Slavery was first of all a labor system, and the primary concern of the owner was getting work out of his slaves. As the work was basically agricultural, the vast majority of slaves worked on cotton plantations. Free labor was scarce and wages were high. Neither white indentured servants nor Indian slaves, both of who were employed throughout the colonial period, could supply the much-needed work. This was the reason slaves were used to work. They were introduced to satisfy not a specific but general need. .
Many plantations were small units using only a few slaves, where slaves and owners worked together in the fields at various tasks, but when the number of slaves owned included thirty or more field hands, an overseer was hired to watch the slaves. One overseer usually directed fifty or more slaves, however, if the numbers of slaves owned reached over one hundred, the owner would have no choice but to divide his plantation. By 1860 slaves made up one-third of the population of the South. Most worked as field hands on cotton plantations. Men and women did backbreaking labor in the field. They cleared new land, planted, and harvested crops. Teenagers worked alongside adults in the fields. Children pulled weeds, picked insects from crops, and carried water to other workers. The slave's life depended on individual owners. Some owners treated their slaves well; some did not. Most owners looked upon the slave as an expensive piece of property, one not to be abused or mistreated. At slave auctions, the average price for a slave was quite high, and therefore the owners wanted to keep this human property healthy and productive. .
Most slaves were given tasks to perform according to their physical capability. A workday consisted of 15-16 hours a day, during harvest time and, could go on during harvest and milling for 16-18 per week 7 days a week. There was little sex differentiation in the fieldwork.