How Were Slaves Sold?

Slaves for sale in New Orleans, NYPL via Wikipedia

Slaves for sale in New Orleans, NYPL via Wikipedia

It is a well-known fact when researching African-American enslaved ancestors that slaves were frequently sold. In fact, many enslaved people had a personal experience of their own sale or that of another family member. It’s recounted in numerous slave narratives, such as this excerpt from Leonard Black’s narrative:

“As near as I can remember, my mother and sister were sold and taken to New Orleans, leaving four brothers and myself behind. We were all placed out. At six years of age I was placed with a Mr. Bradford, separated from my father, mother and family.”

 

Slave sales were recounted in the slave interviews of the 1930s, such as this one by Delia Garlic:

“Babies was snatched from their mothers’ breasts and sold to speculators. Children was separated from sisters and brothers and never saw each other again. Course they cry; you think they not cry when they was sold like cattle? I could tell you about it all day, but even then you couldn’t guess the awfulness of it.”

But how were slaves sold? What is our understanding of slave sales as it relates to our genealogical research?

(Sidenote: I won’t be discussing inheritance, though we should all know that most enslaved people were inherited upon their owner’s death, and were dispersed among the owner’s family. As chattel, slaves were also gifted and mortgaged. So the first place to look for the origins of enslaved people is in the immediate family of their current owners—their parents, their wife’s parents, siblings, even aunts and uncles.)

During the Domestic Slave Trade, after 1808 when the African Slave Trade was outlawed, almost 1 million enslaved people were sold from the states of the Upper South (Maryland, Virginia, Delaware, North Carolina). Many of those people were children and young adults, ripping families apart, many of whom had been in America for several generations by that time. The map below is one of my favorites from the Schomburg Migrations website–it shows the common routes taken during the trade:

DST Routes
DST Routes

Sale, obviously, was a psychological terror that shaped the lives and actions of our ancestors. It was frequently the impetus behind attempts to run away. Slaves knew that in most cases it was the death of their familial relationships and that if they were “sold south,” they would never see their family again. Most didn’t.

Many genealogists assume (or rather hope) they will find a bill of sale in the courthouse deed records, with their ancestor’s name on it. And some will. I found my 2nd great-grandmother Malinda Holt in Tennessee in two bills of sale that tied her to her owner, Giles Holt. A slaveholder could have some protections related to the sale if it was documented at the courthouse, but it was not required that they do so. It’s personal property, after all.

More importantly, I would venture that many genealogists won’t find that document for this reason: 1) Most slaves were sold first to slave traders and then taken by those traders to be sold elsewhere. You’ll also see traders referred to in primary documents sometimes as “nigger traders” and also as “speculators.” This is the way most slaves were sold. Now maybe an enslaved woman talked her owner into buying her husband, or vice versa. Or maybe an owner decided to sale a slave to a son-in-law or neighbor because he is in need of cash. That happened of course. But those kinds of sales did not make up the bulk of the market in slaves.

Slave traders were private businessmen. Their records were private business records. Few have become available to the public  (like this one from William James Smith). Even if they survive, many don’t include who the slave was purchased from, where they went and who they were subsequently sold to—in other words, they usually don’t contain enough information for genealogists to track an ancestor.

Remains of the Savannah Slave Pen (from usslave.blogspot.com)

Remains of the Savannah Slave Pen (from usslave.blogspot.com)

The antebellum slave market at New Orleans was the largest in the South, and the richest and most well-known slave traders were shipping slaves to New Orleans. I highly recommend the book “Soul by Soul: Life Inside the Antebellum Slave Market,” by Walter Johnson for a unique look at the experiences of slaves in the market. Slaves were shipped by steamboat and later by rail, but many were forced to walk long distances overland to their destinations in chains. The “slave coffle” became a common sight in the South. The photo below depicts a coffle in VA in 1839:

James Buckingham, The Slave States of America (London, 1842), vol. 2, facing p. 553.

James Buckingham, The Slave States of America (London, 1842), vol. 2, facing p. 553.

Other large markets were at Natchez, MS, Savannah, GA, Memphis, TN, Richmond and Alexandria, VA, Montgomery, AL, Charleston, SC, and Washington, DC, with other smaller markets spread across the South. Of course, traders also sold slaves in the small rural towns and cities as they passed through on the way to larger markets. Slaveholders like Isaac Franklin and John Armfield, headquartered in Alexandria, also had offices in several of those markets. They sold over 1,000 slaves every year into the southwest at their heyday in the 1830s.

