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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.

Photograph of Ashley's sack

Section IIITorn Apart

Enslaved African Americans were taken from loved ones, sold on auction blocks, and shipped to cotton fields in the Deep South.

Image of document of sale of enslaved persons

Sale of Slaves, February 8, 1859

The Weeping Time

Image of document of sale of enslaved persons

Sale of Slaves, February 8, 1859

On March 2 and 3, 1859, absentee Georgia planter Pierce Butler of Philadelphia arranged for the sale of 436 enslaved Black people in Savannah, Georgia, to pay off his enormous debts. Slave dealer Joseph Bryan ran a daily advertisement announcing the sale throughout the South for a month before the event. To better accommodate the massive buyer interest, Bryan moved the sale to the local racecourse.

The enslaved men, women and children presented for sale were only half of the 900 African Americans who were enslaved by the Butler family for generations. They had not been subjected to the heartbreak of loss on the auction block until the fateful two days of sale. The historic event was a spectacle of at least 30 infants sold from their mothers, as well as spouses, elders, and siblings all torn one from another. The Weeping Time refers to the rain that fell and the tears that were shed over the two days.

When the time of parting came and I had to turn back, I burst out crying loud. I was so weak from sorrow, I could not walk.

Robert Glenn, 1937

Photograph of Ashley's sack

Ashley’s Sack

Legacy of a Mother’s Love

Photograph of Ashley's sack

Ashley’s Sack

Rose, an enslaved woman, gave this sack to her daughter Ashley before the girl was sold away. She told her it was filled with love. Ashley passed down her story to her granddaughter, Ruth Middleton, who embroidered it on the sack. Sites such as Middleton Place, a National Historic Landmark, serve as stewards of this history. Personal objects of the enslaved help to deepen our understanding of the human story of slavery.

My great grandmother Rose mother of Ashley gave her this sack when she was sold at age 9 in South Carolina it held a tattered dress 3 handfuls of pecans a braid of Roses hair. Told her It be filled with my Love always she never saw her again Ashley is my grandmother Ruth Middleton

Transcription, Ashley's Sack, 1921

Introduction image for Weeping Time video

Weeping Time

This video focuses on the Domestic Slave Trade. Excerpts from bills of sale, broadsides, and wills tell a story of the valuation of people, forced migration, and profit. Additionally, quotes from formerly enslaved men and women documented as part of the Works Progress Administration’s Slave Narratives, help tell the story of separation and strength, love and loss.

A single-sheet broadside printed in black ink on wood pulp paper. The broadside is an announcement for a slave auction that took place on January 29, 1855 in New Orleans, Louisiana. Written at the top of the broadside in bold lettering is [56 VERY CHOICE / Cotton Plantation SLAVES, / MECHANICS, / SEAMSTRESSES, COOKS, &C.] Between two bold parallel lines printed in smaller lettering is [By J. A. BEARD & MAY. J. A. Beard, Auctioneer]. Below the bottom line printed in the same size font is [WILL BE SOLD AT AUCTION, / ON MONDAY, JANUARY 29, 1855, / At 12 o’Clock, at Banks’ Arcade, / WITHOUT RESERVE, / The following list of choice and Valuable SLAVES, from the Plantation of Gen. W. BAILEY, / Lake Providence, La., viz:]. Printed below this are the names, ages and skills of the enslaved people being auctioned.  Skills and occupations listed include cotton picker, ox driver, slave driver, seamstress, ironer, carpenter, cooper, cotton gin hand, midwife, and field hand. There are fifty-six people listed in two columns, organized by family units with ten families total listed. 

The enslaved persons to be auctioned are listed as follows:

One Family:
Big Henry, 21
Amy, 18
Little Henry, 16 

One Family:
Boston, 26
Little Milly, 19
Family
Stephen, 24
Big Fanny, 24
Writ Henry, 20 mo.

One Family:
Caswell, 30
Aggy, 30
Fayette Henry, 5
Stanhope McLanhan, 2

One Family:
Big Jim, 25
Ann Randolph, 22

One Family:
George, 26
Little Fanny, 23
Roderick Dhu, 4

One Family:
Peter, 47
Harriet, 22
Thomas Jefferson, 3

One Family:
Jack, 50
Dolly, 21
  ______
Nelson, 28
Jorden, 19
Addison, 18
Sam, 18
Washington, 16
Dick, 20
Charles, 19
John, 23

One Family
Edward, 19
Margaret, 18
Jenny Lind, 2
Unidentified infant, 3 mo.
Big William, 20
Jim Henry, 20
Hoyt, 12
William Nelson, 14

One Family:
Jessee, 20
Caroline, 17
   ______
Amanda, 18
Mary Pate, 18
Yellow Mary, 18
Dinah, 45
Phillis, 20
Nancy, 17
Mary Caswell, 12
Suckey, 12
Betsy, 11
Sally, 11
Nelly, 52
Jane, 18

Beneath the listing of enslaved persons is printed text with the terms of sale, followed by a handwrittten inscription reading [Monday, Jany 29, 1855 Very Cold / Tuesday " 30 " " "].

