John Armfield (1797–1871)


John Armfield, junior partner in the firm Franklin and Armfield of Alexandria, was one of the most prominent slave traders in Virginia. Born in North Carolina, he worked as a stagecoach driver before meeting Isaac Franklin and joining him in the business of selling enslaved men, women, and children for profit. In Alexandria, Armfield operated a slave-jail complex on Duke Street, gathering enslaved people from across the Upper South for shipment south, often on coastal brigs that landed in New Orleans. Many slaves then took Mississippi River paddleboats north to Natchez, Mississippi, where Franklin kept his office. The firm sold an average of 1,200 enslaved people per year, mostly young men and women either without families or separated from them, for profits of as much as $100,000 per year. Both Franklin and Armfield became rich, leaving the business in 1836. Armfield eventually moved to Tennessee, where he established a resort community at Beersheba Springs and became a founding trustee of the University of the South, in Sewanee. The American Civil War (1861–1865) helped destroy his fortune, which shrank from $500,000 in 1850 to less than $60,000 in 1870. He died in 1871.

Early Years

John Armfield was born in 1797 in Guilford County, North Carolina, the son of Nathan Armfield and Polly Dempsey Armfield. The couple also had two daughters, while another son died at the age of sixteen. The Armfields descended from a Quaker immigrant from England and were Loyalists during the American Revolution (1775–1783). John Armfield’s grandfather was disowned from his local meeting in 1785, possibly for having taken up arms in the cause. The family was allowed to rejoin in 1799.

Nothing is known of John Armfield’s childhood and education. The family owned at least one slave and were not listed among the local Quakers. On some unknown date, Armfield left home and worked as a stagecoach driver.

Franklin & Armfield Slave-Trading Firm

About 1824 Armfield met Isaac Franklin, and the two traveled together to Sumner County, Tennessee, just north of Nashville. Franklin had been working as a slave trader since 1810, and he took Armfield on as his partner. The earliest known record of Armfield selling a slave dates to 1827, in Natchez, Mississippi. The next year, the two founded Franklin and Armfield, with Franklin based in Natchez and Armfield in Alexandria, Virginia. In 1831, Armfield married Franklin’s sixteen-year-old niece, Martha Franklin. They had no children. At some point Franklin had joined the Episcopal Church, and his wife, raised a Presbyterian, joined, too.

Slave Trader

Freedom House Museum

Franklin and Armfield became one of the largest slave-trading firms in the South. Smaller traders—sometimes, as in the case of Silas Omohundro, acting as agents on the firm’s behalf—purchased enslaved men, women, and children across the Upper South and sent them to Alexandria. There they were held at the complex run by Armfield and located at 1315 Duke Street, on the city’s outskirts. An elegant, three-story building with two chimneys fronted Duke Street. Armfield’s offices were on the ground floor and the residence was upstairs, while the enslaved prisoners, awaiting sale or transportation south and segregated by sex, were kept in a two-story wing attached to the house. Various other buildings, including a kitchen, tailor’s shop, and hospital, as well as a courtyard, were all hidden behind a whitewashed wall.

View of a Section of Alexandria

While the Upper South had an abundance of enslaved labor, the Lower South was always in short supply and planters there paid the best prices. Franklin and Armfield regularly sent its slaves south, either overland to Franklin’s office in Natchez, a trip that took seven to eight weeks by foot, or by sea. The latter method, a Franklin and Armfield innovation, was quicker, more reliable, and allowed for more precise scheduling. And ships making a return voyage could be laden with sugar, molasses, whiskey, or cotton, for sale and additional profits. By 1829, Franklin and Armfield owned the coastal brig United States, and within six years had purchased at least three more: the Tribune, the Uncas, and the Isaac Franklin. Vessels initially departed once a month but soon began making runs every other week, landing in New Orleans. Slaves bound for Natchez would be met by the firm’s associate Rice C. Ballard, who sent them upriver by paddleboat. In January 1831, the Comet, a coastal brig carrying 164 enslaved people, including 76 owned by Franklin and Armfield, wrecked in the Bahamas. While waiting on repairs in Nassau, 11 slaves escaped, were captured but then declared free by the British governor. The firm eventually collected $37,555 in insurance claims on the enslaved people it lost.

