When a slave ship was known to be soon arriving, slave auctions would be advertised and announced in newspapers and flyers that were posted around town. Upon arriving to the Americas, slave ships would dock at various ports to take the slaves to auction. To prepare for what was either a “scramble auction”, a “grab and go auction” or a “bidding auction”, the traders would wash, shave, sometimes cover the skin of slaves with tar, grease or oil to cover injuries and sores to make the slaves look more healthy in order to fetch a higher price, and occasionally dress them in cheap suits or dresses. The slaves would then be taken from the ships, sometimes chained, and jailed in pens. At a scramble auction, buyers would just grab the slaves they wanted and take them. At a grab-and-go auction, buyers would purchase a ticket from the trader, and upon a drum roll, the pen holding the slaves would be opened and buyers would run in and grab the slaves they wanted. At scramble and grab-and-go auctions, fights often broke out, which sometimes resulted in gunfire. At bidding auctions, as the auction proceeded, either individual or small groups of slaves would be brought from the pens to stand high on a platform where bidders could see them more easily. Bidders were given the opportunity to inspect the slaves, who were poked, forced to open their mouths, forced to remove pieces of clothing, etc. The slaves were sometimes paraded and even made to dance. On occasion, families would be kept together, but often they were separated and sold to various owners from all over the northeast and the south. At the conclusion of the bidding auction, buyers would line up to pay for their slaves and would brand them with their initials. It wasn’t uncommon that when families were being separated, they would attempt to fight the traders and new slave owners. But when they did, they would be savagely beaten and whipped right there at auction, then dragged away from each other.
Following is a list of some of the major historical slave ports and auction sites that researchers can investigate further in local court probate records, newspapers, local archives, and historical societies to perhaps find more information on the whereabouts of their slave ancestors.
- Alabama : Beginning in 1808, slaves were brought to a port in Mobile, Alabama. The Mobile slave market, a three-story holding facility, was located at the corner of St Louis Street and North Royal Street. By 1819, slaves accounted for more than 30% of the population of Alabama. By 1861, Montgomery, Alabama is said to have had more slave depots than it did churches or schools. In Montgomery, the slave import site was a dock next to the train station near Riverfront Park. Throughout the city there were numerous slave pens, warehouses and 4 depots. A very large warehouse owned by John Murphy was at 122 Commerce Street. Three of the four depots (owned by Mason Harwell, S.N. Brown, and E. Barnard & Co) were on Market Street (now Dexter Avenue) between Lawrence and McDonough. The fourth depot, owned by Thomas L. Frazer, was opened on Market Street in 1864. The large market was held at the Artesian Basin (Court Square) at the corner of Dexter Avenue and S. Court Street.
- Arkansas : The first slaves in Arkansas are thought to have been brought there around 1720. The state’s largest slave owner was Elisha Worthington of Chicot County. The Encyclopedia of Arkansas History & Culture lists the number of Arkansas slaves by county and by year in 1840, 1850 and 1860 (http://www.encyclopediaofarkansas.net/encyclopedia/entry-detail.aspx?entryID=1275). Most of the slaves in Arkansas were transported in from slave auctions in other states, primarily from New Orleans and Memphis.
- Connecticut : In “A Narrative of the Life and Adventures of Venture, a Native of Africa: But Resident above Sixy Years in the United States of America, Related by Himself”, Venture Smith, who was captured at the age of 6 from Ghana, wrote in his autobiography that he believes he was one of the first Africans to be sold into slavery in Connecticut in 1638. Many of the slaves brought into Connecticut were sold at the “Old State House”, located at 800 Main Street in Hartford. Often, advertisements for the auctions can be found in The Connecticut Courant newspaper.
- Delaware : The first known African slave in Delaware is said to have been named Anthony who was brought there in 1639. The major slave auction site in Delaware was in Dover. Much of the Delaware slave trade was tied to the ports of Rhode Island. One notable Delaware slave trader was Lucretia Patricia “Patty” Hanly. Patty Cannon was a member of the “Cannon-Johnson Gang”, a group of illegal slave traders that kidnapped free blacks and fugitive slaves in the north, then sold them into slavery in the south. Patty was married to Jesse Cannon and they lived at what was called Johnson’s Crossroads, at the border of Sussex County Delaware, and Caroline and Dorchester counties of Maryland. One of Cannon’s daughters twice married men that were also involved in this activity. Her first husband, Henry Brereton, was captured and hanged. Her second husband was Joe Johnson.