Broadside listing enslaved Black people for sale

"Very Choice Cotton Plantation Slaves"

A single-sheet broadside printed in black ink on wood pulp paper. The broadside is an announcement for a slave auction that took place on January 29, 1855 in New Orleans, Louisiana. Written at the top of the broadside in bold lettering is [56 VERY CHOICE / Cotton Plantation SLAVES, / MECHANICS, / SEAMSTRESSES, COOKS, &C.] Between two bold parallel lines printed in smaller lettering is [By J. A. BEARD & MAY. J. A. Beard, Auctioneer]. Below the bottom line printed in the same size font is [WILL BE SOLD AT AUCTION, / ON MONDAY, JANUARY 29, 1855, / At 12 o’Clock, at Banks’ Arcade, / WITHOUT RESERVE, / The following list of choice and Valuable SLAVES, from the Plantation of Gen. W. BAILEY, / Lake Providence, La., viz:]. Printed below this are the names, ages and skills of the enslaved people being auctioned.  Skills and occupations listed include cotton picker, ox driver, slave driver, seamstress, ironer, carpenter, cooper, cotton gin hand, midwife, and field hand. There are fifty-six people listed in two columns, organized by family units with ten families total listed. 

The enslaved persons to be auctioned are listed as follows:

One Family:
Big Henry, 21
Amy, 18
Little Henry, 16 

One Family:
Boston, 26
Little Milly, 19
Family
Stephen, 24
Big Fanny, 24
Writ Henry, 20 mo.

One Family:
Caswell, 30
Aggy, 30
Fayette Henry, 5
Stanhope McLanhan, 2

One Family:
Big Jim, 25
Ann Randolph, 22

One Family:
George, 26
Little Fanny, 23
Roderick Dhu, 4

One Family:
Peter, 47
Harriet, 22
Thomas Jefferson, 3

One Family:
Jack, 50
Dolly, 21
  ______
Nelson, 28
Jorden, 19
Addison, 18
Sam, 18
Washington, 16
Dick, 20
Charles, 19
John, 23

One Family
Edward, 19
Margaret, 18
Jenny Lind, 2
Unidentified infant, 3 mo.
Big William, 20
Jim Henry, 20
Hoyt, 12
William Nelson, 14

One Family:
Jessee, 20
Caroline, 17
   ______
Amanda, 18
Mary Pate, 18
Yellow Mary, 18
Dinah, 45
Phillis, 20
Nancy, 17
Mary Caswell, 12
Suckey, 12
Betsy, 11
Sally, 11
Nelly, 52
Jane, 18

Beneath the listing of enslaved persons is printed text with the terms of sale, followed by a handwrittten inscription reading [Monday, Jany 29, 1855 Very Cold / Tuesday " 30 " " "].

Broadside listing enslaved Black people for sale

This broadside from Lake Providence, Louisiana, advertises the sale of 56 African Americans. They include 20-month-old Henry; Nelly, age 52; and Dolly, who picked from 420 to 500 pounds of cotton per day. Enslaved people provided two sources of profit: their labor in the cotton fields and their price on the auction block.

The handwritten will of Frederick Smith of Mongtomery County, Viriginia, dated March 27, 1802, in which he bequeaths to his wife Margaret an enslaved girl named Betty, along with a list of other possessions. The document consists of black ink on both sides of a single sheet of off-white paper. The will reads in part: "I give and bequeath to wife Margaret the plantation whereon I live and one negro girl named Betty which is to be hers enduring her natural life, and one horse beast to be her choice my stock and three cows and six sheep and all my hoggs [sic], and six pewter plates and three dishes and four basons [sic] Six earthen plates and one dish and two silver spoons and her choice of the beds with double furniture, all which is to be at her own disposal except the land and Negroe [sic] girl above mentioned which is to be sold at her decease and equally divided amongst all my children except my son Sawyer who is to have two shares." The document is signed with handwritten seal at bottom right of the verso: [Frederick Smyth] and at left is signed by four witnesses: [Sauol Gouder (?) / Penny Hans / Peter Coon/ George Monald].

