The sale of enslaved people as an important feature of the Virginia economy has its origins in changes that occurred late in the eighteenth century. In 1776, the General Assembly abolished entail, a practice that required large estates to be kept intact through generations. In 1785, the assembly abolished primogeniture, which required that those estates be passed on to the eldest son. A dozen years after that, the assembly prohibited entails on large groups of inherited enslaved people. While encouraging equality among whites, these acts also had the effect of breaking up African American communities and families by putting many people up for sale.
At the same time, many planter–enslavers in Virginia and Maryland shifted from tobacco to wheat production, which required less labor. The enslaved population in the Upper South already had a more even balance between men and women, and with a better climate than the Lower South, fewer enslaved people died prematurely. This meant that enslaved communities grew naturally in ways that allowed enslavers the opportunity to sell or hire out people who were not otherwise needed to perform plantation labor. Enslavers looking to sell enslaved people found an expanding market in the Lower South, where the cotton gin had made the production of cotton much easier. Virginia enslavers positioned themselves to become the suppliers of the labor necessary to cultivate cotton, in part by vigorously supporting the ban on the transatlantic slave trade, which went into effect in 1808. With the supply of enslaved Africans cut off, plantation owners in the Lower South were forced to purchase their enslaved labor from Virginians.
Between 1790 and 1860, more than 1 million enslaved men, women, and children were sold from the Upper South—mostly Virginia—to the Lower South. Two-thirds of those were the result of sales taking place in hubs such as Richmond and Alexandria. As early as 1787, the Richmond slave trader Moses Austin placed an ad in the Virginia Independent Chronicle offering to purchase “One hundred Negroes from 12 to 30 years old … to be sent out of state.”
Enslaved men, women, and children, and even some who were free, were placed on the market for sale in a variety of ways. As the demand for enslaved labor increased in the cotton states, some slave dealers from the Lower South arrived in Virginia to buy enslaved people for sale back home. One of these men was H. M. Cobb, who traveled to Virginia, purchased enslaved people, and brought them back to Georgia, where he auctioned them off. Similarly, Alabama slave traders traveled to Prince Edward County and arranged with enslavers there to transport their enslaved laborers south for sale. The Prince Edward enslavers agreed to furnish clothing, coffins for any enslaved people who died on the journey, and the expenses of transporting the human cargo. In return, they received two-thirds of the proceeds of the sale of enslaved people.
Virginia’s bustling slave-selling market also led to the stealing of enslaved people and the kidnapping of free Blacks in order to sell them into slavery. One poor white man who engaged in this practice was Benjamin Mechum, a Virginian who owned no land and could neither read nor write. With the aid of four other men, Mechum captured an enslaved man who had absconded from North Carolina and conveyed him to Danville, where the group agreed that Mechum would bring him to Richmond, sell him, and return to divide up the profits. Mechum was arrested in 1857. Others snatched enslaved people directly from plantations or stole whole groups of hired-out enslaved laborers to sell in Wheeling and Richmond. The kidnapping of free Blacks happened often enough for local newspapers to refer to the activity as “blackbirding.” One such victim was the teenager Peter Wych, who was pulled from the wagon he was driving and sold in Georgia. In another instance, reported in the Alexandria Gazette and Daily Advertiser on August 8, 1818, an eight-year-old boy was kidnapped in Lexington and hustled away in a rowboat. A similar attempt failed in Grayson County, however, when five white men met violent resistance from five free Blacks. Members of both groups ended up dead. Stealing and kidnapping accounted for only a small fraction of the total number of sales of enslaved people in Virginia, but their increasing occurrence during the 1850s suggested how lucrative and pervasive the business of selling enslaved people was in the years leading up to the Civil War.
Many Virginia enslavers who wished to sell their enslaved people were aided by established community members who knew them personally and traded on their behalf. Men who performed this service during the 1830s, 1840s, and 1850s in Loudoun County were Charles McCabe, William Noland, and John Avis. In Nelson County Sheriff Floyd L. Whitehead acquired seventy-three enslaved people from 1835 to 1836 and, with the aid of his business partner in Lynchburg, sold them in Mississippi. In Page County during the 1830s and 1840s, Frank White and David McCoy engaged in slave trading intermittently in order to augment their farming. Early in the 1850s, McCoy purchased from his neighbor the enslaved woman Bethany Veney and took her to Richmond to sell. Veney feigned sickness on the auction block and foiled the sale.
