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