Isaac Franklin, Wikipedia

Isaac Franklin, Wikipedia

Franklin owned several large plantations in Louisiana and Tennessee at his retirement and he had made almost a million dollars. Other regions had large traders—like Robert Lumpkin in Richmond, Austin Woolfork in Baltimore, former Confederate General Nathan Bedford Forrest in Memphis, TN. In addition to the larger players, hundreds of other men in these slave centers participated in the slave trade business, running hotels, auction houses and slave jails and pens. Traders ran frequent ads in local papers, and were identified in city directories and even in some census records.

ad12) Another large source of slave sales came from estate sales. When a slaveholder died, if he or she did not draft a will dividing their slaves (i.e. called dying “intestate”), their slaves and other property were divided by the inheritance laws of the state. You’ll find many slaves sold during estate sales, and you will often find neighbors buying slaves as well as all the other implements of farming and other household goods. The example below is from Solomon Holland’s estate sale in 1840 in Montgomery County, MD. It shows the sales of his estate, and most importantly, who those slaves were sold to:
headerpart2That means we need to look at the estate sales of the neighbors of the people who owned our ancestors. These documents may reveal a previous owner of an enslaved ancestor. This is classic Cluster Research. If a slave was fortunate, he or she may be purchased by a neighbor, and may still be able to occasionally visit former relatives and friends. This was a far better fate than being sold to s slave trader, who wasn’t limited to the local area.

3) I would probably place individual sales of slaves by an owner to another person, last in terms of probability behind trader and estate sales. Again, of course it happened, but we need to not forget the two larger sources of slave sales I discussed above.

A few more things in closing: Professor Heather Williams wrote a book in 2012 about slave separation called, “Help Me to Find My People: The African American Search for Family Lost in Slavery.” In it, she describes how slaveholders had crafted a narrative that black people did not form emotional attachments to their family members the way that whites did. Of course, as she describes, that is belied by the fact that slaveholders often didn’t want to be around when the separation took place, and would often arrange for some ruse so they would not have to witness the crying and extreme display of their slave’s emotions. I thought of that in the movie about Solomon Northup in the scene where the slaveholder’s wife eventually sells the female slave for constantly crying about losing her children.

I have posted before about the heart-wrenching efforts of former slaves to find their family members after emancipation. Take a look at this amazing website, Lost Friends, which extracts some of those ads.

I’m looking forward to one day visiting the new Whitney Plantation in Louisiana. It is the first plantation dedicated to telling the story of enslaved people.

And lastly, DNA is creating a new opportunity for some of us to find those ancestors who were sold away. Look at the amazing discoveries my friend Melvin Collier has had using DNA research. I believe he has found every slave ancestor he ever had;)

I hope everyone had a wonderful holiday season and is poised for great family discoveries in 2016!

Slave Research: Four Things You Need to Know

Contraband Slaves

Contraband Slaves

I’ve been conducting slave research on my family and teaching others how to do it for about 18 years now. There are a few points I tend to mention repeatedly on Reclaiming Kin, but thought it would be a good idea to list some of those ideas for other researchers all in one place. Especially for beginners, there are some things that will benefit you to know as you progress back into the era of slavery.

1. Slave research is extraordinarily complicated. Most people want simple solutions and one-size- fits-all methodologies, but it just doesn’t work that way. It is complex, and requires a commitment that everyone might not have. Yes, there are plenty of examples of researchers finding the slaveowner in what might appear to be a simple fashion, and heaven knows all the genealogy TV shows make it look easy (what wouldn’t be, with a team of paid researchers behind the scenes?). Those “simple” techniques won’t work for many people, and won’t work on all the lines of your family. Don’t be above hiring a trained researcher (trained in slave research) to do this for you don’t have to time or the desire to run uphill.

2. You should have researched all the generations of your family from the present day back to at least 1870 before you even think about researching slavery. I do mean researching all the siblings in each and every generation (not just your direct line) and I do mean having proper source information. I do mean researching in LOTS of different records. That will take a lot of time—years for most people. If you are just beginning, focus on taking the time to do this properly. Why? First, you’ll need the skills you develop during this phase to utilize during your slave research. Secondly, you might just discover the name of the slaveowner if you research deeply and broadly enough before you get back to that time period.

3. You have to read about the history of the area before you start slave research. You. Have. To. You need to know what happened in your research county during the Civil War. Was it an area of large or small slaveowners? Were there many freed blacks or abolitionists there? What was the cash crop? What states did folks migrate from? You might luck up and find a full length book treatment of the subject, or you might find it given a chapter or two in a general history of the county or state.  Don’t forget to check thesis and dissertations—it’s a popular topic for local universities. I can’t stress this enough. If you can’t answer something as simple as Which armies came through that area and when? Then you are not ready to research the period of slavery. That information will be critical to your research.  Other resources are states that have Blue Books online about their history like this one for Tennessee and cover the topic, or  the state archives may have published information like this pamphlet on Slavery in Maryland. You may find a reputable a webpage on the topic like this one for North Carolina. Shown below are three types of books that information might be found in:

Historical Books

Historical Books

4. You must learn more about the institution of slavery. Most of us (myself included) know little when we start other than what we saw on Roots. There has been new research and tremendous strides made in the past several decades by outstanding historians that have increased our understanding about slavery. I am suggesting you read one or two books about slavery in general. Unless you are already an African-American History Studies major, there will be many things you learn about slavery and many myths that will be dispelled. You need to know those things to be successful. Here’s a point by historian Ira Berlin I like to use to convey this message—(I am paraphrasing). Most of us think about cotton, big plantations, the Deep South and religion when we think about slavery, but for most of the period of slavery, those things did not define the slave experience in this country. All of those came about in the last few decades of the roughly 230 years of slavery in the U.S., in the 9th inning so to speak. Another point: the domestic slave trade uprooted more slaves (about one million) than were originally brought into this country by the African Slave Trade (about 500,000). There are many websites with free video lectures and panel sessions on the topic, and I especially enjoyed Ira Berlin’s Slavery in American Life. Finally, the two books below specific to researching slaves will be useful:

African-American/Slave Research

African-American/Slave Research

I hope this post will help prepare those on their quest to uncover their enslaved ancestors. Although it is complex and difficult work, it is also some of the most rewarding work I have ever done.

U.S. Colored Troops

U.S. Colored Troop Unknown

Unidentified Soldier, LOC
Digital ID, ppmsca-26456

For many years now, I’ve been interested in researching U.S. Colored Troops who served in Union forces from the communities where my family lived. Most people know by now that almost 200,000 black people, slaves and free blacks, served in the Union Army and Navy. The Emancipation Proclamation in January 1863 finally began the process of their large-scale recruitment into the service as soldiers. The racial ideology of the times believed that black people, especially slaves, did not have the mental capacity, bravery or intelligence necessary in a soldier. However, blacks served with valor and distinction as U.S. Colored Troops and proved everyone wrong. Although the impetus for their service was military necessity, their service no doubt contributed to Northern victory and provided proof of their equality as men, even if most whites of the times were not ready to hear that message.

U.S. Colored Troops service records are available on Ancestry and Fold3. We always search for our own ancestors, but I’d like to recommend that you also search for others in the same county. Particularly in the case of former slaves, the analysis of service (and pension) records can expand your understanding of the community and add valuable details about the slave community. One of the ways to do this is to enter a county in the birth search box for the U.S. Colored Troops Service Records, but do not enter any names. So, if I put “Montgomery County, Maryland” into the birth place box, and leave everything else blank, the database will return soldiers born in that community. Keep in mind that they may have since migrated from that community. Also, there will be others from the county who may not have their county of birth recorded in the official cards. But this process will catch plenty of people. After analyzing these records, I cross reference and attempt to find pension records for those soldiers.

From NARA’s description at the 150th anniversary of the digitization of these records, we find the following:

Researchers may be surprised to find that the USCT military service records hold not only muster rolls but also a huge array of personal papers that can include enlistment papers, correspondence, orders, prisoner-of-war memorandums, casualty reports, and final statements. Starting in October 1863, slave owners could enlist their slaves and receive up to $300 upon filing a “manumission” or deed of ownership. Unique to some of the records of the USCT are these deeds of manumission and bills of sale. For genealogists, these records may offer the only source of documentation of an enslaved ancestor in the absence of other vital records.

I’d like to share some of the personal papers that can be found within the USCT service records. Below are two documents you’ll see in the files to let you know there are “other” papers (click to enlarge):

U.S. Colored Troop William Abel

William Abel

Personal Papers Form

Personal Papers Form

In the four border states of Maryland, Kentucky, Delaware and Missouri, slaves could join with their owner’s permission (runaways also joined). They had to be freed and the owners were compensated. There will be documents indicating the slaveowner’s claim, title and loyalty, and possibly the manumission document:

U.S. Colored Troop Alfred Snowden

Slave Claim

U.S. Colored Troop Mortimer King

Ownership Note

 

U.S. Colored Troop Snowden manumission

Manumission

When soldiers died in the service, some files included death certificates and other statements about their death:

U.S. Colored Troop Leonidas Gray Death Cert

The brief cards created during hospital stays could provide a valuable contact name in the area for “PO address of wife or nearest relative”:

U.S. Colored Troop Frank Posey Hospital Card

Hospital Card

Some files indicate that the person was substituting for another, although who that other person is only sometimes stated. A whole industry of people willing to join for pay arose, stoking class conflict as only those with money had that luxury:

U.S. Colored Troop Sam Abernathy Enlistment

Substitute

 

Sometimes the “remarks” on the bottom of cards will mention whether a person was “free” or “slave.”

