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:
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.
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:
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.
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.
2) 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:
That 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!