In 1820, Mississippi had 33,000 slaves; forty years later, that number had mushroomed to about 437,000, giving the state the country’s largest slave population. While new births accounted for much of that increase, the trade in slaves became a crucial part of Mississippians’ social and economic life. As historian Charles S. Sydnor wrote, “Few, if any, southern States received as many slaves and exported as few.”
Slave sales were painful events. They could be humiliating, since humans were treated as livestock and inspected for their physical features. Being sold also meant the possibility of separation from family and community members as well as the possibility if not likelihood of overwork, illness, and physical punishment.
The US Constitution outlawed the international slave trade nine years before Mississippi became a state, so Mississippians who wanted to buy slaves had to do so from sources inside the United States. The trade in slaves of African birth or ancestry was clearly established in Natchez by the 1700s. In 1810 a notice in a Natchez newspaper advertised “twenty likely Virginia born slaves . . . for sale cheaper than has been sold here in years.”
By far the largest and most permanent slave market in the state was located at the Forks of the Road in Natchez. Virginia slave trader Isaac Franklin and his nephew, John Armfield, owned the market at the intersection of two major roads near downtown Natchez. At the height of the trade, their slave pens held between six hundred and eight hundred slaves at one time, and some observers said that Natchez slave traders sold more than a thousand slaves each year.
Vicksburg, Jackson, Aberdeen, Crystal Springs, Woodville, and other towns and cities had smaller and sometimes impermanent slave markets. Some traveling slave traders liked to do their business in or near taverns. Many Mississippi slave dealers were affiliated with large firms with offices in New Orleans; Alexandria, Virginia; and other cities. Slave dealers regularly advertised in Mississippi newspapers.
Traders transported slaves to Mississippi in various ways. Slaves were bound together with chains and forced to walk in groups called coffles. The trip by foot from the East Coast to Mississippi, often down the Natchez Trace from Nashville, could take seven to eight weeks. Other slave traders transported their slaves by water, either from the Ohio River and down the Mississippi, or by ship around Florida, through New Orleans, and up the Mississippi River. Being “sold down the river”—meaning the Mississippi River—was one of the worst threats slave owners in the Upper South and East could make to their slaves.
Many sales and trades of slaves took place in settings smaller than the well-known slave pens of Natchez. Sheriffs frequently sold slaves at courthouses when conducting probate proceedings to dispose of other property belonging to deceased people. Also, many individual slave owners sold slaves to acquaintances. According to historian Steven Deyle, “Despite the tendency of both popular culture and most historians to equate the domestic trade with the interregional trade, the overwhelming majority of enslaved people who were sold never passed through the hands of a professional slave trader nor spent a day in a large New Orleans slave depot. They were sold locally, by one owner to another or by nearby country courts.”
From 1833 through 1845, selling slaves was officially illegal in Mississippi. The Constitutional Convention of 1832 prohibited “the introduction of slaves into the state as merchandize, or for sale.” Slave traders and buyers consistently broke or ignored the law, so the legislature passed a new law that imposed penalties for bringing slaves into the state for sale. The official reasons for the ban on slave trading were that Mississippi legislators disliked slave traders’ reputation for cruelty and dishonesty and feared the growth of huge slave majorities. Many Mississippians, especially in Natchez, also believed that slave traders brought unhealthy chattel. The more specific but usually unstated reason was that elite Mississippians, like many powerful southerners, were frightened by Nat Turner’s 1831 uprising in Virginia and wanted to protect the state from slaves who might rebel. Lawmakers required slave owners to demonstrate that slaves to be sold had good character—that is, that they had never participated in a rebellions.
Despite the laws, slave trading continued, and the law expired in 1845, making the slave trade again legal. In fact, in the 1850s a handful of leading slave owners discussed the possibility of reopening the African slave trade.
Slave traders had a dubious reputation among slave owners in Mississippi, in part because traders often moved around but also—and more important—because their role in the process made clear the contradictions involved in seeing human beings as property. Some Mississippi slave owners imagined themselves as kind, paternalistic figures who would never break up slave families, while slave traders routinely broke up families. Some Mississippians blamed all societal problems—illness, family breakup, abuse—on the slave traders and more generally on the slave trade while claiming to practice a more humane form of slavery.
Most slave traders bought slaves in the summer and sold them from winter through early spring, when slave owners were planning or beginning new work. The prices of slaves rose and fell with the price of cotton. Slave prices were low after the Panic of 1837 and were at their highest during the cotton boom of the 1850s. The most expensive slaves—young, healthy males—cost about eighteen hundred dollars in the 1850s, with other slaves costing less.
The slave markets ended with the Civil War and emancipation. Union soldiers, many of them offended by the markets themselves, blocked off Mississippi’s slave- trading networks from eastern suppliers early in the Civil War.
- Jim Barnett and H. Clark Burkett, Journal of Mississippi History (Fall 2001)
- Steven Deyle, Carry Me Back: The Domestic Slave Trade in American Life (2005)
- Walter Johnson, Soul by Soul: Life inside the Antebellum Slave Market (1999)
- Winthrop D. Jordan, Tumult and Silence at Second Creek: An Inquiry into a Civil War Slave Conspiracy (1993)
- Thom Rosenblum, Journal of Mississippi History (Spring 2005)
- Charles S. Sydnor, Slavery in Mississippi (1933)
- Michael Tadman, Speculators and Slaves: Masters, Traders, and Slaves in the Old South (1989)