Will of Frederick Smith, 1802

A printed document outlining the division of the estate of Mrs. Sarah B. Preston of Abingdon, Virginia. The document consists of printed black ink on a single sheet of off-white paper, bi-folded to make four pages. The main page is titled [Schedule of the Estate of Mrs. Sarah B. Preston.] at the top and divides the estate into two separate sections: [REAL ESTATE.], [PERSONAL ESTATE.], with the property items listed on the left and the inheritor(s) on the right. The personal estate has been further subdivided into [NEGROES.] and [HOUSEHOLD PROPERTY]. Within the "Negroes" section are twenty-nine (29) enslaved persons divided into six groupings by the person to inherit them from Preston. To T.L. Preston: [Jim Wallace, Jody, John Black, Allen, Cyrus Gannaway]; to M.B.F. Hampton: [Patience, John, Tom]; to John S. Preston: [Henry Spot, Polly, William]; to Wm. C. Preston: [Cook Lewis, Isaac, Alfred, Jim Reagan]; to S.C. Preston: [Barney, Old Phebe, Mahain, Little Phebe]; and [Willis, Charles Campbell, Old Henry, Speaker Ned, Ambrose, Spencer, old Charles, old Tom, Mary, Fanny] are noted as [Not devised, and falling therefore into residuary fund - left to sons.].

On the opposite side of the sheet is a page with a letter regarding the [foregoing Schedule exhibits the estate of Mrs. Sarah B. Preston, as devised by her will] and notes terms and valuations of the property "the Saltworks." It is dated [ABINGDON, VA., AUG. 28, 1847] at the top right and signed by [L. Preston Exc.] at the bottom right. 

The final page with text has handwriting in landscape orientation reading [Co. W. C. Preston / Glenn Spring / SC]. Next to "Glenn Spring" is "Columbia," with a strikethrough. In a different hand at top left center, [Schedule of / my mother's property]. There are two round postmarks, one in faded brown ink for Abingdon, Virginia dated [AUG 31] and another in red ink for Columbia, South Carolina dated [11 SEP].

Will of Sarah B. Preston, 1847

Bequeathing Human Capital

The handwritten will of Frederick Smith of Mongtomery County, Viriginia, dated March 27, 1802, in which he bequeaths to his wife Margaret an enslaved girl named Betty, along with a list of other possessions. The document consists of black ink on both sides of a single sheet of off-white paper. The will reads in part: "I give and bequeath to wife Margaret the plantation whereon I live and one negro girl named Betty which is to be hers enduring her natural life, and one horse beast to be her choice my stock and three cows and six sheep and all my hoggs [sic], and six pewter plates and three dishes and four basons [sic] Six earthen plates and one dish and two silver spoons and her choice of the beds with double furniture, all which is to be at her own disposal except the land and Negroe [sic] girl above mentioned which is to be sold at her decease and equally divided amongst all my children except my son Sawyer who is to have two shares." The document is signed with handwritten seal at bottom right of the verso: [Frederick Smyth] and at left is signed by four witnesses: [Sauol Gouder (?) / Penny Hans / Peter Coon/ George Monald].

Will of Frederick Smith, 1802

A printed document outlining the division of the estate of Mrs. Sarah B. Preston of Abingdon, Virginia. The document consists of printed black ink on a single sheet of off-white paper, bi-folded to make four pages. The main page is titled [Schedule of the Estate of Mrs. Sarah B. Preston.] at the top and divides the estate into two separate sections: [REAL ESTATE.], [PERSONAL ESTATE.], with the property items listed on the left and the inheritor(s) on the right. The personal estate has been further subdivided into [NEGROES.] and [HOUSEHOLD PROPERTY]. Within the "Negroes" section are twenty-nine (29) enslaved persons divided into six groupings by the person to inherit them from Preston. To T.L. Preston: [Jim Wallace, Jody, John Black, Allen, Cyrus Gannaway]; to M.B.F. Hampton: [Patience, John, Tom]; to John S. Preston: [Henry Spot, Polly, William]; to Wm. C. Preston: [Cook Lewis, Isaac, Alfred, Jim Reagan]; to S.C. Preston: [Barney, Old Phebe, Mahain, Little Phebe]; and [Willis, Charles Campbell, Old Henry, Speaker Ned, Ambrose, Spencer, old Charles, old Tom, Mary, Fanny] are noted as [Not devised, and falling therefore into residuary fund - left to sons.].

On the opposite side of the sheet is a page with a letter regarding the [foregoing Schedule exhibits the estate of Mrs. Sarah B. Preston, as devised by her will] and notes terms and valuations of the property "the Saltworks." It is dated [ABINGDON, VA., AUG. 28, 1847] at the top right and signed by [L. Preston Exc.] at the bottom right. 

The final page with text has handwriting in landscape orientation reading [Co. W. C. Preston / Glenn Spring / SC]. Next to "Glenn Spring" is "Columbia," with a strikethrough. In a different hand at top left center, [Schedule of / my mother's property]. There are two round postmarks, one in faded brown ink for Abingdon, Virginia dated [AUG 31] and another in red ink for Columbia, South Carolina dated [11 SEP].

Will of Sarah B. Preston, 1847

During the antebellum period, many enslavers relocated to new land that promised new wealth in cotton and sugar cultivation. As enslavers moved to the Deep South, they brought enslaved people with them. These slaveholders strategically kept their wealth in the family and regularly bequeathed slaves in wills like this.

