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Black and white illustration of slave auction

Chapter 03

Domestic Slave Trade

Beginning in the late 18th century, the creation of the cotton gin, the expansion of the country, and the end of the nation’s involvement in the Transatlantic Slave Trade set the stage for an increased internal slave trade.

Between 1820 and 1860, as cotton cultivation expanded across the growing nation, roughly 1,000,000 enslaved people were torn away from their families and forced west and to the Deep South, placed on vast plantations along the Mississippi River Valley. Their labor created an empire of cotton that would transform the new nation into an economic world leader. Generations of enslaved Black people were traded on the auction block, bequeathed to relatives, sold to pay off debt, or given as gifts to young planters starting new lives. This immensely profitable trade in humans and forced migration had financial, political, and demographic repercussions still felt today.

The domestic slave trade caused immense suffering to African Americans, their families, and their communities. The desire for power and profit exacted a human cost.

Painting of enslaved Black people

Section IIBusiness of the Trade

Slave dealers bartered in enslaved African Americans at auctions that took place in hotels, saloons, and public spaces throughout the South.

Photograph of Red Flag

Red Slave Market Flag

Red Slave Market Flag

Photograph of Red Flag

Red Slave Market Flag

This red flag was recovered from the Old Slave Mart in Charleston, South Carolina. Red flags outside slave sites signaled that enslaved people were "ready for sale" and often had an inventory of the enslaved attached. Sometimes enslaved children were sent through the streets carrying the red flag and ringing a bell to announce a slave sale.

Depictions of red auction flags can be seen in period images including several commissioned by journalist Eyre Crow, who documented slave auctions while traveling through the South. In the following 1861 painting entitled Slaves Waiting for Sale, a red flag is visible though the doorway. Flags can be seen in many period images of slave auctions.

Painting of enslaved Black people

Slaves Waiting for Sale, 1861

A broadside advertising a court-ordered slave of enslaved persons at the courthouse in Charleston, South Carolina, on January 10, 1859. The paper is printed in black ink with hand-written annotations along columns printed with the first names and ages of ninety-nine [99] enslaved men, women, and children. The names are numbered and grouped together into subsets. Large printed text at top reads, [UNDER DECREE IN EQUITY. / SANDERS vs. SANDERS, et al]. The handwritten notations make remarks like "healthy," "very fine," "sold privately," "dead," "shot in leg," "breeding," "leg broke," "lost a toe," "white," and "mostly white." The names listed are as follows: 
First column:
London, 55; Nelly, 50; Dick, 15; Rosy, 4
Cuffy, 35; Becker, 19
Caroline, 29; Martha, 4; Bull or Frederick, 12; Infant, 9 months
Charity, 30; Susan, 17; Floride, 2; Infant, 6 months
Ned, 60; Silvy, 35; Frank, 11; 
Easton, 3; Infant, 3 months; Billy, 68; Lucy, 50; Binah, 14; Phillis, 12; Jack, 11; 
Thomas, 26; Toney, 30; 
Becky, 30; Sammy 5; Fed, 3; Infant, 7 months; 
Isaac, 30; 
Moses, 25; 
Morris, 21; 
Billy, 45; Hagar, 50; Joe, 35; William, 20; Rose, 15;
Martha, 70; Nancy, 45; Rachel, 22; Ben, 16; Lot, 10;
Betty, 25; Plymouth, 2;
London, 26; Grace, 22; Harriet, 2; 
Hester, 25; Amos, 21; Elsey, 5;

