“I have no overseer,” wrote one farmer, “and do not manage so scientifically as those who are able to lay down rules; yet I endeavor to manage so that myself, family, and negroes may take pleasure and delight in our relations.” Not all small owners shared such similar disposition or similar priorities, and the slaves of such owners were, more directly than most, at the mercy of the moods and whims of individual masters.

It was the great planters, after all who left the most substantial historical record. There is inadequate information, too, about slaves belonging to what Oakes calls the middle-class owners. However, some historians- Paul Burton and Orville Burton, for example- incline to the view that such slaves probably experienced some of the harshest working conditions. They suffered from the worst of both worlds: They lacked on one hand the close working relationship with the owner of a small farm, and on the other hand the security, order, and sense of belonging to a sizeable slave community provided by the larger plantations.

Among plantation slaves, around half were normally full-time field hands, although efficient owners were always striving to increase that proportion. The relentless routine of the seasons required more labor in the fields at some times, less at others. On cotton plantations, the hoe was the main implement in the hands of gangs of field hands as they toiled in the sun under regular supervision to clear the grass and weeds which always threatened to overwhelm the cotton plants. Some planters preferred the task system to the gang system, particularly in rice-growing areas. Under this system, each hand was assigned a task for the day and could stop work early when he or she had completed that task.

James Henry Hammond tried to abolish the task system on his South Carolina plantation, but pressure from his slaves obliged him to restore it at least to a modified form.

Working hours were long- traditionally from sunup to sundown- but recognized breaks during the day were generally observed.