The Domestic Slave Trade
Exporters and Importers
Modes of Transportation
The Victims of the trade
The Slave traders
The National Debate
The End of the Domestic Slave trade

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During the century of the domestic trade, roughly equal numbers of males and females were sold away. The exception was the Louisiana sugar plantations, whose population made up some 6 percent of the nation’s enslaved. Importation to New Orleans, where many sugar planters bought their enslaved workers, was about 58 percent male, and traders sent very few young children to that market. The exhausting labor in the cane fields took an exceptionally heavy toll on the laborers’ health, and the demands of the sugar planters meant that the southern Louisiana market tended to import particularly strong workers.

Sale at ArcadeSale at Arcade

The shortage of women in their childbearing years due to the gender imbalance in purchasing practice made the region unique in North America for having a marked excess of slave deaths over births.

Speculators preferred to purchase what they termed "young and likely Negroes" - mainly teenagers and young adults. They wanted men with the immediate ability to perform hard labor and the potential for a long work career. The merchants also looked for young women with many years of childbearing ahead of them.

Interview with Minerva DavisArkansas Narratives, Volume 2, Part 2Interview with Minerva Davis from Arkansas Narratives, Volume 2, Part 2

Only about 5 percent of the males and 6 percent of the females sold were over thirty. Documentary evidence shows that with the exception of Louisiana, males between ten and twenty-nine years old comprised 72 percent of the trade but only 43 percent of the United States’ total enslaved population. Children under ten made up about 18 percent of the trade and most, especially the under-eights, were sold together with their mothers.

To be "sold down the river" was one of the most dreaded prospects of the enslaved population. Some destinations, particularly the Louisiana sugar plantations, had especially grim reputations. But it was the destruction of family that made the domestic slave trade so terrifying. Francis Fedric, who was born in Virginia and sold away in Kentucky, recalled the scene:

"Men and women down on their knees begging to be purchased to go with their wives or husbands, … children crying and imploring not to have their parents sent away from them; but all their beseeching and tears were of no avail. They were ruthlessly separated, most of them for ever."

The experience of separation was traumatic. Traders bought selectively, without regard to family, picking individuals on whom they thought they could make most profit. Bills of sale show that they almost never bought husbands and wives together, and such records indicate that the trade would have disrupted one in five marriages of all slaves in the selling states.

With Agony In Their Hearts: Slaves and Forcible SeparationsSpeculators and Slaves: Masters, Traders, and Slaves in the Old South.With Agony In Their Hearts: Slaves and Forcible Separations from Speculators and Slaves: Masters, Traders, and Slaves in the Old South. by Michael Tadman

Since the long-distance trade did not, however, break up the majority of marriages, the enslaved community could maintain a strong sense of family.  The importance that the black population placed on families is shown by the fact that owners - as a means of coercion - constantly used the threat of sale and family destruction. 

Interview with Mary GainesArkansas Narratives, Volume 2, Part 3Interview with Mary Gaines from Arkansas Narratives, Volume 2, Part 3

As well as spouses being separated by the trade, one-third of the children under fourteen were separated from one or both of their parents. John Brown from Virginia was about ten when he endured the misery of being sent to Georgia, far from his mother:

"Finney agreed to purchase me by the pound. . . . A rope was brought, both ends of which were tied together, so that it formed a large noose or loop. This was hitched over the hook of the stilyard, and I was seated in the loop. After I had been weighed, there was a deduction made for the rope. I do not recollect what I weighed, but the price I was sold for amounted to three hundred and ten dollars. Within five minutes after, Finney paid the money, and I was marched off. I looked round and saw my poor mother stretching out her hands after me. She ran up, and overtook us, but Finney, who was behind me, and between me and my mother, would not let her approach, though she begged and prayed to be allowed to kiss me for the last time, and bid me good bye. "

Slave Life in Georgia: A Narrative of the Life, Sufferings, and Escape of John Brown, a Fugitive Slave, Now in England: Electronic Edition.Slave Life in Georgia: A Narrative of the Life, Sufferings, and Escape of John Brown, a Fugitive Slave, Now in England: Electronic Edition. by Brown, John, fl. 1854

The pattern of long-distance separation that characterized the trade was hugely significant, both in the suffering that it inflicted on the individuals, the families, and the communities, but also for its impact on master-slave relationships. The emotional toll of this forced migration can be seen in the Southern papers that routinely carried advertisements seeking the apprehension of runaways. Vast numbers of these advertisements pointed out that the runaway was likely to be trying to get back to the place from which he or she had been sold - and where family still lived.

As profits were huge, free people were sometimes kidnapped for sale in the domestic slave trade. After the passage of the Fugitive Slave Act in 1850, the abduction of free people increased.

As slave catchers were allowed to claim fugitives in the North and take them back to the South, free people who could not prove their status became victims of unscrupulous men who declared they were, in reality, runaways.

Many free men, women, and children were kidnapped in Northern cities and sold in the interregional slave trade that took them to the Deep South.

American Slave TradeAmerican Slave Trade by Jesse Torrey

Interview with James GreenTexas Narratives, Volume 16, part 2Interview with James Green from Texas Narratives, Volume 16, part 2

For the forced migrants and the communities they left behind, the slave trade sent the stark message that the threat of sale and family separation would be with them as long as they lived. For a great many, then, the enduring result of the system was an ever-heightened distrust of their owners and an awareness that most whites did not think of them as people capable of real feelings.

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