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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.

Illustration of slave auction

Section IPolitical & Economic Power vs. Black Power

The Domestic Slave Trade was a business, and at the heart of it were the people. African Americans resisted their dehumanization even as they were commodified and traded.

Domestic Slave Trade

Domestic Slave Trade

Representatives and direct Taxes shall be apportioned among the several States which may be included within this Union, according to their respective Numbers, which shall be determined by adding to the whole Number of free Persons, including those bound to Service for a Term of Years, and excluding Indians not taxed, three fifths of all other Persons.

U.S. Constitution, Article I, Section 2

Political Implications of the 3/5ths Compromise

The Three-fifths Compromise of the United States Constitution counted enslaved people as three-fifths of a person. The population growth resulting from the forced migration of at least one million enslaved African Americans to the Deep South gave the southern states a third more seats in Congress, allowing enslavers’ interests to dominate government.

Print showing men looking over the enslaved

Armfield Oversees a Coffle of Enslaved

Franklin and Armfield, Slave Traders

Print showing men looking over the enslaved

Armfield Oversees a Coffle of Enslaved

Isaac Franklin and John Armfield were two of the nation’s most successful slave traders. Based in Alexandria, Virginia, they traded thousands of African Americans to the Deep South and secured millions in profit. Their ship manifest states: “The negroes within named . . . have not been imported to the U.S. since January [1808] . . . are held to service in labor as slaves and are not entitled to freedom.” This language showed their compliance with the government regulated slave trade.

Image of ship manifest

Franklin and Armfield Ship Manifest, 1833

A handwritten ship's manifest, detailing the transport of ninety-two (92) enslaved persons. The document consists of a single sheet of off-white paper folded in half, with text handwritten in black ink on all pages. On the first page is a sworn, signed statement that the enslaved persons named within the document were not imported after January 1, 1808. Inside and on the back page, the names of ninety-two (92) enslaved persons are listed along with information on "Age," "Feet," "Inch," and "Colour." In the Remarks field, written vertically next to the names of enslaved persons 1-33 is: [Manifest of Negroes, Mulattoes, and persons of Colour, taken on board the Brig Uneas, whereof Joseph C. Moore is Master, further 155 1/25 Tons, to be transported from the Port of Alexandria, in the District of Columbia for the purpose of being sold or disposed of as slaves, or to be held to service or labour. Shipped by Franklin and Armfield over to Isaac Franklin New Orleans.].

The paper is creased twice horizontally as if to fold it into thirds. There is a hole at the center that extends through all pages.

Franklin and Armfield Ship Manifest

On the Block

The auction block was a site of fear, humiliation, and uncertainty where loved ones were separated for life. Auction blocks could be found from colonial times well into the antebellum period. They were often seen in the public square and jail yards, and at slave-trading offices, hotels, the docks, and courthouses. African Americans endured being sold on the block and being devalued to mere laboring hands, feet, backs, and wombs.

Illustration of slave auction

Enslaved Black family sold at auction in Richmond, Virginia

A large gray carved marble Calc-silicate shist stone with a flattened top and bottom, squared back and sides, and a rounded front used as a slave auction block in Hagerstown, Maryland. A rectangular metal plaque is screwed to the top of the stone, with embossed text reading “GENERAL ANDREW JACKSON / AND HENRY CLAY / SPOKE FROM THIS SLAVE BLOCK / IN HAGERSTOWN / DURING THE YEAR 1830.”

Auction Block

The Hagerstown Auction Block

A large gray carved marble Calc-silicate shist stone with a flattened top and bottom, squared back and sides, and a rounded front used as a slave auction block in Hagerstown, Maryland. A rectangular metal plaque is screwed to the top of the stone, with embossed text reading “GENERAL ANDREW JACKSON / AND HENRY CLAY / SPOKE FROM THIS SLAVE BLOCK / IN HAGERSTOWN / DURING THE YEAR 1830.”

Auction Block

Many African Americans, it is believed, were sold from this block as slaves, fugitives, and kidnapped free men, women, and children. Hagerstown, Maryland, was a hotbed of fugitive slave activity and slave trading. Because it was so close to Pennsylvania, a free state, the local sheriff made money by capturing and selling accused fugitives. Ads announced the sales of enslaved people in the courthouse and in the jail yard, common sites for slave auctions in most states.