Most enslaved Virginians destined for resale in the Lower South, however, were sold to agents who purchased them on behalf of large, established slave-trading firms. The Scottsville agent James Brady, for example, combed the central Virginia countryside and bought enslaved people to sell to Richmond slave traders. Additionally, J. M. Saunders and Company in Fauquier County, Thomas Hundley in Amherst County, Newton Boley in Winchester, and others in southwestern Virginia, Richmond, Fredericksburg, and elsewhere purchased and sent enslaved people to Franklin and Armfield in Alexandria, one of Virginia’s major collection points for enslaved labor. Within their particular region of operation, agents acquired enslaved people by attending slave auctions, propositioning enslavers directly, and buying free Blacks who had been convicted of crimes and sentenced to enslavement. Some who operated in Winchester in the 1820s spent several days roaming about the streets with “Cash for Negroes” emblazoned upon their hats and carried out their transactions at Bryarly’s Tavern and McGuire’s Hotel.
As a means of boosting profits, many Virginia slave traders used the telegraph to convey and receive market information on their human commodities. The Pittsylvania County trader Philip Thomas‘s decision as to whether to purchase a lot of enslaved laborers in Virginia hinged upon the Alabama market’s capacity to return a profit on them at that moment, and the telegraph enabled him to learn that information from his partner. “Telegraph me and I will buy them” if they can be sold in Alabama at a profit, Thomas cabled his associate, William A. J. Finney, on January 30, 1859—but if a profit on the slaves could not be realized, “do not Telegraph and I will understand not to buy.” Traders also used the telegraph to make inquiries concerning the Richmond market and disease outbreaks there.
Auctions in Virginia facilitated the sale of enslaved men, women, and children to buyers from all over the South. In smaller cities and villages, enslaved people were auctioned on courthouse steps, while in larger cities such as Richmond and Alexandria auctioneers sold enslaved people at their offices. Those who auctioned, or “cried off,” enslaved labor deployed up-to-date marketing techniques, which included placing notices in newspapers. Column-head placement, bold type, and an emphasis on the imminence of the sale combined to entice buyers by creating the perception of an excellent opportunity that had to be seized quickly.
The Richmond Enquirer, for instance, featured a regular column of auctions of enslaved labor. The paper’s October 13, 1857, edition containing Dickinson, Hill, and Company’s announcement: “NEGROES.—Will be sold by us this morning, at 10 o’clock, 12 likely Negroes, consisting of Men, Boys and Girls, and Women and Children.” Immediately below that ad, D. M. Pulliam and Company’s notice read, “NEGROES.—We will sell 10 likely negroes, at auction, at our office, at 9 ½ o’clock to day.” The third ad in the same column was placed by the trader Hector Davis: “NEGROES.—This day, at 9 ½ o’clock, I will sell, 15 likely negroes—men boys and girls.” Ten days later, D. M. Pulliam and Company announced that it would put up ten enslaved people for auction at 9:30 in the morning, Davis thirteen at the same time, and Dickinson, Hill and Company twelve more a half hour later.
Enslaved people then stood on the block one at a time, although mothers and young children generally were sold together. Auctioneers began by asking for a price that they insisted was below the enslaved person’s value. As evidence of good health, auctioneers removed infants from their mothers’ arms and held them up to the crowd. They also emphasized the height and hands of young boys, sometimes compelling them to run back and forth across the floor before returning to the block. Bids often came in ten-dollar increments, with the auctioneers expertly nudging the prices up. Once they had been sold, enslaved people stepped down from the block and returned to their chairs.
Before and immediately after the sale, enslaved men, women, and children were confined to so-called slave jails on or near the sellers’ premises. These properties often included boarding houses where buyers stayed until their slaves were sold. From 1828 to 1836 John Armfield lived adjacent to the jail in a three-story brick house on Duke Street, in Alexandria. At any one time, the Franklin and Armfield jail held about 100 male and female slaves in sex-segregated, partially roofed yards surrounded by high walls, gates, bars, grated windows, and iron doors secured with bolts and padlocks. The enslaved people ate at long tables placed in the yards and spent their nights in a two-story wing attached to the main house. In 1861, when Union forces occupied Alexandria, Price, Birch, and Company owned the jail, and northern photographers captured its image multiple times.
In 1844, the Alexandria slave dealer Joseph Bruin, in partnership with Henry Hill, purchased a brick, Federal-style house on Duke Street, which he used as a slave jail. The two-acre property included a kitchen and wash house, and evidence shows that until the beginning of the Civil War the jail held dozens of enslaved men, women, and children at any one time. In A Key to Uncle Tom’s Cabin, published in 1854 as a guide to the sources and research used to write her novel, Harriet Beecher Stowe describes a family’s stay in “the large slave warehouse” that was the Bruin and Hill jail. The chilly rooms had neither beds nor chairs and exercise was limited to “a few moments” in the mornings.
