The Early Domestic Slave Trade
Enslaved Africans and their descendants were bought and sold within mainland British North America from the moment they were first brought to Virginia in the early seventeenth century. Tens of thousands of enslaved people were exchanged domestically throughout the colonial era and during the first several decades of the American republic. But this trade was limited, relative to what it would later become, and opportunities for men working as slave traders even more so. Through the age of the American Revolution, and continuing for a generation thereafter, enslavers in places such as South Carolina and Georgia met many of their labor demands by importing enslaved people from Africa and the Caribbean. White migrants to new western territories and to states like Kentucky and Tennessee tended to bring enslaved laborers with them when they moved. At the same time, the American banking system was immature and undercapitalized, which limited capital for large-scale transactions. There were men who worked as domestic slave traders, but large, professional slave trading businesses were nearly unheard of into the early nineteenth century.
Those circumstances started to change in the decades after the closing of the legal transatlantic slave trade in 1808. When Congress outlawed the transatlantic trade, it did nothing to contain domestic traffic in enslaved people and provided customs regulations designed to ensure that anyone sent by ship between domestic ports had been legally imported. This effectively created a protected and federally sanctioned market for the slave trade inside the boundaries of the United States, and it did so precisely at a moment when demand for enslaved laborers was skyrocketing in the Lower South. White farmers there were moving rapidly into portions of the continent acquired in the Louisiana Purchase in 1803 and using the cotton gin and the steam-powered sugar mill to produce increasing volumes of cotton and sugar for global markets. Military victories and diplomatic concessions acquired and wrested from the British and numerous Indian nations during the War of 1812 solidified American regional sovereignty and provided additional security for those farmers. Cotton and sugar growers saw enslaved labor as indispensable to the success of their enterprises, and the inability to acquire enslaved people from abroad created unprecedented opportunities for men to traffic and deal in the enslaved domestically.
The number of enslaved people moved across state lines grew by 80 percent between the 1800s and the 1810s, and it grew by another 25 percent between the 1810s and the 1820s. All told, in the first thirty years of the nineteenth century, nearly 350,000 enslaved people suffered forced migration in what historian Ira Berlin famously called the “Second Middle Passage.” More than 275,000 of those people were taken out of Maryland and Virginia, where the tobacco economy had never fully recovered from stagnation that began in the late eighteenth century. As enslavers in the Upper South turned to growing less labor-intensive grain crops, they found themselves with more enslaved people than they could use in their fields. Many sold their so-called surplus laborers to a growing cadre of professional slave traders, who purchased them for burgeoning markets in western Georgia, Alabama, Louisiana, and Mississippi.
Isaac Franklin, John Armfield, and the Creation of a Partnership
Born in 1789 in Sumner County, Tennessee, Isaac Franklin started working as a slave trader when he was still a teenager. His first documented involvement in the trade came in 1808, when he traveled with one of his older brothers across the Appalachians to the Chesapeake Bay region to purchase enslaved people in Baltimore and Alexandria. After walking the enslaved in chains over the mountains, Franklin and another of his brothers put them on a flatboat, brought them down the Cumberland, Ohio, and Mississippi rivers, and sold them in New Orleans and in Natchez, the wealthy Mississippi port town that served as a regional center for the cotton and slave trades. Franklin’s brothers mostly left the slave trade after the War of 1812, but Isaac Franklin threw himself further into it. By the early 1820s, he had a regular business location established in Natchez, and he was well known to enslavers in Maryland and northern Virginia alike.
Isaac Franklin and John Armfield first met in 1824, when Armfield seems to have been at loose ends. Born in 1797 in Guilford County, North Carolina, Armfield was coming off a brief stint running a mercantile business and, unsure of what to do next, he may have turned to the slave trade at Franklin’s suggestion. In the spring of 1826, Armfield placed his firstthat he was looking to purchase enslaved people, telling readers of the Alexandria Phenix Gazette that interested sellers could leave a letter for him at the post office or ask for him at a tavern in town. Armfield spent most of the next two years buying several dozen enslaved people at a time in Virginia and North Carolina, trafficking them south, and selling them to planters and merchants in Natchez and New Orleans.
