surmise that this figure would have been about $280 higher in January 1860, before the completion of the winter slaughter of (p.187) hogs; this would bring the total in January 1860 to $3330. I distribute the $500 decline since December 1849 equally over the ten years, 1850–59 inclusive. (U.S. manuscript Census of Agriculture, i860, Yalobusha County, Southwest Beat, pp. 26–27, line 38.)

Column (c): Land

1834: Polk’s half-share of the 920-acre plantation cost $10 per acre (Silas Caldwell to his wife, Dec. 26, 1834, Polk MS).

1838: Indenture, Nov. 3, 1838, between WHP and JP, Polk MS.

1844: JP, memo, Dec. 16, 1844, Polk MS. In 1836 WHP paid Silas Caldwell $7000 for Caldwell’s half of the 920-acre plantation (indenture, Sept. 4, 1836, Polk MS). Thus WHP lost $950 when he sold out to JP in 1838 and 1844.

1847: Forty acres of the 960-acre tract had been owned solely by Silas Caldwell (the other 920 acres being jointly owned), and they remained in Caldwell’s possession until his death in 1846. They then came into James Polk’s possession, perhaps through a legacy. Polk had to pay $175 in legal fees and back taxes to secure possession. I estimate the value of this land at $8.75 per acre (RC to JP, Jan. 9, 1847; JM to JP, Feb. 6, 1847; JP to James Brown, May 18, 1847; to J. T. Leigh, Nov. 24, 1847, May 1, 1848; to RC, May 1, 1848, letterbook, Polk MS).

1854: Sarah Polk bought a 155–acre tract from her overseer in 1854 (SP, 1860 agreement). This almost certainly was woodland unsuited to cotton planting, and I estimate the total purchase price at $200.

Column (d): Slaves

1834: JP, schedule of slaves, (Sept. 5, 1834), Polk MS. This list of seventeen slaves belonging to James Polk omits Garrison (who was owned by Jane Polk until 1847) and three superannuated slaves (old Charles, Lucy, and old Sarah). I have corrected the mistaken addition on this document. An accurate transcription of each slave’s valuation (except for Young Charles’s, which was $325) is easily accessible inBassett, p. 47.

1838–49: The valuations of all slaves bought by James Polk are on bills of sale, or in letters from Polk’s agents in the Polk MS. References for each purchase are in the endnotes to chapter 1.

Valuation of Slaves Imported, 1838–48

1837: Nancy. I do not count this house servant, who was at the plantation in 1837 but appears to have been sent back to Tennessee within a few months.

1839: Old Ben. I do not count him as capital investment, as he probably had no monetary value by 1839.

(p.188) 1842: I estimate the 1842 values of these slaves as follows: (1) Pompey, $500; (2) Alphonso, $700; (3) Joe 1, $750. Daniel Graham’s correction (Inventory Book E, p. 33) ofJP, 1849 inventory, values Pompey then at $500; Alphonso plus his young wife and infant were then valued at $1500. On Joe 1, see table A4, note †. (4) Bob: I never count him as capital investment because the Polks rented him (from Marshall Polk, Jr.) from 1842 to 1851; Daniel Graham’s amendment (Inventory Book E, p. 33) of JP, 1849 inventory, correctly deletes Bob’s name from among those who had been owned by James Polk.

1848: Blacksmith Harry. I do not count him as part of the plantation’s capital investment because figures on the income from his blacksmith’s business are extant for only one year (and I have not counted them as part of the plantation’s income for that year). By 1860 Harry was about sixty–three years old, and he probably no longer had any monetary value. On Harry, see chapter 9.

Column (e): Value Added or Lost to Land by Clearing or by Price Inflation or Deflation

1849: Five hundred and eight acres of the 960-acre plantation had been cleared by 1849 (JM to JP, Apr. 19, 1849, Polk MS), and this substantially increased the real worth of the land. But the collapse of land prices (after the end of the 1830s boom) canceled this increase. Indeed, although Polk had by 1849 spent $11,000 on the plantation land, overseer John Mairs told the 1850 census taker that it was worth only $7,330. I suppose that Mairs—anxious to keep down property taxes—undervalued the land by perhaps one-third and that it was really worth about $11,000 in 1850. That is, I suppose that the collapse of land prices after the 1830s boom exactly offset all the increases in the land’s value that would otherwise have accrued from being cleared [1850 U.S. manuscript Census of Agriculture, Yalobusha County, pp. 19–20 (i.e., pp. “933–34”), line 34]. Mairs told the census taker that 700 acres were “improved,” contrary to his more accurate reports to his employers, which show that only about 537 acres could have been cleared by June 1, 1850. I infer that Mairs told the census taker the total number of acres that he believed were suited, eventually, to raising cotton, the rest of the plantation being hilly woodland unsuited to improvement.