In Richmond, the slave trader Bacon Tait built a jail on his property in 1833, advertising it as “spacious comfortable [and] strong.” That year he sold it to Lewis A. Collier who, in 1844, sold it to Robert Lumpkin. The six lots contained a brick residence fronting Wall Street, a boarding house, a kitchen, and the jail, which faced Broad Street. Forty-one feet long and twenty-one feet wide, the two-story jail had bars on the windows and was separated from Shockoe Creek only by a rough wooden fence. After the fugitive enslaved man Anthony Burns was famously captured and tried in Boston in 1854, he was confined to Lumpkin’s Jail for four months. The conditions there were torturous and left Burns permanently crippled and in ill health. He died in 1862, at the age of twenty-eight.
Transporting Enslaved Labor
When it came time to transport enslaved men, women, and children to the Lower South, their new enslavers marched them overland in coffles, or groups, containing anywhere from two dozen to hundreds of captives. During the course of a several-week journey, the enslaved men walked handcuffed to each other, usually with iron collars locked to their necks, while the women were tied with rope, and the children carried in wagons. Armed traders traveled by horse, carriage, and wagon. John Armfield generally rode at the head of his coffles, armed with a gun and a whip as he led it westward from Alexandria, over the Little River Turnpike, and to Winchester. Armfield’s coffle then marched through the Shenandoah Valley, a route traveled frequently enough by coffles for locals to complain about jammed-up the thoroughfares. In Tennessee, Armfield turned the coffle over to others and secured a stagecoach back to Alexandria. In the years before the Civil War, the carpenter Lewis Miller sketched into his notebook a coffle of enslaved people traveling barefoot from Staunton to Tennessee and accounted himself “Astonished at this boldness.”
Virginia slave traders also utilized railroads to haul enslaved people more rapidly and cheaply. Coffles of enslaved laborers who arrived at Danville, for example, often boarded a train for the next leg of their journey, riding in baggage rather than passenger cars. Elsewhere, the Pittsylvania County slave trader Philip Thomas used railroads to send enslaved people from Richmond to his associate, William A. J. Finney, in Alabama. “In eight days after I leave home” for Richmond, Thomas wrote to Finney on November 8, 1859, “I will be in Montgomery with a fresh lot of negroes.” Train travel took a fraction of the time, which meant spending less money on guards and provisions. Some enslaved people traveled to the Lower South by water via the cost, with Franklin and Armfield using a packet-line service. Vessels initially departed once a month but soon began making runs twice monthly.
Slave Traders and Their Families
Slave traders were often among the richest men in their communities. In Alexandria, Franklin and Armfield made annual profits of more than $100,000, which made Isaac Franklin a millionaire and gave John Armfield an estate worth $500,000. In Richmond, Hector Davis’s firm took in nearly $1 million during just the first quarter of 1860. About that same time, total sales of enslaved people in Richmond amounted to between $7 million and $8 million per year.
There appeared to have been some social stigma attached to the slave trading business. The letters of John B. Prentis, for instance, suggest a frustration where more elite society was concerned, and Bacon Tait complained of trouble finding a proper wife. Still, Prentis owned a home in the fashionable Church Hill neighborhood of Richmond, and Tait served four terms on the Richmond City Council (1847–1851). When Silas Omohundro died in 1864, he left property in Richmond, a farm in Henrico County, and real estate in Pennsylvania. His will was executed by the mayor of Richmond. Davis, meanwhile, co-founded the Traders Bank of Richmond and served as its president.
Among the prominent Richmond traders, only Prentis entered into a traditional marriage relationship, with Catharine Dabney of Henrico County. The others fathered children with African American women. Between 1843 and 1848, Tait fathered four children with Courtney Fountain, a free Black woman with connections to the abolitionist movement, and in 1851 Tait and Fountain moved to Massachusetts. Tait continued to manage his business from afar, and his biographer, Hank Trent, has noted that slave traders endeavored to “compartmentalize” the manner in which they perceived non-whites. Omohundro had children with at least three different women, including his enslaved women Louisa Tandy and Corinna Hinton. In his will, he took the unusual step of acknowledging his children with Hinton and referred to her as “my woman” and “a kind, faithful, and dutiful woman to me and an affectionate mother.” Davis had several children with an enslaved woman he owned, Ann Banks Davis, whom he moved to Philadelphia about 1860 and freed in his will. The Richmond trader Robert Lumpkin had five children with an enslaved woman named Mary.
Many historians have noted the contradiction at work in the lives of these white businessmen. Their livelihoods depended on the enslavement of black men, women, and children, and they broke up countless families in exchange for staggering profits. Many of these men, and Omohundro in particular, also traded in so-called fancy women, a label that indicated enslaved women to be sold for sexual purposes. And yet these same men also made families with enslaved and other non-white women. Omohundro’s enslaved concubine, to whom he left property after his death, actually had been one of his “fancy women.” Other traders sent their mixed-race children to schools in the North, providing for their own families with the wealth they had gained from destroying the families of others.