The Domestic Slave Trade

Learning Objectives

  • Discuss the significance of the slave trade in the South

The Domestic Slave Trade

The South’s dependence on cotton was matched by its dependence on stolen labor from enslaved people to harvest the cotton. Despite the rhetoric of the Revolution that “all men are created equal,” slavery not only endured in the American republic but formed the very foundation of the country’s economic success. Cotton and slavery occupied a central—and intertwined—place in the nineteenth-century economy. The existence of slavery and its importance to the southern economy became the defining factor in what would be known as the Slave South. Although slavery arrived in the Americas long before cotton became a profitable commodity, the use and purchase of enslaved laborers, the moralistic and economic justifications for the continuation of slavery, and even the urgency to protect the practice from extinction before the Civil War all received new life from the rise of cotton and the economic, social, and cultural growth spurt that accompanied its success.

In 1807, the U.S. Congress abolished the foreign slave trade, a ban that went into effect on January 1, 1808. After this date, importing captives from Africa became illegal in the United States. While smuggling continued to occur, the end of the international slave trade meant that enslaved domestic people were in very high demand. Fortunately for Americans whose wealth depended upon the exploitation of slave labor, a fall in the price of tobacco had caused landowners in the Upper South to reduce their production of this crop and use more of their land to grow wheat, which was far more profitable. While tobacco was a labor-intensive crop that required many people to cultivate it, wheat was not. Former tobacco farmers in the older states of Virginia and Maryland found themselves with “surplus” enslaved people whom they were obligated to feed, clothe, and shelter. Some enslavers responded to this situation by releasing enslaved people; far more decided to sell their excess bondsmen. Virginia and Maryland therefore took the lead in the domestic slave trade, the trading of enslaved people within the borders of the United States. The domestic slave trade was highly visible, and like the infamous Middle Passage that brought captive Africans to the Americas, it constituted an equally disruptive and horrifying journey now called the second middle passage.

A slave market in a building with an enormous dome.

Figure 1. The slave markets of the South varied in size and style, but the St. Louis Exchange in New Orleans was so frequently described it became a kind of representation for all southern slave markets. Indeed, the St. Louis Hotel rotunda was cemented in the literary imagination of nineteenth-century Americans after Harriet Beecher Stowe chose it as the site for the sale of Uncle Tom in her 1852 novel, Uncle Tom’s Cabin. After the ruin of the St. Clare plantation, Tom and his fellow enslaved persons were suddenly property that had to be liquidated. Brought to New Orleans to be sold to the highest bidder, Tom found himself “[b]eneath a splendid dome” where “men of all nations” scurried about.

The domestic slave trade offered many economic opportunities for White men. Those who sold the enslaved could realize great profits, as could the brokers who served as middlemen between sellers and buyers. Other White men could benefit from the trade as owners of warehouses and pens in which the enslaved were held, or as suppliers of clothing and food for enslaved people on the move.

Watch It

This video highlights how the popularity of cotton resulted in greater demand for enslaved laborers in the southern areas where cotton production was booming. The result was the second middle passage, which describes the movement and sale of enslaved people to these new plantations.

You can view the transcript for “Second Middle Passage” here (opens in new window).

An advertisement for seventeen slaves for sale.

Figure 2. The slave trade sold bondspeople—men, women, and children—like mere pieces of property, as seen in the advertisements produced during the era.

Between 1790 and 1859, enslavers in Virginia sold more than half a million people. Between 1820 and 1860, White American traders sold a million or more captives in the domestic slave market. Groups of enslaved people were transported by ship from places like Virginia, a state that specialized in raising enslaved people for sale, to New Orleans, where they were sold to planters in the Mississippi Valley. Others made the overland trek from older states like North Carolina to new and booming Deep South states like Alabama. The slave trade benefited Whites in the Chesapeake and Carolinas, providing them with extra income: a healthy young enslaved male in the 1850s could be sold for $1,000 (approximately $30,000 in 2014 dollars), and a planter who could sell ten such enslaved people collected a windfall.

As the cotton trade grew in size and importance, so did the domestic slave trade; the cultivation of cotton gave new life and importance to slavery, increasing the value of enslaved individuals. To meet the South’s fierce demand for labor, American smugglers illegally transferred captives through Florida and later through Texas. Many more enslaved Africans arrived illegally from Cuba; indeed, Cubans relied on the smuggling of enslaved people to prop up their finances. The largest number of enslaved people after 1808, however, came from the massive, legal internal slave market in which slave states in the Upper South sold enslaved men, women, and children to states in the Lower South. For the enslaved, the domestic trade presented the full horrors of slavery as children were ripped from their mothers and fathers and families destroyed, creating heartbreak and alienation.

Some enslavers sought to increase the number of enslaved children by placing enslaved males with fertile enslaved females, and enslavers routinely raped enslaved females. The resulting births played an important role in slavery’s expansion in the first half of the nineteenth century, as many enslaved children were born as a result of rape. One account written by an enslaved person named William J. Anderson captures the horror of sexual exploitation in the antebellum South. Anderson wrote about how a Mississippi enslaver

divested a poor female slave of all wearing apparel, tied her down to stakes, and whipped her with a handsaw until he broke it over her naked body. In process of time he ravished [raped] her person, and became the father of a child by her. Besides, he always kept a colored Miss in the house with him. This is another curse of Slavery—concubinage and illegitimate connections—which is carried on to an alarming extent in the far South. A poor slave man who lives close by his wife, is permitted to visit her but very seldom, and other men, both White and colored, cohabit with her. It is undoubtedly the worst place of incest and bigamy in the world. A White man thinks nothing of putting a colored man out to carry the fore row [front row in field work], and carry on the same sport with the colored man’s wife at the same time.

