When slave ships reached the Americas, the slaves were off-loaded and sold in slave markets, like the one pictured here in Atlanta (1860s).

The Slave-Market (1830-1860)

This is an excerpt Chapter IX of THE AMERICAN NATION: A HISTORY VOLUME 16; SLAVERY AND ABOLITION 1831–1841, one of the titles in our newest Civil War Collection – Part VII: Abraham Lincoln Library Abolitionist Books.

Part VII of our Civil War collection, Abraham Lincoln Library Abolitionist Books: Compiled by the Abraham Lincoln Memorial Library in Springfield, Illinois this unique collection brings together a disparate group of abolitionist era reference materials.

CHAPTER IX: THE SLAVE-MARKET (1830–1860)

With very small exceptions the negro slave was absolutely subject to sale at such times, to such persons, and on such terms as pleased his master. The ownership was as absolute as that of a horse or a watch. Although prosperous masters commonly did not sell slaves, the threat of being “sent down the river” for bad conduct was often realized; and able-bodied slaves who began to lose their vigor and vitality were sometimes sold because no longer profitable as work-hands; or at the death of a master, especially if the estate went to several heirs, among whom the proceeds had to be divided. There was always an undercurrent of feeling that to part with one’s slaves was ignoble; hence the most frequent reason for selling was simply that the master was obliged to realize, either to pay for something that he wanted to buy, or because he was in debt.

Was it true, as charged by the abolitionists, that slaves were bred in the border states for no other purpose than to sell them? Probably the truth was expressed by the Mississippian who said:

“A man might not raise a nigger with a well-considered plan to sell him eighteen years after he was born; he might never sell a nigger, but for all that, it was the readiness with which he could command a thousand dollars for every likely boy he had, if he should ever need it, that made him stay here and be bothered with taking care of a gang of niggers who barely earned enough to enable his family to live decently.”

In many cases slaves passed simply from vendor to purchaser like fancy stock, but the usual way was to attract buyers by advertisements. Within two weeks there appeared in the columns of sixty-four southern newspapers advertisements for the sale of forty-one hundred negroes, besides thirty lots to be sold at auction, as, for example:

PRIVATE SALES. Excellent Cook. Will be sold at private sale, a Woman, about 22 years of age, an excellent cook, (meat and pastry) Plain Washer, etc. She is sound and healthy and can make herself generally useful.

The slave-traders had no social reward for this useful service; a traveller in a steamer noticed “that the planters on board … shunned all intercourse with this dealer, as if they regarded his business as scarcely respectable.”

However despised, the business was profitable. The private sales involved no public exhibition of the merchandise, and in many cases showed some regard to the preference of the slaves. The public sales brought out the worst side of the whole system. The north was shocked by such grouping of human and brute merchandise as:

SHERIFF’S SALE. I will sell at Fairfield Court House, 2 Negroes, 2 Horses and I Jennet, I pair of Cart Wheels, I Bedstead, I Riding Saddle. Sheriff’s Office, Nov. 19, 1852.

Nowhere was the repulsiveness of slavery so apparent as in the slave auction-rooms maintained in most southern cities. One spectator saw a woman put upon the block, obviously very ill, who owned to a bad cough and pain in her side, to which the auctioneer replied:

Never mind what she says, gentlemen, I told you she was a shammer. Her health is good enough. Damn her humbug. Give her a touch or two of the cow-hide, and I’ll warrant she will do your work. Speak, gentlemen, before I knock her down.

Another was shocked at the free-and-easy treatment of women:

There were some very pretty light mulattoes. A gentleman took one of the prettiest of them by the chin, and opened her mouth to see the state of her gums and teeth, with no more ceremony than if she had been a horse.

Another was struck by the offer of “a woman still young, and three children, all for $850. Another was startled to see a negro baby sold on the block without its mother, but was preternaturally reassured when told by a slave-holding friend that “nothing of the kind ever took place before to our knowledge.”

Source: THE AMERICAN NATION: A HISTORY — VOLUME 16
Top Image: Slave Market in Atlanta, Georgia

All images included in blog posts are from either Accessible Archives collections or out of copyright public sources unless otherwise noted. Common sources include the Library of Congress, The Flickr Commons, Wikimedia Commons, and other public archives.

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