Norman's Chart of the Lower Mississippi River

Between 1828 and 1835, Franklin and Armfield sold an average of 1,200 enslaved people per year. Those who traveled south by boat, by law, had their names and ages recorded. A statistical analysis by the historian Donald Sweig indicates that most of the slaves transported by the firm during these years were young men and women, without families. More than 80 percent of the women had no husbands and most had no children. The great majority were under twenty-five years old. Almost half of the women were under sixteen. Prior to 1829, when Louisiana law prohibited it, the firm sold enslaved children under the age of ten. From 1833 to 1835, probably in response to pressure from abolitionist and more moderate antislavery groups, or from local planters who themselves felt social pressure, the firm avoided separating family groups. While families were always a small part of the business—at times totaling about 7 percent of all sales—that percentage doubled during those years.

The rewards for this business were enormous. In the year from 1831 to 1832, the firm counted $250,000 in bills receivable, and profited as much as $100,000 per year. Isaac Franklin became a millionaire while Armfield, the firm’s junior partner, was worth about half that. Both men sought to cultivate a polished and gentlemanly air, which was at odds with the popular and socially restricting notion that slave traders were involved in a dirty, disreputable business.

On July 24, 1835, the abolitionist and lexicographer Ethan A. Andrews visited the firm’s Alexandria offices and described Armfield as “a man of fine personal appearance, and of engaging and graceful manners.” That same year, the British geologist G. W. Featherstonhaugh encountered Armfield while traveling. He was “a queer, tall animal about forty years old,” Featherstonhaugh wrote, “with dark black hair cut round as if he were a Methodist preacher, immense black whiskers, a physiognomy not without one or two tolerable features, but singularly sharp, and not a little piratical and repulsive.”

The Slave Trade in Alexandria

In November 1836, Franklin and Armfield’s last shipment, consisting of 254 enslaved people, went to New Orleans aboard the Isaac Franklin. Soon after, the two men sold their firm and its ships. The residence and slave jail on Duke Street went to George Kephart, their agent in Frederick, Maryland. Early in the 1850s it was sold to the slave-trading firm of Price, Birch, and Company, which owned it at the time Union troops first occupied the city in 1861, during the Civil War.

Later Years

Slave Auction

Isaac Franklin quit trading and purchased six properties in Louisiana and one in Tennessee, totaling more than 10,600 acres worked by 700 enslaved people. When he died unexpectedly, on April 27, 1846, his estate was worth between $500,000 and $750,000. At the time, Armfield and his wife had been living with the Franklin family in West Feliciana Parish, Louisiana. Armfield preserved the body in whiskey and transported it to Franklin’s native Tennessee. Armfield and Franklin’s father-in-law served as executors of Franklin’s estate, and disputes involving the disbursement led to a lawsuit that was not settled until 1854, in Armfield’s favor.

By 1849, Armfield and his wife had settled in Sumner County, Tennessee. He purchased 339 acres and a two-story brick house—an estate called Hard Times and later Grasslands—for $6,000. He added a house and mill for another $6,000. A year later the property had slimmed to 300 acres of improved land, worked by fifteen slaves. At the same time Armfield remained active in business, working as a cotton broker in New Orleans while handling the settlement of assets for the defunct company Franklin had created with Rice Ballard.

Beersheba Springs

In 1854, Armfield purchased the highland town of Beersheba Springs, in Grundy County, Tennessee, to develop as a resort. He and his wife moved there a year later and Armfield used the venture to develop high-level contacts with members of the business and planter elite who stayed there. He built houses for two Episcopal bishops, the future Confederate general Leonidas Polk and James Hervey Otey, the latter of whom in March 1857 offered Armfield a seat on the board of trustees of the new University of the South. Armfield used that position, along with a donation of $25,000 per year (probably over two years) for the construction and maintenance of buildings, to influence the selection of the university’s location near Beersheba Springs. Now popularly known as Sewanee, the University of the South was founded on July 4, 1857, in part as a refuge from northern and, in particular, antislavery influences.

During the Civil War, Armfield paid to equip a company of Confederate volunteers. In 1869, he helped promote Beersheba Springs as the site of a colony of Swiss immigrants. His business, meanwhile, suffered from the effects of the war and his fortune shrank, from $500,000 in 1850 to just $57,670 in available assets twenty years later.