- Florida : As early as 1687, the Spanish government began to offer asylum to slaves that escaped the British colonies. In 1693, the Spanish Crown proclaimed that runaways could find refuge in Spanish Florida if they agreed to convert to Catholicism, and the men agreed to 4 years of military service for the Spanish Crown. If they did, they would be freed by the Spanish. Most of these former slaves that found asylum in Florida then lived in a free black settlement in an area called Gracia Real de Santa Teresa de Mose (now a historic landmark called Fort Mose Historic State Park) in St. Johns County near St. Augustine, established in 1738 by the Spanish Governor of Florida, Manuel de Montiano. Many of the inhabitants spoke Portuguese. In 1740, the fort was raided and destroyed by James Oglethorpe, a leader of British forces from Georgia, and some of the inhabitants were murdered. But many of those that escaped settled in St. Augustine, and a new Fort Mose was built there by the Spanish in 1752. Some of the escaped former slaves also sought refuge by living among the Creek and Seminole Native Americans who had settlements in Florida. After the First Seminole War (1814-1819), the United States took control of Florida, and in 1820, the Spanish Crown ceded the territory to the United States. By 1822, slavery was allowed in Florida. Many of the free blacks that had settled there fled to Havana, Cuba. But many of those were recaptured by the Americans and brought back to the United States to be resold into slavery. Florida became a slave state in 1845, and cotton plantations began popping up in the northern portions of the state. By 1860, over 40% of Florida’s population was enslaved Africans. An open-air pavilion, what is called the “Old Slave Market”, was erected at the Plaza de la Constitución in the town square, located at 170-186 St. George Street, St. Augustine, Florida.
- Georgia : The largest sale of slaves in the history of the United States was on March 2nd and 3rd, 1859 at the Ten Broeck Race Course in Savannah, Georgia. 436 of who had been slaves of Pierce M. Butler, a Georgia plantation owner who was deeply in debt, were brought by railway and steamboat to the racetrack for sale. The sale of these 436 people proceeded here for two days, where it rained throughout the course of the auction, and came to be known as “the weeping time”. The largest slave market in Georgia for many years, however, was the Slave Market House in Louisville, Georgia, which was built in 1758.
- Kentucky : Kentucky slave auctions were held primarily in Lexington, and were typically held on court days near the Fayette County Courthouse on the public square on Cheapside Street at the Cheapside Auction Block, and at the court house on Main Street and Third. One large Lexington trader was named William F. Talbott. Other large slave auctions were held in Louisville and in Fredericksburg.
- Louisiana : The slave port of New Orleans, Louisiana was founded in 1718, and was regulated in 1724 y Louis XIV of France’s “Code Noir”. A large number of slaves sold in New Orleans were auctioned in the rotunda of the Omni Royal Orleans Hotel at 621 St. Louis Street. Many slaves were sold at the Banks’ Arcade (now the location of the St. James Hotel, next door to the grand Board of Trade Plaza) on Magazine Street. From about 1808, New Orleans was considered the largest slave market in America. In 1829, it became illegal to house slaves in the French Quarter, so pens began to be established around the city. One of these pens was located at what is now a residential home at the corner of Chartres Street and Esplanade Avenue. One was the Maspero’s Exchange on the West Bank of the Mississippi River in Algiers Point, now the site of the Old St. Louis Hotel (also called the City Exchange Hotel), across the street from Maspero’s Restaurant. But there were an estimated about 52 locations in New Orleans where slaves were sold.