Armfield sometimes got help running his business from a brother-in-law, and he briefly joined forces with another trader named Joseph Meek Jr., but his operation looked much like that of other interstate domestic slave traders at the time. Most were itinerants who worked out of hotels and taverns, announcing their temporary location and their desire to buy enslaved people in local newspapers. They also frequented estate and sheriff auctions or tracked down financially stressed enslavers who might be likely to sell enslaved people. They usually moved enslaved people by forced march overland, chained two-and-two into caravans known as coffles, or along rivers by flatboat. When they got to the markets where they intended to make sales, they found temporary headquarters where they could stash the people they had brought and sold whomever they could, ideally for quick cash, and moved on. Most seem only to have stayed in the business for a few years.
But in February 1828, John Armfield and Isaac Franklin decided to go into business together, and they created a company with greater scale and ambition than anything that came before. They formed a slave-trading partnership called Franklin and Armfield, whose initial terms would last five years. They staked between them initial capital of approximately $20,000, the modern equivalent of roughly half a million dollars, and set about becoming major players in the interstate slave trade. Armfield took up residence full-time in Alexandria, renting a three-story townhouse on Duke Street that was expanded to serve as a slave jail in which Armfield started accumulating enormous numbers of enslaved people. Advertising that he would pay higher prices for enslaved people than any other trader in the market, Armfieldin Alexandria and other District of Columbia newspapers that he wanted up to 150 enslaved people between the ages of eight and twenty-five, which was nearly four times as many people as he had ever previously sought to buy. He then sent those people to Franklin, who initially stationed himself at his sales facility in Natchez.
Franklin and Armfield employed several business tactics instituted by other slave traders before them, most notably Austin Woolfolk, a Baltimore-based trader who dominated the slave trade in the Chesapeake Bay region for much of the 1820s. But Franklin and Armfield quickly bypassed Woolfolk by doing much of what he did, only bigger and better. Franklin and Armfield’s headquarters in Alexandria, for example, was massive. Taking up half a square block on Duke Street, the walled compound included a three-story, Federal-style townhouse that served as the business office, separate housing and pens for male and female captives, kitchens, stables, a hospital, and a tailor shop in which enslaved women made clothing for captives to wear on their arrival in the Lower South. It was a facility dedicated to carrying out the domestic slave trade on an industrial scale. In his Notes of a tour in America, in 1832 and 1833 (1833), Stephen Davis recalled seeing enslaved captives “at a depot at Alexandria, where they are penned like cattle, and brought and sold.” The abolitionist Ethan Allen Andrews visited Franklin and Armfield’s compound in July 1835 and compared it to a penitentiary, with the “same apparatus of high walls, and bolts, and bars, to secure the prisoners” (Slavery and the Domestic Slave Trade in the United States, 1836).
Franklin and Armfield also regularly advertised their willingness to pay top dollar for enslaved laborers. Their network of purchasing agents, meanwhile, ranged throughout the Chesapeake region, with men scattered across more than 20,000 square miles of Maryland and Virginia. These agents delivered enslaved individuals to Alexandria, where Armfield made shipping arrangements to dispatch them to New Orleans, where Franklin had relocated in 1829 and set up what would become a sizable stockade just outside what is now the French Quarter. Franklin sold some of the enslaved people in New Orleans and sent others by steamboat to Natchez, where a nephew, James Rawlings Franklin, oversaw operations in Mississippi.
Among Franklin and Armfield’s agents, none was more important than Rice Ballard. Born in 1800 in Spotsylvania County, near Fredericksburg, Ballard started working as a long-distance slave trader in the early 1820s. In the early 1830s, he became the third partner in Franklin and Armfield, and the face of the company in Richmond, which was emerging as a vital node of the domestic slave trade. Employing his own network of subagents, Ballard bought people in and around the Virginia capital and sent them by steamboat down the James River to Norfolk. There, they were added to Armfield’s shipments and sent to the Lower South, where Isaac and James Franklin sold them under the name of an associated entity known as Franklin, Ballard, and Company.
Shipping via the coast was a critical element of Franklin and Armfield’s business model, although the company never abandoned moving enslaved people via the coffle system. Near the end of every summer, it sent anywhere from several dozen to several hundred people overland to the Lower South to be sold at the outset of the sales season in the early fall. But mostly the company relied on packing people onto sailing ships for the three-week voyage from Virginia to Louisiana. Initially, the company rented space on ships or chartered them, but eventually the partners purchased a small fleet of their own, comprising three brigs especially outfitted to be slavers: the Tribune, the Uncas, and a third displaying the commercial swagger that was a company trademark: the Isaac Franklin.
