Slave sales as an important feature of the Virginia economy have their 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 slaves. 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.
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 slaves increased in the cotton states, some slave dealers from the Lower South arrived in Virginia to buy slaves for sale back home. One of these men was H. M. Cobb, who traveled to Virginia, purchased slaves, and brought them back to Georgia, where he auctioned them off. Similarly, Alabama slave traders traveled to Prince Edward County and arranged with slaveholders there to transport their slaves south for sale. The Prince Edward slaveholders agreed to furnish clothing, coffins for any slaves who died on the journey, and the expenses of transporting the human cargo. In return they received two-thirds of the proceeds of the slaves' sale.
Most Virginia slaves 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 slaves 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 slaves to Franklin and Armfield in Alexandria, one of Virginia's major slave-collection points. Within their particular region of operation, agents acquired slaves by attending slave auctions, propositioning slaveholders 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.
The Richmond Enquirer, for instance,featured a regular column of slave auctions, with 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, in the same paper, D. M. Pulliam and Company announced that it would put up ten slaves 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.
In Richmond, many of the city's most prominent auctioneers, including Davis, Silas Omohundro, and John B. Prentis, located their businesses in the Shockoe Bottom district, near the James River, and on auction days, they flew red flags outside their stores. These businesses were open to the general public, but as the British artist Eyre Crowe discovered when he visited in 1853, their proprietors were wary of outsiders, especially anyone suspected of being an abolitionist. A typical office included an iron stove, an auction block, a few chairs, and the trader's desk. Enslaved people were dressed in clean, neat clothing, often purchased for the occasion, and made to sit in the chairs, where they underwent a physical examination. Auction attendees inspected their arms, hands, and teeth, sometimes stripping them naked in order to ascertain their strength and overall health.
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.
Slave Traders and Their Families
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, cofounded the Traders Bank of Richmond and served as its president.
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 slaves 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.
Cite This Entry
- APA Citation:
Zaborney, J. J. Slave Sales. (2018, January 3). In Encyclopedia Virginia. Retrieved from http://www.EncyclopediaVirginia.org/Slave_Sales.
- MLA Citation:
Zaborney, John J. "Slave Sales." Encyclopedia Virginia. Virginia Foundation for the Humanities, 3 Jan. 2018. Web. READ_DATE.
First published: December 22, 2017 | Last modified: January 3, 2018