In the late eighteenth century, slave auctions and sales in Natchez took place at the landing along the Mississippi River known as Under-the-Hill. For the most part, slaves sent to Natchez arrived in New Orleans and were transported upriver, though slaves reached town overland as well.
By the 1790s the center of the trade in humans began shifting away from the river, and after an 1833 city ordinance barred the sale of slaves within city limits, the market moved to the Forks of the Road, the intersection of Washington Road/Natchez Trace (today’s D’Evereaux Drive), Old Courthouse Road (Liberty Road), and St. Catherine Street at the northwest edge of town. Reasons for the move are varied and could be related to the town’s concern with presenting a genteel appearance (the market’s original name, Niggerville, may have been changed to a geographic descriptor because of such concerns) or to residents’ fears that keeping slave pens in the raucous Under-the-Hill neighborhood was exceedingly dangerous. A more direct reason for the move was that Isaac Franklin of the slave-trading firm Franklin and Armfield managed his company from this location.
The growing profit potential of cotton as well as the decline in tobacco production helped to shift the center of slavery away from the Upper South states of Virginia and Maryland toward Mississippi and Louisiana. These shifts, along with the end of US importation of slaves, increased the value of those born in the United States and created an almost boundless market for enslaved men and women in the Old Southwest. As a result of these large-scale economic and demographic changes and the efforts of Franklin and Armfield, Natchez became the second-largest slave market in the United States, trailing only New Orleans.
By the antebellum period, slaves made their way overland to the Forks of the Road as part of coffles traveling from Virginia to Tennessee and then along the Natchez Trace. The journey was brutal. Usually taking place in the late summer and early fall under the presumption that cooler temperatures would have produced illness, the enslaved were manacled, chained, and forcibly marched to their destination under the watchful eyes of drivers on horseback. In the 1830s Franklin and Armfield began sending slaves via ship from Virginia to New Orleans and then upriver via steamboats equipped to hold between 75 and 150 slaves. Shipments to New Orleans could contain nearly 400 slaves, and by 1835 these ships were leaving Virginia every two weeks.
While Joseph Holt Ingraham famously described the market at the Forks of the Road as an orderly place where content, well-dressed, well-fed slaves were marketed, such outward appearances belied the conditions the enslaved endured. William Wells Brown, an enslaved man who made several trips to Natchez before escaping to freedom, indicated that slaves at the market were not as well treated as slave traders presented to their potential clients. Measles, cholera, and other diseases killed slaves confined to coffles and pens waiting to be sold, and traders concerned themselves with the health of slaves only when it might harm profits. Traders hoped to unload diseased slaves to unsuspecting purchasers. Moreover, as Rice Ballard, a partner of Franklin and Armfield, wrote, “The more Negroes lost in that country, the more will be wanting if they have the means of procuring them.” In other words, slaves killed by epidemics might cause short-term losses for the company but might also increase the value of the survivors.
The most despicable aspect of the trade at the Forks of the Road was the treatment of “fancy maids”—attractive, young female slaves. These girls and women, usually of mixed race, were essentially marketed as sexual slaves, and they commanded the highest prices. Franklin and Armfield’s partners frequently wrote to one another of their sexual exploits with these girls as well as their profitability, demonstrating perhaps that planters and slave traders were not so different in their desires.
Though the enslaved rarely receive much discussion in tours of Natchez, the Forks of the Road and the men, women, and children bought and sold there have recently been acknowledged by local activists with a monument presenting the history of the market.
- Edward E. Baptist, American Historical Review (December 2001)
- William Wells Brown, Narrative of William W. Brown, Fugitive Slave, Written by Himself (1847)
- Joseph Holt Ingraham, The Southwest by a Yankee, 2 vols. (1835)
- Walter Johnson, Soul by Soul: Life inside the Antebellum Slave Market (1999)
- David J. Libby, Slavery and Frontier Mississippi, 1720–1835 (2004)
- Preservation in Mississippi website, misspreservation.com