At its peak in the middle of the 1830s, the company operated by Franklin, Armfield, and Ballard transported for sale between 1,000 and 1,500 enslaved people every year. At one point, they were sending a shipload of enslaved people to New Orleans every two weeks for months at a time. In the Chesapeake region, their network of agents gave them an unmatched grip on regional purchases of enslaved people. In the Lower South, Franklin bragged that the company sold more enslaved people in Natchez than all other slave traders put together. A visitor in 1835 estimated that Franklin and Armfield sold two-thirds of all the enslaved people brought to the city in the previous decade. New Orleans was a larger market, in which it was harder to acquire such an outsized share, but during the years Franklin worked in that city, he sold as much as 20 percent of all the enslaved people sold by out-of-state traders.
Some of Franklin and Armfield’s success was a matter of timing. The first five or six years of the 1830s saw the biggest economic boom the United States had seen to that point, and the heart of that boom lay in the land, enslaved labor, and cotton economies of the Lower South. Franklin and Armfield was positioned to take maximal advantage of the demand from white farmers for enslaved people. The company also prospered because its partners were shrewd businessmen who grasped in equal measure the slave trade’s inhuman brutalities and its business considerations. Franklin, Armfield, and Ballard assessed enslaved people solely as commodities they could exploit for profit, whether marketed as field laborers, or skilled workers, or offered as part of the “fancy” trade in enslaved women sold for purposes of sexual exploitation. That command over the process of turning people into goods—of being able to disregard their human qualities and pain—and reckon them properly to maximize profit, was critical to their success. It was part of a skill set that included Armfield’s capacity to oversee the logistics of a complicated shipping operation and Franklin’s penetrating understanding of money markets, which allowed the company to establish credit lines with major banks, manage hundreds of thousands of dollars, and navigate the ebbs and flows of the larger American economy.
It was an intricate undertaking, and even as it was immensely successful, it was fragile. Not paying close attention or taking a few false steps could leave the company with too little money or too many enslaved people at the wrong time, and the entire operation could collapse. Ultimately, it was that very fragility that helped prompt the partners to leave the slave trade, even as they were at the peak of their power.
Shutting Down the Company, and the Aftermath
In 1834, shocks to national financial markets that came amid the political battle over the Second Bank of the United States left Franklin and Armfield’s potential customers without money to spend, forcing the company to sell enslaved people almost entirely on credit, which made the partners rich on paper but short on cash. The economy eventually stabilized, but Franklin was over forty years old, had been dealing in enslaved labor for more than twenty-five years, and had already been thinking about retiring; market uncertainties helped give him the final push. Late in 1834, Franklin and Armfield started telling their purchasing agents that their services would no longer be required. In the summer of 1835, Franklin formally retired, and Armfield and Ballard, neither of whom wanted to continue without him, took charge of winding down the business. In November 1836, Armfield sent his last shipment of enslaved people to New Orleans, after which he sold the company’s brigs to other slave traders, turned control of the Alexandria headquarters over to a former agent named George Kephart, and began to focus on collecting outstanding bills from customers. Collections would take time, and even though Franklin and Armfield formally dissolved in 1841, the company’s final balance sheet would not be prepared until 1853. The Duke Street complex, however, would be used continuously as a slave-trading facility until the American Civil War (1861-1865).
In the course of nearly nine years of operation, the partners in Franklin and Armfield bought, moved, and sold more than 8,500 enslaved people. If the number of enslaved people the partners dealt in before they began working together are included in the tally, Franklin, Armfield, and Ballard bore direct responsibility for the forced displacement and sale of well over 10,000 human beings during their careers in the slave trade. No other traders of their era came close.
Their successors, however, would certainly try. Franklin, Armfield, and Ballard all eased into retirement as extraordinarily rich and respected men, and other traders aimed to emulate them. The slave trade continued to evolve after Franklin and Armfield ceased to do business. New technologies like the railroad and the telegraph, for example, allowed the business to spread into interior markets that had been relatively isolated. By the 1850s, there were also many more large trading companies. But the formula that Franklin, Armfield, and Ballard had pioneered—sizable trading businesses with headquarters in key cities that received enslaved laborers from a network of purchasing agents, utilized shipping or rail service to move their human cargo, and integrated their operations with sprawling credit and banking systems—remained the underpinning.
By the time the Civil War ended the domestic slave trade in the United States once and for all, more than one million enslaved people had been taken into forced migrations across state lines, and at least twice as many were exchanged within the boundaries of individual states. No single company did more than Franklin and Armfield to show those thousands of white men who were willing to devastate the lives of the enslaved how to make their wanton cruelty and business acumen pay off.