Author: John J. Zaborney

professor of history and political science at the University of Maine at Presque Isle. His is the author of Slaves for Hire: Renting Enslaved Laborers in Antebellum Virginia (2012).

Slave Sales

Slave sales represented an intricate and economically vital activity in Virginia from late in the eighteenth century through the American Civil War (1861–1865), ending only with the abolition of slavery. Sales in Virginia exceeded those of all other Upper South states, with Richmond doing the most business of any city. The origins of the slave trade date to the end of primogeniture and entail in Virginia, which broke up large estates and their often large communities of slaves. The rise of cotton production in the Lower South and the end of the transatlantic slave trade in 1808 also created a market for Virginia slaveholders, who rushed to sell enslaved people to meet the increasing demand for labor. Throughout Virginia and the Upper South, a large network of traders purchased slaves and transported them to urban centers, where they were confined to so-called jails, usually located on the grounds of large firms. After being held in these facilities, sometimes for weeks at a time, slaves were auctioned, often to another trader. These auctions occurred in sparsely furnished rooms where enslaved people were subject to intrusive physical examinations and the biddings of potential buyers. It was not unusual for such auctions to result in the permanent separation of husbands and wives, parents and children. After the sale, enslaved people were then transported on foot in “coffles,” by rail, or by boat to the Lower South. In a contradiction noted by historians, a number of wealthy Virginia slave traders also fathered children and created families with enslaved and non-white women.

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