1860: Although the overseer in i860 told the census taker that the land was only worth $10,000, I surmise that again its value was understated by about one-third and that its real value was about $15,000. Of its $4,000 increase in value since 1849, I attribute $200 to Sarah Polk’s purchase of land from John Mairs in 1854, $1,900 to the clearing of another 190 acres during the 1850s (at $10 per acre), and the last $1,900 to appreciation of land prices during the boom of the 1850s. I have spread this appreciation equally over the years 1852–59 except for surges of inflation in 1853 and (p.189) 1859–By 1851, 566 acres had been cleared (JM to SP, May 18, 1851, Polk MS), and I surmise that from 1852 through 1859 Mairs continued clearing an average of 1634 acres per year. Thus by i860, 698 acres would have been cleared; the new overseer reported that year that the plantation contained 700 improved acres (1860 U.S. manuscript Census of Agriculture, Yalobusha County, Southwest Beat, pp. 26–27, line 38).

My estimate that the overseers understated the cash value of the plantation land by one-third, to both the 1850 and the 1860 census takers, is congruent with the 1849 valuation of Polk’s estate and with Sarah Polk’s sale agreement in 1860. In 1849 the assesssors of Polk’s estate set the value of his Mississippi slaves at $27,100; and it is unlikely that the value of the 508 acres of cleared land, which these slaves worked, was anywhere as small as the $7,330 that Mairs reported. A figure of $11,000 for the land’s value would lessen the disproportion between Polk’s investment in land and his investment in slaves. Similarly, when James Avent contracted early in 1860 to buy a half-share of Sarah Polk’s Mississippi estate (whose total valuation was $60,000), it is improbable that the land was worth only $10,000 of this total, for this would imply that the slaves were valued at about $46,700 (the remainder being the value of livestock and farm equipment). It is much more likely that the land was worth about $ 15,000, and the slaves about $41,700. This valuation of the slaves is congruent with the inflation of the New Orleans slave price index during the 1850s, but a valuation of $46,700 would not be. See column (f) below.

Column (f): Value Added or Lost to Slaves by Price Inflation or Deflation

As slave prices were higher in Mississippi than even in the cotton counties of southwestern Tennessee, I have assigned a modest increase in their value ($500, i.e., about 6 percent) when Polk deported his slaves from Tennessee to his new Mississippi plantation at the beginning of 1835.

1835–48: Slave prices rocketed in 1836–37 but collapsed in 1838, falling back by 1840 to the level of the early 1830s. In 1841–42 they collapsed even further, dropping by nearly one-third. Only when the annexation of Texas became certain, early in 1845, did prices gradually rise again, and they reached the 1840 level by 1848. The figures in column (f) reflect these fluctuations (as indicated by the New Orleans slave price index, which is cited below), but in a much less pronounced form: my estimates allow for a one-sixth increase, by 1837, in the value of Polk’s original stock of slaves (canceled by 1840) and for a 10 percent decrease in their value between 1840 and 1842 (regained gradually by 1848).

1849–59: After 1851 a sustained boom for slave prices set in. I have estimated—for the years indicated by the New Orleans slave price index (but at a slightly lower rate of increase)—that the value of Sarah Polk’s slaves (the ones left after she lost Charles, Barbara, and Marthy and after (p.190) she had sold Joe 2 and Harbert) increased by about 9 percent from their 1849 valuation in 1852, about 121/2 percent in 1853 and again in 1854, and by 9 percent from their 1849 valuation in 1858 and about 25 percent in 1859. Although these increases are a little smaller than would be suggested by the New Orleans price index, they are congruent with the $60,000 value set on the whole estate in January 1860. Evidently Sarah Polk’s new business partner got what seemed to be a good bargain when he paid just $30,000 for his half-share of the enterprise.

I seek in these estimates to apply the principle enunciated in the famous article by Alfred Conrad and John Meyer (“Economics of Slavery in the Antebellum South,” esp. pp. 106-10), that is, that calculations of planters’ profits should take account of the increased value of their slaves as that population grew. And, like Randolph Campbell (Empire for Slavery, pp. 69–73), I seek to extend that principle to the calculation of capital losses, as well as to capital gains, in the values of slaves. I suppose that this practice may bring us closer to understanding how planters perceived the fluctuations in the values of their slaves.

The New Orleans slave price index is in Laurence J. Kotlikoff, “Quantitative Description of the New Orleans Slave Market,” p. 35. I am greatly indebted to Stanley Engerman for this reference.

Column (g): Value Added to Slaves by Population Growth

As shown in table 7.1, the natural population growth at the Polk plantation was only one slave (from 1835 to 1849) and six slaves (from 1850 to 1859). Table A5 shows that this growth occurred only in 1847 and again from 1855 to 1859; thus, the child born in 1847 was still very young in 1849, and the children born from 1855 to 1859 were still young in January 1860. I have therefore set low figures for the estimated “Value Added to Slaves by Population Growth” in each of those years. The causes for the low population growth are discussed in chapter 7.