Reconstructing family life amid the chaos of the cotton revolution was no easy matter. Under the best of circumstances, the slave family on the frontier was extraordinarily unstable because the frontier plantation was extraordinarily unstable. For every aspiring master who climbed into the planter class, dozens failed because of undercapitalization, unproductive land, insect infestation, bad weather, or sheer incompetence. Others, discouraged by low prices and disdainful of the primitive conditions, simply gave up and returned home. Those who succeeded often did so only after they had failed numerous times. Each failure or near-failure caused slaves to be sold, shattering families and scattering husbands and wives, parents and children. Success, moreover, was no guarantee of security for slaves. Disease and violence struck down some of the most successful planters. Not even longevity assured stability, as many successful planters looked west for still greater challenges. Whatever the source, the chronic volatility of the plantation took its toll on the domestic life of slaves.
Despite these difficulties, the family became the center of slave life in the interior, as it was on the seaboard. From the slaves' perspective, the most important role they played was not that of field hand or mechanic but husband or wife, son or daughter - the precise opposite of their owners' calculation. As in Virginia and the Carolinas, the family became the locus of socialization, education, governance, and vocational training. Slave families guided courting patterns, marriage rituals, child-rearing practices, and the division of domestic labor in Alabama, Mississippi, and beyond. Sally Anne Chambers, who grew up in Louisiana, recalled how slaves turned to the business of family on Saturdays and Sundays. 'De women do dey own washing den. De menfolks tend to de gardens round dey own house. Dey raise some cotton and sell it to massa and git li'l money dat way.'
As Sally Anne Chambers's memories reveal, the reconstructed slave family was more than a source of affection. It was a demanding institution that defined responsibilities and enforced obligations, even as it provided a source of succor. Parents taught their children that a careless word in the presence of the master or mistress could spell disaster. Children and the elderly, not yet or no longer laboring in the masters' fields, often worked in the slaves' gardens and grounds, as did new arrivals who might be placed in the household of an established family. Charles Ball, sold south from Maryland, was accepted into his new family but only when he agreed to contribute all of his overwork 'earnings into the family stock.'
The 'family stock' reveals how the slaves' economy undergirded the slave family in the southern interior, just as it had on the seaboard. As slaves gained access to gardens and grounds, overwork, or the sale of handicraft, they began trading independently and accumulating property. The material linkages of sellers and buyers - the bartering of goods and labor among themselves - began to knit slaves together into working groups that were often based on familial connections. Before long, systems of ownership and inheritance emerged, joining men and women together on a foundation of need as well as affection.