Philip Thomas (1831–1888)


Philip Thomas was a farmer and slave trader in Pittsylvania County. Born in 1831, by late in the 1850s he had partnered with William A. J. Finney in a slave trading business. The two worked together for several years buying enslaved men, women, and children locally and then either transporting them to the slave-trading hubs of Richmond and Alexandria or sending them directly south for resale. Both earned substantial return on their efforts, aided by improvements in infrastructure and communications. A year into the American Civil War (1861–1865), Thomas joined the 5th Virginia Cavalry and stayed with the regiment through the remainder of the conflict. After the surrender at Appomattox, however, he was without land or business and so moved to Georgia, where he worked as a carpenter and died in 1888.

Thomas was born on April 21, 1831, in Pittsylvania County, the son of Philip Thomas and his second wife, Edith Meade Thomas. He had two half brothers. Little is known of Thomas’s early years or education. In 1851, he married Mary Ann Dickenson and the couple had four sons and three daughters. Mary Dickenson Thomas died in 1866, in Cherokee County, Georgia, probably as a result of childbirth.

After the Sale: Slaves Going South from Richmond

The 1850 federal census lists Philip Thomas as a merchant, and by late in the decade he was operating as a slave trader in Pittsylvania County, in partnership with William A. J. Finney. The sale of enslaved men, women, and children was a lucrative business in Virginia, with men such as Thomas and Finney scouring their particular part of the state for slaves. They purchased them from individual planters and then either transported the slaves to the major trading hubs of Richmond and Alexandria or sent them directly to the Lower South for resale. The result was the same: slaves in Virginia were sold to labor in the cotton fields of Georgia, Mississippi, and Alabama, often separated from their families and facing shortened lives.

Infrastructure projects in Virginia aided business. The Franklin Turnpike, built in 1842, and the Danville and Richmond Railroad, built in 1856, connected county slave markets to other parts of the state. The telegraph also helped Thomas and Finney keep track of fluctuating markets in the cotton states. Illness, meanwhile, could hurt profits. An epidemic in Richmond led Thomas to write Finney on January 30, 1859, that slaves “die daily and I suppose there are at least 60 or 100 sick at this time. Some has actually died on the cars going south. Five or six has died out of Lumpkin’s jail, and the worst of it is they die in some 24 hours of being taken.” In the same letter, Thomas reassured his partner that he had protected their investment with insurance. “One of our children is very sick this morning,” he wrote. “I have sent for the doctor, but all the grown ones I have had insured as soon as I bought them.”

Auction Prices for Slaves

Later that year Thomas suggested to Finney that they get out of the slave-trading business because the quality of enslaved men, women, and children available for sale was not creating conditions for profit or maintaining social respectability. In a letter dated November 26, 1859, he described one lot of people for sale: “Woman and child very common brought $1,602. Another with fallen womb $1,050. Man 55 years old yellow and pale colour $900 […] a girl size of Gilmer’s girl but rough faced $300. Others in proportion and I have not bought a single one.” Thomas and Finney remained in business, however.

The 1860 census lists Thomas as a farmer with $9,000 of real estate and $25,000 of personal estate. He owned 375 acres of improved land, 178 acres of unimproved land, and thirty-four slaves to work it. The year’s output included 15,000 pounds of tobacco and 415 bushels of wheat. Most of his wealth, however, was tied to his slave trade business.

On March 1, 1862, Thomas enlisted in the Confederate army in Danville. He served as first sergeant in the 5th Virginia Cavalry Regiment, which saw action at the Second Battle of Manassas (1862), the Battle of Fredericksburg (1862), the Battle of Gettysburg (1863), and the Overland and Petersburg campaigns (1864). He left the service in 1865, still a first sergeant but having lost his land and—with the abolition of slavery—his business. He moved to Georgia, and the 1870 census lists him as a carpenter in Fulton County. He died in Cherokee County in 1888.

April 21, 1831
Philip Thomas is born in Pittsylvania County.
Philip Thomas and Mary Ann Dickenson marry in Pittsylvania County.
Late 1850s
Philip Thomas and William A. J. Finney are partners in a slave trading business in Pittsylvania County.
The federal census lists Philip Thomas as a farmer with 553 acres of land and thirty-four slaves.
March 1, 1862
Philip Thomas enlists as a first sergeant in the 5th Virginia Cavalry Regiment.
Philip Thomas leaves Confederate service a first sergeant and moves to Georgia shortly after.
The federal census lists Philip Thomas as a carpenter in Fulton County, Georgia.
Philip Thomas dies in Cherokee County, Georgia.
  • Beal, Giles Detwiler IV. Selling Souls from a Distance: Market Revolution Transformations in the United States Domestic Slave Trade and Slave Traders. Unpublished thesis, Washington and Lee University, 2014.
APA Citation:
Wolfe, Brendan. Philip Thomas (1831–1888). (2020, December 07). In Encyclopedia Virginia. https://encyclopediavirginia.org/entries/thomas-philip-1831-1888.
MLA Citation:
Wolfe, Brendan. "Philip Thomas (1831–1888)" Encyclopedia Virginia. Virginia Humanities, (07 Dec. 2020). Web. 29 May. 2024
Last updated: 2024, May 03
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