Auctions and Markets

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Auctions and Markets

The average slave could expect to be sold at least once in his or her lifetime, and many experienced the wrenching dislocation caused by a sale several times over. In the early days of the importation of slaves from Africa, slaves were sold in numerous ways. Even before the slaves disembarked the ship, they might be sold by the "scramble." Buyers would agree to a set price for different categories of slaves—young males, adult women, children, for example. Then the buyers would be allowed to scramble onboard the ship and collect as many slaves of each category as they wished to purchase. On a smaller scale, a few slaves at a time might be sold in auctions in taverns or other public buildings. Sometimes they were sold "by inch of candle," meaning that bids would be accepted while a candle burned one inch. Dealers in slaves, often called soul drivers, bought slaves in the port towns and took them into the interior to sell to landowners who could not visit the ports regularly.

As slavery expanded in the colonial and early national period, a large-scale internal slave trade developed as slaves were sold from place to place within the country. Congress ended the importation of slaves from overseas in 1807. Slave owners generally did not oppose this strenuously, because it meant that the value of slaves already in the United States would increase. By the early nineteenth century, tobacco cultivation had exhausted the soil in many places in the Upper South, and slavery was becoming economically less viable in these regions. Slave owners in this region often moved to new lands in Alabama, Mississippi, Louisiana, or Texas. If they did not move themselves, they often sold their slaves to dealers who resold them in these newer regions. Historian Peter Kolchin estimates that between 1790 and 1860, approximately one million slaves were relocated through this internal migration (2003, p. 96). Historian Michael Tadman estimates that sales made up 60 percent to 70 percent of the internal migration of slaves, with the balance going West or South with their masters. Tadman suggests that a slave child living in the upper South in 1820 had about a 30 percent chance of being sold South by 1860 (1989, p. 45).

It is clear that slave owners recognized the profit potential in marketing slaves to newly developing areas where strong demand would bring good prices. Did masters in the Upper South slave states actually breed slaves for the market? While it appears that this was not as common as once believed, there is clearly evidence that it did happen. Even if they were not approaching slave breeding as a business operation, sellers and buyers both paid keen attention to the potential of young slave women to bear children. Historian Frederic Bancroft noted, "A girl of seventeen years that had borne two children was called a 'rattlin' good breeder' and commanded an extraordinary price" (1959, p. 82). Young women with children also sold well. If one or more of the children appeared to be part white, however, this depressed the price—there was a reluctance to deal in slaves that appeared to be part white. The exception to this was the trade in what were often called fancy girls—attractive young women that a master might desire for his own sexual use, or who might earn great profits as a prostitute. Light-skinned women brought a high price in this market, and there was brisk trade in such women throughout the South.

Individual slaves or small lots of slaves might be sold privately, either to traveling dealers or through the agency of a broker who matched buyers' needs with available slaves for sale. Nearly every major southern city had numerous brokers and auction houses where slaves were sold. The facilities for these businesses were simple and would include a storefront building to house a showroom or large hall where the slaves could be exhibited for sale, and a smaller office where the payments could be made and the paperwork could be handled. Behind this building would be the yards and pens where the slaves were held while awaiting sale. These were often called slave jails. Because the slaves normally would not inhabit these jails for long, the conditions were often bleak. Some southern cities had ordinances requiring that these jails be kept out of public view.

In the room where the auctions were conducted, there were rough benches for the slaves waiting to be sold, chairs at the opposite end of the room for the buyers, a platform or podium for the auctioneer, and the auction block where an individual slave or a small lot of slaves might stand while the bidding was conducted. Slaves might be told to move about, to demonstrate their agility and health; sometimes they were forced to dance.


It might seem that it would not be necessary to interview people that were going to be forced to work. But masters wanted to avoid potential problems whenever possible. Talking to a slave before making a purchase allowed the master to gauge the slave's intelligence and perhaps to assess how difficult it might be to get this person to cooperate. In addition, a buyer might be looking for a slave to perform a certain task and asking about skills and experience might be important. For a domestic servant such as a cook or nanny, who would be around the master's family almost continuously, it was important to find someone with an acceptable personality and demeanor. Slaves tried to direct these interviews toward the outcome they felt was best for them—to avoid a feared master or to promise cooperation with a person who seemed to be a potentially good owner.