Second column:
Jacob, 55; Mary, 45; Emma, 21; Rose, 15; Aelie, 18; Simon, 13; Francis, 6; Mary, 3; 
Hardtimes, 70; Sary, 30; Anne, 18; 
Old Peter, 70; Old Nancy, 60; 
Old Hester, 68; Maggy, 40; Edward, 19; Susan, 17; Robert, 13; Martha, 7; Sarah, 2; 
Peter, 28; Venus, 25; Henry, 8; Hamilton, 4; Cornelia, 1; 
Lydy, 25; Hannah, 6 months;
Hannah, 30; Nero, 10; Rachel, 7; August, 4; Henry, 2; Infant, 1 month; 
Old Frank, 60;
Toney, 30; 
Jake, 35; Eliza, 30; Pleasant, 12; Sukey, 10; Amanda, 8; Catharine, 3; 
David, 36;
Jim 39; 
Binah, 60; 
March, 40; 
Bob, 35; 
Sarah, 12; 
Harriet, 14

Court-ordered Sale of Valuable People

Mortgaged and Sold

A broadside advertising a court-ordered slave of enslaved persons at the courthouse in Charleston, South Carolina, on January 10, 1859. The paper is printed in black ink with hand-written annotations along columns printed with the first names and ages of ninety-nine [99] enslaved men, women, and children. The names are numbered and grouped together into subsets. Large printed text at top reads, [UNDER DECREE IN EQUITY. / SANDERS vs. SANDERS, et al]. The handwritten notations make remarks like "healthy," "very fine," "sold privately," "dead," "shot in leg," "breeding," "leg broke," "lost a toe," "white," and "mostly white." The names listed are as follows: 
First column:
London, 55; Nelly, 50; Dick, 15; Rosy, 4
Cuffy, 35; Becker, 19
Caroline, 29; Martha, 4; Bull or Frederick, 12; Infant, 9 months
Charity, 30; Susan, 17; Floride, 2; Infant, 6 months
Ned, 60; Silvy, 35; Frank, 11; 
Easton, 3; Infant, 3 months; Billy, 68; Lucy, 50; Binah, 14; Phillis, 12; Jack, 11; 
Thomas, 26; Toney, 30; 
Becky, 30; Sammy 5; Fed, 3; Infant, 7 months; 
Isaac, 30; 
Moses, 25; 
Morris, 21; 
Billy, 45; Hagar, 50; Joe, 35; William, 20; Rose, 15;
Martha, 70; Nancy, 45; Rachel, 22; Ben, 16; Lot, 10;
Betty, 25; Plymouth, 2;
London, 26; Grace, 22; Harriet, 2; 
Hester, 25; Amos, 21; Elsey, 5;

Second column:
Jacob, 55; Mary, 45; Emma, 21; Rose, 15; Aelie, 18; Simon, 13; Francis, 6; Mary, 3; 
Hardtimes, 70; Sary, 30; Anne, 18; 
Old Peter, 70; Old Nancy, 60; 
Old Hester, 68; Maggy, 40; Edward, 19; Susan, 17; Robert, 13; Martha, 7; Sarah, 2; 
Peter, 28; Venus, 25; Henry, 8; Hamilton, 4; Cornelia, 1; 
Lydy, 25; Hannah, 6 months;
Hannah, 30; Nero, 10; Rachel, 7; August, 4; Henry, 2; Infant, 1 month; 
Old Frank, 60;
Toney, 30; 
Jake, 35; Eliza, 30; Pleasant, 12; Sukey, 10; Amanda, 8; Catharine, 3; 
David, 36;
Jim 39; 
Binah, 60; 
March, 40; 
Bob, 35; 
Sarah, 12; 
Harriet, 14

Court-ordered Sale of Valuable People

Enslaved people were mortgaged and valued based on age, skills, and the ability to breed. This court-ordered sale of 99 people included five infants, Old Hester, Old Peter, and Old Nancy. The annotated document shows that the buyer valued Betty for breeding. The name Rose is crossed out—she is noted as dead.

Alexandria, Virginia: A Site of Slavery

John Armfield and Isaac Franklin were two of the nation’s most successful slave traders. This lantern slide shows the “Negro jail,” or slave pen, at their Virginia headquarters, located at 1315 Duke Street in Alexandria, just across the Potomac River from the nation’s capital. Enslaved people were held in the jail before being forced to the Deep South.