- Maryland : The institution of slavery existed in Maryland from the state’s inception in 1634. It is said that by 1835, there were at least twelve slave auctions established in Baltimore, Maryland, with the largest dealer being a man named Hope H. Slatter, who would advertise his auctions in the Baltimore Republican, Commercial Advertiser, and The Sun newspapers. Many slave auctions were held at harborside storefronts along Pratt and adjacent streets. One large auction was held at the Lexington Market on Lexington Street, between Eutaw and Greene Streets on the west side of Baltimore. The Power Plant Live Plaza (once the Marsh Market Space, or Center Market) was a large slave auction market bordered by Gay Street on the west, Pratt Street on the south, Baltimore Street (aka Market Street) on the north, and Jones Falls on the east. Slaves for sale would be paraded along a route from Pratt Street to Fells Point. One of the slave pens was a large brick building with barred windows at the corner of Pratt and Howard Street. Often slaves that weren’t sold in Baltimore were boarded on ships there to be taken to auction in New Orleans. Other Maryland slave markets were held where the Kunta Kinte – Alex Haley Memorial stands at the City Dock, and in Hagerstown. A substantial amount of information about the history of slavery in Maryland can be found in an article entitled “A Guide to the History of Slavery in Maryland” published by the Maryland State Archives of Annapolis and the University of Maryland College Park that can be downloaded by clicking https://www.google.com/url?sa=t&rct=j&q=&esrc=s&source=web&cd=1&cad=rja&uact=8&ved=0ahUKEwjux5-Gja3WAhVj0YMKHTirB30QFggoMAA&url=http%3A%2F%2Fmsa.maryland.gov%2Fmsa%2Fintromsa%2Fpdf%2Fslavery_pamphlet.pdf&usg=AFQjCNEK228LQnq00VqnESf4Pzzv1wB9eA
- Massachusetts : The first slaves in Massachusetts were recorded in 1638. It is said that the largest slaveholders in Massachusetts was the family of Isaac Royall, Sr., who owned the Royall House and Slave Quarters at 15 George Street in Medford (now a national historic landmark and museum). Most of the Massachusetts slave trade took place in Boston. One large slave market in Boston was at Merchants Row, a short street running from State Street to Faneuil Hall Square in the Financial District, near Long Wharf and Dock Square. Some other auctions were held in Salem and Newburyport.
- Mississippi : By far, the largest slave markets in Mississippi were held in Natchez. Although some smaller markets were also held in Aberdeen, Crystal Springs, Vicksburg, Woodville and Jackson. Natchez’s slave markets were held primarily at “Forks of the Road”, located at 232 St. Catherine Street.
- Missouri : The first African slaves are said to have been brought to Missouri by Philippe Renault, who acquired many of his slaves from Haiti, in 1719. Most of the slaves brought to Missouri spoke French. St. Louis was the largest slave market in Missouri. Slaves were often sold on the steps of the old St. Louis courthouse (at 11 N. 4th Street) and at the St. Louis Slave Market on the riverfront. Other slave pens included the Lynch’s Slave Pen (owned by Bernard M. Lynch and located on the south side of Locust Street, east of Fourth Street, but later moved to Fifth Street, which is now Broadway, near the corner of Spruce Street), the pen owned by Bolton, Dickens and Company (at 52 Second Street), the Thompson’s Slave Pen (owned by Corbin Thompson, located near the county jail), and a pen at 57 South Fifth Street, whose owner “specialized in the sale of children ages 5-16”. One of the auctioneer companies in St. Louis was Austin & Savage. One other location is thought to be at what is called “Slave Rock” (renamed “Graham Rock” or “Picnic Rock”), which is located between the lanes of I-70, about two miles west of the Danville interchange.
- New Jersey : Many of the slave auctions in New Jersey were held on the docks in Camden, where slave ships would dock at Cooper’s Ferry. A good source of information about the slave auctions in Camden is the Camden County Historical Society, which is located in what was once Pomona Hall at 1900 Park Blvd.
- New York : It is said that the first actual chattel slave auction held in America was in New Amsterdam (later New York), a town on Manhattan Island within the Dutch colony of New Netherland in 1655. However, slavery was introduced here in 1625. New York had what was called the “Wall Street Slave Market”, once located on the East River waterfront, at the corner of Wall and Pearl Streets, which operated from 1711 to 1762.
- North Carolina : Built in 1832, a large slave market house in North Carolina was called the “Fayetteville’s Market House”, located in Market Square in downtown Fayetteville at the center of the junction of Green, Person, Gillespie and Hay Streets.