In consideration of the love and affection I have for my third son . . . for his better support and advancement . . . [I] give . . . two negro slaves one a girl named Jenny . . . and a boy . . . with their future increase.

Last Will and Testament of Polly Mira Poor, 1827

A single-sided, single page broadside of black text printed on white paper advertising the sale of an enslaved boy named Ben. At the top, in large text: [SALE OF SLAVE. / By order of the Probate]. The document continues, [Court of Andrew County, the undersigned Administrator of the estate of Absalom Young, deceased, will expose to public sale to the highest and best bidder, a likely negro boy named Ben, belonging to said estate, before the Court House door in Savannah, Mo., on Tuesday, the 2nd day of August, 1853. TERMS OF SALE - One third cash in hand, and the ballance in twelve months time, on bond and security]. The "third" has been struck by hand and [fourth] written in. At the bottom is [W.J. Young, Administrator.] and the date [July 11, 1853].

Sale of Ben

Ben to the Highest Bidder

A single-sided, single page broadside of black text printed on white paper advertising the sale of an enslaved boy named Ben. At the top, in large text: [SALE OF SLAVE. / By order of the Probate]. The document continues, [Court of Andrew County, the undersigned Administrator of the estate of Absalom Young, deceased, will expose to public sale to the highest and best bidder, a likely negro boy named Ben, belonging to said estate, before the Court House door in Savannah, Mo., on Tuesday, the 2nd day of August, 1853. TERMS OF SALE - One third cash in hand, and the ballance in twelve months time, on bond and security]. The "third" has been struck by hand and [fourth] written in. At the bottom is [W.J. Young, Administrator.] and the date [July 11, 1853].

Sale of Ben

Under slavery, Black men were often referred to as “boy,” regardless of their age. This insult served as a reminder that Black men were excluded from freedom, property ownership, self-reliance, and full participation in the public sphere.

This broadside is an announcement for an estate sale of 229 enslaved men, women and children.

Announcement for an estate sale at Ryan's Mart in Charleston

“229 Rice Field Negroes”

This broadside is an announcement for an estate sale of 229 enslaved men, women and children.

Announcement for an estate sale at Ryan's Mart in Charleston

Many slave advertisements detailed the specialized skills of enslaved people. In the Lowcountry, generations of enslaved Black people forced from rice-growing regions in western Africa brought with them a great deal of knowledge and experience. Enslavers willingly paid higher prices for their expertise.

Black and white illustration of slave auction

The Slave Auction, 1849

After the men were all sold they then sold the women and children. They ordered the first woman to lay down her child and mount the auction block; she refused to give up her little one and clung to it as long as she could, while the cruel lash was applied to her back for disobedience. She pleaded for mercy in the name of God. But the child was torn from the arms of its mother amid the most heart-rending shrieks from the mother and child on the one hand, and the bitter oaths and cruel lashes from the tyrants on the other. Finally the poor child was torn from the mother while she was sacrificed to the highest bidder. In this way the sale was carried on from beginning to end.

Henry Bibb, "Narrative of the Life & Adventures of Henry Bibb, An American Slave," Written by Himself

Rhoda Philips (ca. 1831–1906)

Rhoda Philips was born enslaved in Nashville, Tennessee. She was held in bondage from infancy until the Emancipation Proclamation in 1863, over 30 years later. This bill of sale documents the purchase of “Milley & her two Daughters” Rhoda and Martha by James Clark when Rhoda was about a year old. Shortly thereafter, enslaver Thomas Gleaves acquired Rhoda and her mother Milley. Upon Gleaves’ death in 1834, Rhoda was valued at $200 and bequeathed to his wife, Sally. She remained with Sally as a caretaker for her children until emancipation.

On the eve of the Civil War, Philips met her husband, Abram. The couple had eight children and remained in the Nashville area until her death. This daguerreotype portrays Rhoda before freedom. Her portrait challenges the inhumanity of slavery against the humanity of an enslaved woman.

A 1/9th plate daguerreotype portrait of Rhoda Phillips (1831-1906), a woman who was born enslaved and owned by the Clark-Gleaves family of Nashville, Tennessee, with whom she remained after emancipation. Phillips is seated in the image and wears a dress with a flower pattern, lace cuffs, and a lace collar. The case is contemporary and has a decorative gold metal frame and a red velvet lining.

Daguerreotype of Rhoda Phillips, ca. 1850

A handwritten document of black ink on rag paper recording the sale of two enslaved women, Nelly and Milley, and their respective children

Bill of sale of Rhoda, her mother, and her siblings, 1832

Night and day, you could hear men and women screaming . . . ma, pa, sister or brother . . . taken without any warning. . . People was always dying from a broken heart.

Susan Hamilton, 1938