Armfield died at his home in Beersheba Springs on September 20, 1871. He was buried in a nearby private cemetery.

John Armfield is born in Guilford County, North Carolina.
John Armfield meets the slave trader Isaac Franklin.
John Armfield files a bill of sale for an enslaved person in Natchez, Mississippi.
The slave-trading firm of Franklin and Armfield is established, with offices in Alexandria, Virginia, and Natchez, Mississippi.
The firm of Franklin and Armfield sells an average of 1,200 enslaved people per year.
By this year the firm of Franklin and Armfield owns the United States, a coastal brig for transporting enslaved people south.
John Armfield and Martha Franklin, the sixteen-year-old niece of Armfield's business partner, Isaac Franklin, marry. They will have no children.
January 1831
The Comet, a coastal brig en route to New Orleans and carrying 164 enslaved people, including 76 owned by Franklin & Armfield, wrecks in the Bahamas. While waiting on repairs in Nassau, 11 slaves escape, are captured but declared free by the British governor.
By this year, Franklin and Armfield owns at least four coastal brigs for transporting enslaved people south: the United States, the Tribune, the Uncas, and the Isaac Franklin. The firm's ships left every two weeks for New Orleans.
November 15, 1836
Franklin and Armfield's last shipment consists of 254 enslaved people sent to New Orleans aboard the Isaac Franklin. Soon after the owners sell the firm.
April 27, 1846
Isaac Franklin dies in West Feliciana Parish, Louisiana.
By this year John Armfield and his wife are settled in Sumner County, Tennessee.
John Armfield owns 300 acres of improved land, fifteen slaves, twelve horses, and six cows in Sumner County, Tennessee.
Early 1850s
The slave jail on Duke Street in Alexandria, formerly owned by Franklin and Armfield, is sold to the slave trading firm of Price, Birch, and Company.
John Armfield purchases the highland town of Beersheba Springs, in Grundy County, Tennessee, to develop as a resort.
John Armfield and his wife move to Beersheba Springs, in Grundy County, Tennessee.
March 1857
The Episcopal bishop James Hervey Otey offers John Armfield a seat on the University of the South's board of trustees.
July 4, 1857
The University of the South is founded in Tennessee in part as a refuge from northern and, especially, antislavery influences.
January 4, 1859
John Armfield pledges $25,000 per year to the University of the South for the construction and upkeep of its first buildings on the condition it be built near Beersheba Springs.
September 1861
John Armfield pays to equip Company A of the 5th Tennessee Volunteer Infantry Regiment.
Swiss immigrants settle near Beersheba Springs, Tennessee, with encouragement from John Armfield.
April 20, 1870
John Armfield writes his will while visiting a friend in Nashville, Tennessee.
September 20, 1871
John Armfield dies at his home in Beersheba Springs, Tennessee. He is buried in a private cemetery nearby.
  • Deyle, Steven. Carry Me Back: The Domestic Slave Trade in American Life. New York: Oxford University Press, 2005.
  • Howell, Isabel. “John Armfield of Beersheba Springs.” Tennessee Historical Quarterly 3, no. 1 (March 1944): 46–64.
  • Howell, Isabel. “John Armfield of Beersheba Springs (Continued).” Tennessee Historical Quarterly 3, no. 2 (June 1944): 156–167.
  • Howell, Isabel. “John Armfield, Slave-trader. Tennessee Historical Quarterly 2, no. 1 (March 1943): 3–29.
  • Libby, David J. Slavery and Frontier Mississippi, 1720–1835. Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 2004.
  • Sweig, Donald. “Alexandria to New Orleans: The Human Tragedy of the Interstate Slave Trade.” Alexandria Gazette Packet (October 2014): 1–8.
APA Citation:
Wolfe, Brendan. John Armfield (1797–1871). (2020, December 07). In Encyclopedia Virginia. https://encyclopediavirginia.org/entries/armfield-john-1797-1871.
MLA Citation:
Wolfe, Brendan. "John Armfield (1797–1871)" Encyclopedia Virginia. Virginia Humanities, (07 Dec. 2020). Web. 23 Jul. 2024
Last updated: 2021, December 22
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