- Pennsylvania : The largest center of slave trade in Pennsylvania was in Philadelphia. Most of the slaves brought into Philadelphia were from West Africa, but were brought there via the Caribbean. Slaves were brought into Philadelphia at Penn’s Landing on the Delaware River Waterfront. Originally, the major location of the auctions was the London Coffee House, which was located at the corner of Front Street and High Street but was torn down in 1883. In the early 1770s, merchants built a new Merchant’s Coffee House (also called City Tavern) and moved their activity there. The City Tavern operates as a restaurant today and is located at 138 South 2nd Street, at Walnut Street.
- Rhode Island : Importation of slaves into Rhode Island is said to have began in 1652. Between 1769 to 1820, the DeWolf family of Bristol, Rhode Island were the leading slave traders in America. The two major slave markets in Rhode Island were located in Bristol and Newport. In the 1700s, Newport was one of the largest slave trading centers in America, along with Boston, New York and Philadelphia.
- South Carolina : One of the first major slave auctions in the Carolinas was at Charles Town (Charleston) in 1670. Prior to 1856, the public auctions of Charleston took place in the Exchange Building (now the “Old Exchange & Provost Dungeon” or “Custom House”), located at 122 E. Bay Street. Later, the slave trades of Charleston moved to markets along Chalmers, Queen and State Streets. Ryan’s Mart (built by Thomas Ryan, also called the “Old Slave Mart”) was one slave jail and auction site, and is located at 6 Chalmers Street in Charleston.
- Tennessee : Slave markets were highly prominent in Tennessee and existed in nearly every town. However, the largest permanent slave market was located in Memphis. Another slave market was located in Clarksville, and there were four in Market Square in Nashville, one off of College Street (3rd Avenue North), and one on Cedar Street. One of the most prominent Tennessee slave traders was Nathan Bedford Forrest, who owned the Forrest Trading Center of Memphis, and was Grand Wizard of the Ku Klux Klan. One of the leading slave trading companies from the late 1820s to the late 1830s was Franklin & Armfield, owned by Isaac Franklin and his nephew John Armfield of Tennessee, who bought most of their slaves in Virginia but then sold them mainly in Nashville or Gallatin, Tennessee (but also shipped them down the Mississippi River into Jackson and Natchez, Mississippi). A couple of large Tennessee business owners that purchased slaves for labor included Montgomery Bell (who used slaves to operate his furnace companies), and Thomas Yeatman and his partners (who owned the Cumberland River Iron Works). Another large buyer of slave labor was the Nashville & Chattanooga Railroad Company.
- Texas : Galveston, Texas is considered to have held the largest slave market west of New Orleans. Cuba was a primary source of slaves for Texas colonists. A great many slaves were brought to Galveston by Jean Lafitte over the course of several years. Some other slave smugglers in the area were the brothers John, Resin and James Bowie. Other prominent Texas traders included James Walker Fannin, Monroe Edwards, Thomas McKinney, and the McNeil brothers.
- Virginia : The first Africans said to be brought to the new colonial America were on a Dutch ship, and were taken to Jamestown, Virginia in 1619. They were not brought as chattel slaves, but as indentured servants. It is said that the first African to be forced into slavery, rather than indentured servitude, in Virginia was John Punch in 1640. From 1830 to 1865, Richmond was second only to New Orleans in the slave trade. From 1861 to 1865, Shockoe Bottom, an eight-block area of Richmond (located just east of downtown, along the James River, between Shockoe Hill and Church Hill), was the second largest slave trading market in America, where it is estimated that over three hundred thousand slaves were sold. Shockoe Bottom is the location of Goodwin’s slave jail, referenced in “Twelve Years a Slave”, where Solomon Northup was held in 1841. Lumpkin’s jail (owned by Robert Lumpkin, also known as “the Devil’s half acre”) was another slave holding facility in Shockoe Bottom, located on Wall Street, only three blocks from today’s capitol building.
- West Virginia : West Virginia’s primary slave market was in Wheeling, held on a wooden platform auction block in the northwest corner of the Second Ward market house, where the city scales are now located.
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