The central thoroughfare of America’s domestic slave trade, the Mississippi River brought slave traders and their cargo southward from the Ohio River to ports along the river’s banks in Mississippi. Stops in Vicksburg, Natchez, and other major cities offered antebellum traders markets at which southern plantation owners gathered to negotiate the purchase of black men, women, and children. These purchases met the South’s increasing demand for field and house labor, but stories of backbreaking toil, high rates of malaria, and intolerable heat and humidity quickly established the Deep South—and the watery highway that delivered slaves there—as particularly loathsome fates. Thus to be “sold down the river” was to commence a life of crushing circumstances.
Between 1830 and 1860, Virginia sold approximately three hundred thousand slaves farther south to clear land and plant and harvest cotton, rice, and sugar. Slaveholders initially feared this sudden influx of “savage” African Americans, a stereotype recalling owners’ practice of banishing their most aggressive slaves to Deep South farms. Nat Turner’s 1831 revolt moved Alabama, Mississippi, and Louisiana to ban importing slaves, but bringing slaves south was key to the region’s strong agrarian economy: more slaves meant bigger farms, more crops, and increased revenue. Thus a booming cotton trade in the 1850s coaxed all three states to open wide the gates.
Once aboard riverboats, slaves found themselves penned belowdecks, shackled around the ankles or wrists, and roped together at the waist. Traders lessened these measures as the boat approached a harbor. Author William Wells Brown portrayed the steamboat journey as a time of preparation when a young deckhand might blacken old slaves’ gray hair or assign haggard slaves younger ages and fictitious work histories. Slaves were made to rehearse their new life stories to bring better prices at auction.
Also adding to the distress of southern transfer was slaves’ geographic and symbolic journey away from freedom. Increasing northern resistance to the institution of slavery made escape seem viable, but southern plantations were surrounded by impenetrable forests and deadly swamps, meaning that escape would require a much longer, more perilous journey than simply crossing a border into a free state. The river’s terminating port, New Orleans, was home to the largest slave market in the South and represented a type of dead end for slaves imagining escape from the South’s “peculiar institution.”
Perhaps the most salient feature of relocation was the destruction to slaves’ families. The narratives of Frederick Douglass, Harriet Beecher Stowe, and Linda Brent record the trauma of slaves ripped from the bosom of loving relatives at the hands of evil white men. In The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, Mark Twain depicts the forced separation of the Wilks family house slaves as agonizing, reckless, and shocking.
While the Civil War and subsequent dismantling of slavery inform our past, the practice of selling slaves down the river has left a legacy of pain apparent even in our contemporary cultural consciousness. Americans today use the phrase to connote an unexpected betrayal, while projects that “go south” may also bring to mind the deteriorating condition of South-bound slaves.
- William Wells Brown, Clotel; or, The President’s Daughter (1853)
- Walter Johnson, The Chattel Principle: Internal Slave Trades in the Americas (2005)
- Joseph P. Reidy, From Slavery to Agrarian Capitalism in the Cotton Plantation South (1992)
- Michael Tadman, Speculators and Slaves: Masters, Traders, and Slaves in the Old South (1989)