Solomon Northup, author of the narrative “12 Years a Slave,” recounted his experience in a nearby Washington, D.C., slave pen, noting, “The doom of the colored man, upon whom the door leading out of that narrow passage closed, was sealed.” Franklin and Armfield’s pen was also within walking distance from Alfred Street Baptist Church, founded by free African Americans in 1803. Today, the former trade site hosts the Freedom House Museum, which explores the history of slavery in Virginia.

A glass lantern slide of a slave pen on the property of slave dealers Price, Birch & Company, where enslaved persons would be held until auction. The image depicts the view through the outer gate into interior of a slave pen. To the left, a building with a series of narrow doors, each with a small barred window. The printed slide casing reads [ORIGINAL WAR VIEWS 1861-1865.] along the left side and [Taylor & Huntington, - Hartford, Conn.] on the right.

View of a slave pen, Alexandria, Virginia

Historical map of Alexandria, VA

Map of the Alexandria, Virginia, Slave Port

A broadside for the auction of twenty enslaved men, women, and children at the City Hotel in New Orleans, Louisiana.

Broadside Advertising "Valuable Slaves at Auction"

An Inhospitable Trade

A broadside for the auction of twenty enslaved men, women, and children at the City Hotel in New Orleans, Louisiana.

Broadside Advertising "Valuable Slaves at Auction"

Wealthy planters and dealers bartered in enslaved African Americans at slave auctions that took place in hotels, saloons, and public spaces throughout the South. This broadside advertises "SLAVES AT AUCTION" in the City Hotel in New Orleans. Isam, a "superior engineer and blacksmith," Pauline who speaks French and English, and other men, women, and children provided two sources of profit—their labor and their price on the auction block.

Illustration of auction at the St. Louis hotel

Sale of Estates, New Orleans

Slave Sale at the St. Louis Hotel

Illustration of auction at the St. Louis hotel

Sale of Estates, New Orleans

Enslaved African Americans were sold in many settings, including establishments like the St. Louis Hotel in New Orleans, as seen in this illustration.

A trade card with printed black type for the slave traders Hill, Ware and Chrisp. Text on the obverse reads, "GREAT / NEGRO MART, / No. 87, ADAMS STREET, / MEMPHIS, --- TENN. / The undersigned would announce to the community at large, that they will keep/constantly on hand a / GENERAL ASSORTMENT OF NEGROES / AT PRIVATE SALE AND AT AUCTION. / They will also receive on commission (to Board or for Sale) any Negroes consigned / to their care. / All sales warranted as represented. / HILL, WARE & CHRISP." On the back, a handwritten inscription in black ink reads "S Ward + Jones / Send me a vile of / fine Branday / Hill Ware + Chrisp." Below in the bottom left corner is the name "R. Griffith" handwritten in graphite.

Business Card for the “Great Negro Mart”

A Fleshmonger’s Calling Card

A trade card with printed black type for the slave traders Hill, Ware and Chrisp. Text on the obverse reads, "GREAT / NEGRO MART, / No. 87, ADAMS STREET, / MEMPHIS, --- TENN. / The undersigned would announce to the community at large, that they will keep/constantly on hand a / GENERAL ASSORTMENT OF NEGROES / AT PRIVATE SALE AND AT AUCTION. / They will also receive on commission (to Board or for Sale) any Negroes consigned / to their care. / All sales warranted as represented. / HILL, WARE & CHRISP." On the back, a handwritten inscription in black ink reads "S Ward + Jones / Send me a vile of / fine Branday / Hill Ware + Chrisp." Below in the bottom left corner is the name "R. Griffith" handwritten in graphite.

Business Card for the “Great Negro Mart”

Byrd Hill owned and operated a large slave yard. His calling card announced the “Great Negro Mart” where a “general assortment of negroes” was available for purchase. The domestic slave trade made enormous profits for slave dealers, slave patrols, auctioneers, local law officials, and others who contributed to the business of trafficking in humans.