Auction blocks tell an unvarnished truth. But as iconic objects of slavery, they are often viewed with great skepticism. Slave auction ads and statements from observers help authenticate these objects across the United States. Yet slavery remains an emotionally charged subject, and even the most thoroughly documented artifacts are contested.

A strong iron collar was closely fitted by means of a padlock round each of our necks. A chain of iron about a hundred feet long was passed through the hasp of each padlock . . . we were handcuffed in pairs.

Charles Ball, 1837

Wrought iron collar with a three inch locking device and a three inch key. The collar is made up of two pieces of iron attached with a hinged, chain link back. Each end of the collar has an eyelet that can overlap and the lock can be inserted in to. The lock has a cylinder locking mechanism and a curved shackle hinged on one side. The key has an eyelet on one end and a shoulder in the middle of the shaft. The teeth of the key are threaded like a screw.

Slave Collar and Key

Wrought iron collar with a three inch locking device and a three inch key. The collar is made up of two pieces of iron attached with a hinged, chain link back. Each end of the collar has an eyelet that can overlap and the lock can be inserted in to. The lock has a cylinder locking mechanism and a curved shackle hinged on one side. The key has an eyelet on one end and a shoulder in the middle of the shaft. The teeth of the key are threaded like a screw.

Slave Collar and Key

Wearing collars like this one, enslaved people were restrained and chained together as they were marched in coffles to the Deep South.

Black and white illustration

Enslaved father sold away from his family

People and Profit

Black and white illustration

Enslaved father sold away from his family

In the domestic slave trade, the brutality that connected people and profit was clearly on display. Dealers were meticulous in their assessment of the value of enslaved people. During slave sales, enslaved people were forced to deliver a good showing to bring in the most profit; a glum display sometimes brought a whipping. Pleading for loved ones was not tolerated. Slave dealers believed such behavior made for a poor business environment, which cost time and money.

Illustrations of enslaved loved ones torn apart—thousands of families separated by the domestic slave trade—were used in antislavery propaganda, including in the 1860 publication The Child’s Anti-Slavery Book. But the books did little to limit the multitude of enslaved people forced into deadly labor in the Deep South.

A legal notice of judgment against George W. Davis in favor of George Schultz for $2,434.20 where Andrew County, Missouri sheriff Edward Rupell announces that he will sell enslaved persons belonging to Davis to settle his debt. The document consists of a pre-printed form with [SHERIFF'S SALE.] at the top and the names, amounts, date and other details completed by hand. the list of enslaved persons is handwritten on a second sheet of blue paper adhered to the bottom of the first. The list reads: 

[One negro man named Martin aged 33 years

one negro woman named Walker aged 23 years

one negro woman named Rachel aged 37 years

one negro girl named Amanda aged 10 years

one negro girl named Alice aged 6 years

one negro girl named Polly aged 6 years

and one negro girl named Addie aged 3 years]

The document is signed [Edward Rupell Sheriff of Andrew County Missouri].

A Sheriff’s Seizure and Sale of Seven Enslaved Persons

A Sheriff’s Seizure and Sale of Seven Enslaved Persons

A legal notice of judgment against George W. Davis in favor of George Schultz for $2,434.20 where Andrew County, Missouri sheriff Edward Rupell announces that he will sell enslaved persons belonging to Davis to settle his debt. The document consists of a pre-printed form with [SHERIFF'S SALE.] at the top and the names, amounts, date and other details completed by hand. the list of enslaved persons is handwritten on a second sheet of blue paper adhered to the bottom of the first. The list reads: 

[One negro man named Martin aged 33 years

one negro woman named Walker aged 23 years

one negro woman named Rachel aged 37 years

one negro girl named Amanda aged 10 years

one negro girl named Alice aged 6 years

one negro girl named Polly aged 6 years

and one negro girl named Addie aged 3 years]

The document is signed [Edward Rupell Sheriff of Andrew County Missouri].