SOURCE: Johnson, Walter. Soul by Soul: Life Inside the Antebellum Slave Market. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1999.

Whether at auctions or at private sales, buyers were given the opportunity to make a thorough inspection of the slaves. The sellers would try to have the slaves in the most presentable condition, they were often clad in new clothing so they would look good for the sale. Skin might be oiled to give the slave a more healthful appearance. Gray hairs might be plucked from the heads of older slaves, or hair dyed—although this was illegal in many localities. Most states had strict regulations that were designed to protect the buyer, to make sure that the age or health of the slaves were not misrepresented by the dealers.

Physical examination included looking for obvious signs of disease or infirmity, and looking for signs of punishment, such as welts from whipping. This might signal a slave that was hard to control and who should not be purchased. For slaves that were expected to be put to strenuous labor, muscles were examined. Buyers also checked the slave's teeth, because good teeth were thought to be indicative of overall health.

Neither buyer nor seller shied away from intimate inspection of female slaves. A woman's breasts and pelvic area were often examined in an attempt to determine her child-bearing potential. A separate room or screened-off area was often provided for these inspections.

After the early colonial period, most slaves knew at least some English, and buyers would often spend some time talking to potential purchases. They might ask about particular skills or the ability to work hard, but they were also looking for any sign that the slave might be troublesome and hard to control. Slaves responded to these interrogations as they deemed best. If a potential buyer was thought to be a cruel master, or would be taking the slave far from home, the slave might attempt to derail the sale. Historian Leslie Owens refers to a traveler who heard a slave tell a potential buyer, "You may buy me, but I will never work for you" (1976, p. 188). Conversely, if the potential master seemed acceptable, the slave might try to ingratiate himself or herself to the customer.

Although slavery could hardly have existed without them, slave dealers or traders were often seen as disreputable by other southern whites, even by slaveholders. Although the slave trade could be highly lucrative, traders were seen as uncouth, low-class people. Slave owners often expressed concern about having to sell slaves, especially when it might entail separating families or sending away a loyal slave who had served the master's family for a long time. In personal letters and diaries, masters often tried to shift the blame, claiming that they had no choice, that circumstances beyond their control demanded the sale.

The sale of slaves had a fearsome impact on slave families and individuals. The fear of being sold away from their families and the only world they knew haunted many slaves. Masters knew this and would use the threat of sale to try to elicit cooperation from their slaves. Many slaves ran away when they believed they were about to be sold. There were isolated cases of slaves committing suicide and parents killing their own children to avoid enduring the separation that a sale might entail. Besides the impact on family ties, being "sold South" or "sold down the river" meant going from a situation in the Upper South to a place in the Deep South or Southwest where the climate and labor conditions might be much less favorable. Slaves already in these areas where labor was in great demand faced less chance of being sold, as did elderly slaves who were difficult to market. Understandably, the memories of separations from loved ones lingered long after freedom came. Nearly seventy-five years after being freed, Anna Harris told interviewers that she had never let a white person enter her home, explaining "Dey sole my sister Kate. I saw it wid these here eyes. Sole her in 1860 and I ain't seed nor heard of her since. Folks say white folks is all right dese days. Maybe dey is. But I can't stand to see 'em. Not on my place" (Kolchin 2003, p. 127).


Bancroft, Frederic. Slave Trading in the Old South [1931]. New York: Ungar, 1959.

Baptist, Edward E. "'Cuffy,' 'Fancy Maids,' and 'One-Eyed Men': Rape, Commodification, and the Domestic Slave Trade in the United States." American Historical Review 106, no. 5 (December 2001): 1619-1650.

Fogel, Robert W., and Stanley L. Engerman. Time on the Cross: The Economics of American Negro Slavery, 2 vols. Boston: Little, Brown, 1974.

Gudmestad, Robert H. A Troublesome Commerce: The Transformation of the Interstate Slave Trade. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 2003.

Johnson, Walter. Soul by Soul: Life Inside the Antebellum Slave Market. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1999.

Kolchin, Peter. American Slavery, 1619–1877. Rev. ed. New York: Hill and Wang, 2003.

Owens, Leslie Howard. This Species of Property: Slave Life and Culture in the Old South. New York: Oxford University Press, 1976.

Tadman, Michael. Speculators and Slaves: Masters, Traders, and Slaves in the Old South. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1989.

                                          Mark S. Joy