There was no legal marriage for slaves, but “marriages” were widely recognized and served important functions for the slave community, as well as for the plantation. One-parent families existed in numbers and the maternal influence was everywhere strong, but the two-parent families predominated–even if it often included the offspring of earlier liaisons of one or both partners–and slave fathers carved out a recognizable role, despite all the difficulties. Sexual interference with slave women by white men was always a threat and often a fact. Such liaisons were occasionally voluntary, more often forced, usually casual, but sometimes enduring; there were rare instances of slave mistresses who virtually assumed the role of the planters wife. The double standards of a slave society were nowhere more apparent. Mary Boykin Chesnut, wife of a South Carolina planter, wrote mockingly that:
Like the patriarchs of our old men live all in one house with their wives and concubines, and the mulattoes sees in every family exactly resemble the white children–and every lady tells you who is the father of all the mulatto children in everybody’s household, but those in her own she seems to think drop from the clouds, or pretends so to think. Revealingly, she does not mention that slave families, too, had to live with the consequences of suc liaisons. The situation on another South Carolina plantation, that of James Henry Hammond, seems to have been quite bizarre. In an astonishing letter to his legitimate son, Hammond seeks to ensure that, after his death, good care be taken of two female slaves, mother and daughter, and their children. It emerges from the letter that both women have been mistresses of both the senior and junior Hammond, and there was more than a little uncertainty about which Hammond had sired which children!
The slave trade was the chief cause of broken marriages and divided families among the salves, but it did not break the institution of marriage and the family, of the belief in it. Perhaps as many as one-quarter or one-third of slave marriages were broken by such forced separation. Not all slave sales were a matter of unfettered choice or callous indifference on the part of the owner. Many resulted from debts, bankruptcy, and particularly the owner’s death, when his estate was often divided. The frequent movements of owners from one place to another was another common cause.