A single sheet document listing sales of enslaved persons, farm equipment and acreage to various buyers from the papers of Alfred Williams Morrison. The information is presented in three columns with the buyers at left, a description of property (including names of enslaved persons) at center, and the price at right. The list of buyers includes S.M. Morrison (son of A. W. Morrison), J. L. Hughes, W.G. Boon, McGraw, and Jas. Richardson among others. The list of enslaved persons is "Boy Dick, Queen, George, Wash, Henry, and (illegible)." Also listed is "1 Yoke Cattle" and several parcels of land. The sales are listed in ink and there are various figures and equations written in graphite on the lower half of the document. There are no marks or inscriptions on the verso.

Bill of Sale for Equipment and Enslaved People

People, Farm Equipment, and Acreage for Sale

A single sheet document listing sales of enslaved persons, farm equipment and acreage to various buyers from the papers of Alfred Williams Morrison. The information is presented in three columns with the buyers at left, a description of property (including names of enslaved persons) at center, and the price at right. The list of buyers includes S.M. Morrison (son of A. W. Morrison), J. L. Hughes, W.G. Boon, McGraw, and Jas. Richardson among others. The list of enslaved persons is "Boy Dick, Queen, George, Wash, Henry, and (illegible)." Also listed is "1 Yoke Cattle" and several parcels of land. The sales are listed in ink and there are various figures and equations written in graphite on the lower half of the document. There are no marks or inscriptions on the verso.

Bill of Sale for Equipment and Enslaved People

Enslaved people were bought and sold alongside livestock, farm equipment, and land. Slave traders and owners viewed the men, women, and children listed in this receipt as inventory. Dick, Queen, George, Wash, Henry, and Jim were sold along with a cattle yoke and over 400 acres of land.

A round pewter button with "TPORTER" stamped across the middle. This button would have been sewn onto an enslaved person's shirt to identify him or her as belonging to Thomas Porter II. On the reverse side of the button there are fine concentric circle impressions within a pronounced rim as well as a stamp which is now illegible. There is also evidence of a parting line for a two-part mold on the reverse of the button. The button has considerable wear with pitting on both sides.

ID Button Used by Slave Trader Thomas Porter

Tagging Human Property: Thomas Porter Buttons

A round pewter button with "TPORTER" stamped across the middle. This button would have been sewn onto an enslaved person's shirt to identify him or her as belonging to Thomas Porter II. On the reverse side of the button there are fine concentric circle impressions within a pronounced rim as well as a stamp which is now illegible. There is also evidence of a parting line for a two-part mold on the reverse of the button. The button has considerable wear with pitting on both sides.

ID Button Used by Slave Trader Thomas Porter

Thomas Porter was a successful businessman and slave dealer. He was meticulous in his business dealings—the enslaved men and women that he held in captivity were forced to wear buttons bearing his name. By identifying his property, Porter placed his wealth and status on display, which was a draw for business.

A bill of sale of an enslaved girl named Clary to Robert S. Jardine for the price of fifty pounds. The document is written on yellowed paper in brown colored ink. The document is severely creased and has several areas of loss at center along the creases. It is separated into two pieces. The two original pieces of paper are adhered to a newer piece of paper. The bill of sale begins with "Know all men by these Presents that we / the Subscribers have Bargained, sold, / Transferred and Delivered, and by these Presents / doath Bargain Sel, Transfer and deliver unto / Robert S. Jardine a negro girl named / Clary for the Consideration of Fifty Pounds / Current Money of Virginia…” the document has the names of sellers and witnesses written at the bottom. Additional writing is written vertically in red ink on the upper left corner: “This relic of barbarism was picked up in the travels of Col. Thom Berryhill[2] Virginia All offices in the rebel Army, November 1863.”