A Sheriff’s Seizure and Sale of Seven Enslaved Persons

Sheriffs could take and sell enslaved Black people, in compliance with court orders, as a seizure of property to settle a debt. This legal notice announces that a sheriff will sell Martin, Walker, Rachel, Amanda, Alice, Polly, and Addie at public auction to satisfy their slave owner’s debt of $2,434.20.

Newspaper advertisement for the sale of two enslaved persons

Hagerstown Tavern Bill of Sale, 1815

Slave Auctions in Maryland

Newspaper advertisement for the sale of two enslaved persons

Hagerstown Tavern Bill of Sale, 1815

Enslaved men, women, and children were sold alongside establishments in which they worked. This public sale announcement from Hagerstown, Maryland, in 1815 documents the sale of a man, woman, and young girl—possibly a family—alongside a tavern and its various furnishings. However, there was no guarantee the group would be able to stay together or that they would remain in the region. Sales such as this focused on the highest bidder without considering the human cost.

A broadside with printed black text on off-white paper. Large, bold text at the top reads [$1000 / REWARD!] Followed by smaller text reading [RAN AWAY from the subscribers on the night of the 5th inst. a NEGRO MAN named / George, / aged 22 or 23 years, 5 feet 7 or 8 inches in height] and goes on to describe his appearance and possible clothing, which includes [a green frock cloth coat, with a black velvet collar, a low-crowned white silk hat]. The text then continues on to describe [one negro BOY, aged 25 or twenty-six years; named / Jefferson], as well as [One negro girl named ESTHER (nicknamed Puss,) aged 17 or 18, black, tall, slim and regularly proportioned, - diffident and serious, embarrassed hen addressed, and at the same time picks or plays with fingers.] who is the sister of George, and [a girl named AMANDA, aged 15 or 16, a dark copper colored mulatto, thick and heavy set, 5 ft. 4 inches high, has a sullen and impudent look, a large head of hair, and a green lincy dress.] The text goes on to give the terms of the reward, which promised $300 for either George or Jefferson and $200 for either Esther or Amanda. At bottom left is [Germantown, Mason Co. Ky. / 20th January, 1840] and at bottom right are the names of the posters: [ANDERSON DONIPHAN / JOSEPH FRAZEE / JOHN D. MORFORD]. There is considerable loss at the bottom right corner of the page.

Broadside for Fugitives

Self-Liberation

A broadside with printed black text on off-white paper. Large, bold text at the top reads [$1000 / REWARD!] Followed by smaller text reading [RAN AWAY from the subscribers on the night of the 5th inst. a NEGRO MAN named / George, / aged 22 or 23 years, 5 feet 7 or 8 inches in height] and goes on to describe his appearance and possible clothing, which includes [a green frock cloth coat, with a black velvet collar, a low-crowned white silk hat]. The text then continues on to describe [one negro BOY, aged 25 or twenty-six years; named / Jefferson], as well as [One negro girl named ESTHER (nicknamed Puss,) aged 17 or 18, black, tall, slim and regularly proportioned, - diffident and serious, embarrassed hen addressed, and at the same time picks or plays with fingers.] who is the sister of George, and [a girl named AMANDA, aged 15 or 16, a dark copper colored mulatto, thick and heavy set, 5 ft. 4 inches high, has a sullen and impudent look, a large head of hair, and a green lincy dress.] The text goes on to give the terms of the reward, which promised $300 for either George or Jefferson and $200 for either Esther or Amanda. At bottom left is [Germantown, Mason Co. Ky. / 20th January, 1840] and at bottom right are the names of the posters: [ANDERSON DONIPHAN / JOSEPH FRAZEE / JOHN D. MORFORD]. There is considerable loss at the bottom right corner of the page.

Broadside for Fugitives

Against great odds, enslaved African Americans self-liberated. They ran to family, friends, or across state lines to freedom. Freedom-seekers risked brutal punishment and retribution against themselves and their loved ones if caught, but they persisted. The Underground Railroad was a secret network that built upon local knowledge and resources, both Black and white, to guide enslaved people to freedom. Conductors, like Harriet Tubman, risked their lives to travel south on organized missions. Self-liberating people stayed at safe houses along the way, but danger was always present from slave patrols and other proslavery advocates.