U.S. Colored Troop Campbell Harris status

Slave Status

By far my favorite document is the volunteer enlistment. If I had a direct ancestor who served, I would have this framed and up on the wall:

U.S. Colored Troop Uriah Perry declaration

Declaration

Many former soldier’s opened accounts at the Freedman’s Bank, so be sure to cross-reference the soldiers you find with that database:

U.S. Colored Troop George Askins bank card

George Askins

 

There are many more interesting documents like medical examinations, documents indicating desertion and subsequent discipline, inventories if the soldier died in the service, letters, etc. Go back through your research and see what discoveries you can make by searching for others in the community. I’d love to hear in the comments what you’ve found.

For more detailed information, read NARA’s description of CMSR records, explore the National Park Service’s  Civil War Soldiers and Sailors Database and visit the website of the African-American Civil War Memorial and Museum.

Slaves Search For Their Families in Newspapers

Library of Congress, LC-USZC4-4574

Library of Congress, LC-USZC4-4574

One of the many reasons slaveowners conjured up to justify the buying and selling of people, especially when breaking up families, was that enslaved people did not form the same attachments to their children and spouses as whites did. Elizabeth Keckley was a former slave who later became famous as Mary Lincoln’s seamstress. In her autobiography, she recalled the

Keckley

Keckley

pain of her mother’s cries when her father was sold away. “Stop your nonsense,” her slaveowner’s wife said. “there is no necessity for you putting on airs. Your husband is not the only slave that has been sold from his family, and you are not the only one that has had to part. There are plenty more men about here, and if you want a husband so badly, stop your crying and go and find another.”

That same story of bitter parting can be found in most of the hundreds of narratives written by former slaves. Even slaveowner’s own runaway ads betray their rationale: frequent reference is made in those ads about the slave probably running away to where parents, children or siblings were. Slaveowners knew better.

Yet another sad part of the story is told in the ads placed in newspapers after emancipation by former slaves searching for spouses and children who were sold away. As the mother of a young child, I can’t imagine the horror of being torn away and literally never seeing that child again.

These ads can be found in African-American newspapers such as The Colored Tennessean, The Christian Recorder, The Appeal and others, though finding surviving copies can be a challenge. Many ads were placed in the earlier years after the war during reconstruction, but many people were still searching at the turn of the century. Almost 40 years later, they had still not given up hope of reuniting with their family. A 2012 book by historian Heather Williams called Help Me to Find My People: The African-American Search for Family Lost in Slavery discusses the topic.

The ads speak for themselves and for me, elicit a deep, deep sorrow, and a sense of the lingering pain and suffering that occurred long after the war was over.

Richmond Planet, August 1897

Richmond Planet, August 1897

The Appeal, August 1892

The Appeal, August 1892

The Atlanta Constitution, October 1892

The Atlanta Constitution, October 1892

The Appeal, August 1892

The Appeal, August 1892

The Times Picayune Sun,  January 1868

The Times Picayune Sun, January 1868

The Daily Standard, March 1867

The Daily Standard, March 1867

The Daily NewBernian, December 1880

The Daily NewBernian, December 1880

The Appeal, February 1891

The Appeal, February 1891

(As with anything on this blog, if you believe an image I post may relate to your family, please request via the comments and I will send you a source citation for the image.)

Henry’s Slaves: One in a Million

There have been a few times in the 18 years of my research that have truly taken my breath away. I just had another one. Recently, I was researching the possible owners of some former slaves from Dorchester County, Maryland. John Campbell Henry died in 1857, and as a former governor of Maryland, was a prominent person and an important planter. I’ve reviewed hundreds of inventories, but boy was there a big surprise in store for me.

I have never seen–and would bet that I never will again–an estate inventory that lists surnames for all the slaves. Slave surnames are always a topic of debate, and I’ve discussed them here before, but this is a powerful reminder that slaves had surnames, if only that by custom and practice they were not usually recorded by slaveowners. Although I’ve seen surnames attached to a few names in an estate inventory, never have I seen all the surnames recorded. Emotionally it hit me very powerfully; it was like a small admission of their humanity, which so much of slavery tried to destroy. These were people with families; not animals, not farm equipment, not silverware.

The inventory even provides some relationships, noting the mothers of some of the children, and noting some married couples. It is really quite an amazing document. Notice the number of different surnames; that speaks to the hodge-podge nature of enslaved people’s lives. They were bought and sold and inherited such that over time (with marriages) it was not uncommon to find groups enslaved together with many different surnames.

This is a one in a million document. Had more individuals charged with recording estate inventories taken this approach,  genealogical research would be so much easier for those of us researching enslaved ancestors.

(Note: I show only two of the three pages).

Inventory A

Inventory A

Inventory Page B

Inventory Page B