Slavery was an institution designed to create profit for enslavers. Slaveowners treated enslaved people as pieces of property to be used for their personal gain. The business of slavery also benefited many non-slaveholding Northerners, as merchants participated in the transatlantic slave trade—supplying goods to plantations in the South and the Caribbean—and as consumers purchased goods produced by slave labor. 

The three documents in this lesson demonstrate various ways in which enslaved people were treated as property by their owners. 

The 1850 census pages, in which the enslaved people on John Gouldin’s plantation are listed by gender and age but not named, show the dehumanization at the root of the institution of slavery. 

Jack Gouldin’s house, Port Royal, Virginia, 1985. Courtesy of the Vermont Folklife Center.

Alec Turner’s owner John Gouldin’s 1862 affidavit emphasizes the monetary value he placed on each enslaved person he believed was “stolen” from him by the Union Army, including Alec. Gouldin’s will from 1865 reveals his legal right to give enslaved people, their children, and even their as-yet-unborn children to his own children, grandchildren, and as-yet-unborn grandchildren. For example, he wishes to give to his son Thomas the “servants” John Pendleton Jr., David Queen, Armistead, and “Caroline & her children.” The will also makes it clear that these enslaved people were inherited in exactly the same way as livestock and household items like guns and furniture.



Enduring Understanding

Slavery was an institution designed to create profit for enslavers. Enslaved people were viewed as property and provided their masters with great wealth.

Compelling Questions 

In what ways were enslaved people treated as property by their owners?

Historical Thinking Skills

Primary Source Analysis; Synthesizing Sources

Lesson Outline

Activating Prior Knowledge

Review the Turner Family Timeline, paying particular attention to the beginning through to the Civil War.

As a class, examine the two pages of the 1850 slave census for the John Gouldin plantation, where Alec Turner was enslaved. What do the students observe? How would students describe the people represented by the census pages?

NOTE: You may have already used this document in the “Resisting Slavery” lesson. In that case, you can revisit it to underscore the fact that on the census page the slaves on the Gouldin plantation did not have names. Ask students if they can think of reasons for this. How might it influence Gouldin’s attitude toward the enslaved people on his plantation?

Investigation of Primary Sources

Read the excerpt from Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass as a class or individually and answer the accompanying questions. 

Read John Gouldin’s 1862 affidavit and answer the questions on the worksheet. Students can work alone, in pairs, or in groups. 

To investigate John Gouldin’s will, split the class into 5 groups. Each group will read an excerpt of the will and summarize Gouldin’s wishes expressed there. Each group reports out. As a whole class, discuss the similarities and differences between what each group found.

Alternative approach: Split the class into 6 groups (affidavit and 5 parts of the will). Students report out on all primary sources.

As a whole class, discuss the fact that enslaved people, cash, guns, and animals are all inheritable and of enough value to be named in a will. Note that the children of some enslaved people are to be inherited, ensuring the long-term wealth of the family. Other, unnamed enslaved workers are to be separated and sold.

(Side note for Group B: Josephine teaches Alec to read when she is a young girl. Rose is Alec’s mother. Lindsay is Alec’s half-brother.)

Provide students with a counter-narrative.  Read this story recalled by Alec Turner’s grandson:

“Alec began stealing money every time he had the opportunity—penny by penny. He was planning to save enough to buy his freedom. To ensure its safety, he wrapped his money in sheepskin and placed it in a time that he buried in his mother’s garden, planting watermelon seeds over it. He would save the watermelons by burying them under a pile of hay, and then bring them out for Christmas, when watermelon season was long past.”

Discuss with the class:

How is this a form of resistance to the practice of slave owners treating enslaved workers as property to be used for their personal gain?

Summative Assessment

After examining the primary sources, explain how slaveowners treated enslaved people as property to be used for their personal gain.

Connection to Contemporary Conversations

Discussion: Why do some people think that African Americans should be compensated for slavery?

To dig further into the case for reparations, See this Facing History lesson

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