What Happened to Slaves When their Owners Died?

Students will read slaveowners' wills to see what the death of slaveowners meant to their human property.

Instructional Objectives
Materials, Equipment, and Student Background Required
Historical Background
Follow-up, Extension, and Assessment

Instructional Objectives

National History Standards

Virginia Standards of Learning

National Council for the Social Studies

Materials, setting, and student background required

This class can be done in a networked computer laboratory or in a traditional classroom setting.

Networked lab: There should be a computer for each team of 2-4 students. Print and copy the Student Worksheet (it will be two pages) in advance, and have the URL that the students should go to posted in a prominent place: http://valley.lib.virginia.edu/. . . . Students should have the Student Worksheet and a pen or pencil with them while they work at their computers. Students should be familiar with how a browser works, including how to navigate between two open browser windows.

Traditional Classroom: Print and copy the following in advance:

Student Worksheet

Last Will and Testament of Mary M. Burton

Will and Testament of Mary G. Calhoon

Will and Testament of Henry Kenneday

Will and Testament of Robert Christian


Historical Background
Slaves were legally defined as property: slaves could be bought, sold, rented, and bequeathed in wills. Occasionally, slaveowners freed their slaves in their wills. George Washington not only freed his slaves, he also established a fund to provide financial support to the former slaves in their old age. In contrast, Thomas Jefferson's slaves were sold shortly after he died in order to provide money to pay off some of Jefferson's outstanding debts.


Brief students on background material as necessary.

Put students in groups of two to three students. Handout worksheets, and, if you are in a computer lab, assign each group to a computer. Make sure that the URL is posted in a prominent place: http://valley.lib.virginia.edu/. . . .

Students should follow the instructions on the worksheet, reading the four wills and filling out the chart.

Teachers may choose to have students read one will instead of all four, assigning each will to a quarter of the class. Doing so could make the whole-group discussion more interesting, since not all students will have read the same material.

When the students have finished the worksheet to your satisfaction, recovene the class as a whole group, and go over the worksheet together.

Discussion questions:

Follow-up, Assessment, and Extensions

1. Write a one-act play that takes place in the slave quarters of a dying slaveowner. The slaves will discuss what they think might happen to them.

2. Explore the following sections of the archive and write an essay or research paper on slavery that combines the material you have found with secondary sources on slavery.

Slavery and Politics newspaper transcriptions
African Americans/Race Relations newspaper transcriptions
Slaveowner census

Go back to "Valley of the Shadow in the Classroom" homepage.

This material was developed by Alice Carter for the University of Virginia's Curry School of Education.