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.”

Many of the over 2,000 former slaves in the 1930s slave interviews also recount slave sales, 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 many enslaved people were inherited. Upon their owner’s death, they were bequeathed 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.)

The Domestic Slave Trade

During the Domestic Slave Trade, which emerged 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).

Families were ripped apart as many of these people were children and young adults, 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

The Dread of Sale

Sale was a psychological terror that shaped the lives and actions of our ancestors. It was frequently the impetus behind attempts to run away; we know this from the runaway ads.

Slaves knew that in most cases sale was the death of their familial relationships. If they were “sold south,” they would never see their family again.

Slaveholders often used the threat of sale against their enslaved laborers.

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.

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.

Lack of Documents

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 see traders referred to in primary documents 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 maybe an owner decided to sell a slave to a son-in-law or neighbor because he was in need of cash.

But those kinds of sales did not make up the bulk of the market in slave sales.

Slave traders were private businessmen. Their records were private business records. Few have survived or become available to the public (such as this one from William James Smith).

Even if they survive, most of these records 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

Remains of the Savannah Slave Pen (from

To Market

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 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 Virginia 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.

Slave Traders

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, and former Confederate General Nathan Bedford Forrest in Memphis, Tennessee.

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.


Estate Sales

2) Another large source of slave sales came from estate sales. When a slaveholder died without a will, their slaves and other property were divided among heirs according to 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 farming equipment and other household goods.

The example below is from Solomon Holland’s estate sale in 1840 in Montgomery County, Maryland.

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 able to visit former relatives and friends.

This was a far better fate than being sold to a slave trader, who wasn’t limited to the local area.

3) I would place individual sales of slaves by an owner to another person last in terms of probability behind trader and estate sales.

It happened, but we need to not forget the two larger sources of slave sales I discussed above.

Closing Thoughts

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.

As she describes, that falsehood is belied by the fact that slaveholders often didn’t want to be around when the separation took place.

They would often arrange for some ruse so they would not have to witness the crying and extreme display of their slave’s emotions.

That happened in the movie about Solomon Northup. There’s a 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.

Slavery was such a demonic and inhumane system. Not for one second do I forget that.


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