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 nations 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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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. "
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.
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.