Bill of Sale for Clary, 1806

An official copy receipt bill of sale for transferred ownership of "one Negro girl named Polly aged about sixteen years, yellow complexion and black eyes," from Martin Bridgeman to William H. Mood, both of Jackson County, Territory of Arkansas, for the sum of $600. The document is a single sheet, with handwritten black ink on both sides. It is dated December 23, 1835, and signed by Martin Bridgeman and witnessed by Thomas R. Paul and John Hall on the recto. On the verso is a note by the County Clerk of Montgomery County, Texas on recording sworn witness statements and signatures by Thomas R. Paul and John Hall, and entry into Montgomery County records, May 15, 1851. In the center of the verso is written [Martin Bridgman / Bill of Sale / To Wm. H Mood / Negro Girl Polley / $600 Fee paid].

Bill of Sale for Polly, 1835

The Fancy Girl Trade

A bill of sale of an enslaved girl named Clary to Robert S. Jardine for the price of fifty pounds. The document is written on yellowed paper in brown colored ink. The document is severely creased and has several areas of loss at center along the creases. It is separated into two pieces. The two original pieces of paper are adhered to a newer piece of paper. The bill of sale begins with "Know all men by these Presents that we / the Subscribers have Bargained, sold, / Transferred and Delivered, and by these Presents / doath Bargain Sel, Transfer and deliver unto / Robert S. Jardine a negro girl named / Clary for the Consideration of Fifty Pounds / Current Money of Virginia…” the document has the names of sellers and witnesses written at the bottom. Additional writing is written vertically in red ink on the upper left corner: “This relic of barbarism was picked up in the travels of Col. Thom Berryhill[2] Virginia All offices in the rebel Army, November 1863.”

Bill of Sale for Clary, 1806

An official copy receipt bill of sale for transferred ownership of "one Negro girl named Polly aged about sixteen years, yellow complexion and black eyes," from Martin Bridgeman to William H. Mood, both of Jackson County, Territory of Arkansas, for the sum of $600. The document is a single sheet, with handwritten black ink on both sides. It is dated December 23, 1835, and signed by Martin Bridgeman and witnessed by Thomas R. Paul and John Hall on the recto. On the verso is a note by the County Clerk of Montgomery County, Texas on recording sworn witness statements and signatures by Thomas R. Paul and John Hall, and entry into Montgomery County records, May 15, 1851. In the center of the verso is written [Martin Bridgman / Bill of Sale / To Wm. H Mood / Negro Girl Polley / $600 Fee paid].

Bill of Sale for Polly, 1835

Black women were the sexual prey of white men since the 1600s. During the domestic slave trade, a new category of enslaved women emerged, known as "fancy girls." Young and usually light-skinned, these Black women were purchased explicitly for sexual exploitation, at rates four to five times the price of women field laborers. Young Black men were also subject to sexual exploitation by both white men and women.

. . . grant bargain and sell . . . one Negro girl named Polly aged about sixteen years, yellow complexion and black Eyes . . . [to] have & to hold . . . unto . . . [the aforesaid] H Mood his heirs and assigns for ever.

Transcription from Bill of Sale for Polly, 1835

This letter was written from Charleston, South Carolina, on March 5, 1808, by David Selden to his parents in Chatham, Connecticut.

Letter from David Selden to His Parents

Witness to Inhumanity

This letter was written from Charleston, South Carolina, on March 5, 1808, by David Selden to his parents in Chatham, Connecticut.

Letter from David Selden to His Parents

At least 40 percent of enslaved African people forced to the United States arrived in Charleston, South Carolina. The port city proved lucrative for those involved in the slave trade, including Christopher Gadsden. Enslaved workers built his wharf, which would receive and house human cargo as they awaited sale. Eyewitness David Selden saw the public display of inhumanity and described it in this letter to his parents.

When I behold the frantic and delightfull appearance of the country from nature I cannot but reflect on the awfull sight to be seen at a place called Gadsdens Wharf of about four thousand poor africans naked in a maner and lous'y The most distressing sight I ever beheld offered for sale every day at Auction to him who will give the most.

David Selden, 1808