A market in Norfolk

Figure 3. In southern cities like Norfolk, VA, markets sold not only vegetables, fruits, meats, and sundries, but also slaves. Enslaved men and women, like the two walking in the direct center, lived and labored next to free people, Black and White.

Anderson, a devout Christian, recognized and explained in his narrative that one of the evils of slavery is the way it undermined the family. Anderson was not the only critic of slavery to emphasize this point. Frederick Douglass, an enslaved man from Maryland who escaped to the North in 1838, elaborated on this dimension of slavery in his 1845 narrative. He recounted how enslavers had to sell their own children whom they had with enslaved women to appease the White wives who despised their offspring.

In the early part of this period, many were sold to people living in Kentucky, Tennessee, and North and South Carolina. By the 1820s, however, people in Kentucky and the Carolinas had begun to sell many of the people they held in bondage. Maryland enslavers sold at least 185,000 people. Kentucky enslavers sold some seventy-one thousand individuals. Most of the slave traders forced these enslaved people south to Alabama, Louisiana, and Mississippi. New Orleans, the hub of commerce, boasted the largest slave market in the United States and grew to become the nation’s fourth-largest city as a result. Natchez, Mississippi, had the second-largest market. In Virginia, Maryland, the Carolinas, and elsewhere in the South, slave auctions happened every day.

All told, the movement of enslaved people in the South made up one of the largest forced internal migrations in the United States. In each of the decades between 1820 and 1860, about 200,000 people were sold and relocated. The 1800 census recorded over one million African Americans, of which nearly 900,000 had slave status. By 1860, the total number of African Americans increased to 4.4 million, and of that number, 3.95 million were held in bondage. For many of the enslaved, the domestic slave trade incited the terror of being sold away from family and friends.

Map showing slave populations in the southern states. The highest concentrations are in western Mississippi and South Carolina.

Figure 4. This map, published by the U.S. Coast Guard, shows the percentage of enslaved persons in the population in each county of the slave-holding states in 1860. The highest percentages lie along the Mississippi River, in the “Black Belt” of Alabama, and coastal South Carolina, all of which were centers of agricultural production (cotton and rice) in the United States.

Solomon Northup Remembers the New Orleans Slave Market

Solomon Northup was a free Black man living in Saratoga, New York, when he was kidnapped and sold into slavery in 1841. He later escaped and wrote a book about his experiences: Twelve Years a Slave. Narrative of Solomon Northup, a Citizen of New-York, Kidnapped in Washington City in 1841 and Rescued in 1853 (the basis of a 2013 Academy Award–winning film). This excerpt derives from Northup’s description of being sold in New Orleans, along with other enslaved people, Eliza, and her children Randall and Emily.

One old gentleman, who said he wanted a coachman, appeared to take a fancy to me. . . .

The same man also purchased Randall. The little fellow was made to jump, and run across the floor, and perform many other feats, exhibiting his activity and condition. All the time the trade was going on, Eliza was crying aloud, and wringing her hands. She besought the man not to buy him, unless he also bought her self and Emily. . . . Freeman turned round to her, savagely, with his whip in his uplifted hand, ordering her to stop her noise, or he would flog her. He would not have such work—such snivelling; and unless she ceased that minute, he would take her to the yard and give her a hundred lashes. . . . Eliza shrunk before him, and tried to wipe away her tears, but it was all in vain. She wanted to be with her children, she said, the little time she had to live. All the frowns and threats of Freeman, could not wholly silence the afflicted mother.

What does Northup’s narrative tell you about the experience of being enslaved? How does he characterize Freeman, the slave trader? How does he characterize Eliza?

So much went into the production of cotton, the expansion of land, and the maintenance of enslaved workforces that by the 1850s, nearly every ounce of credit offered by southern, and even northern, banks dealt directly with some aspect of the cotton market. Millions of dollars changed hands. Enslaved people, the literal and figurative backbone of the southern cotton economy, served as the highest and most important expense for any successful cotton grower. Prices for enslaved laborers varied drastically, depending on skin color, sex, age, and location, both of purchase and birth. In Virginia in the 1820s, for example, a single enslaved woman of childbearing age sold for an average of $300; an unskilled man above age eighteen sold for around $450; and boys and girls below age thirteen sold for between $100 and $150.

By the 1840s and into the 1850s, prices had nearly doubled—a result of both standard inflation and the increasing importance of enslaved laborers in the cotton market. In 1845, “plow boys” under age eighteen sold for more than $600 in some areas, measured at “five or six dollars per pound.”[1] “Prime field hands,” as they were called by merchants and traders, averaged $1,600 at market by 1850, a figure that fell in line with the rising prices of the cotton they picked. For example, when cotton sat at 7¢ per pound in 1838, the average “field hand” cost around $700. As the price of cotton increased to 9¢, 10¢, then 11¢ per pound over the next ten years, the average cost of an enslaved male laborer likewise rose to $775, $900, and then more than $1,600.

The key is that cotton and enslaved labor helped define each other, at least in the cotton South. By the 1850s, slavery and cotton had become so intertwined that the very idea of change—be it crop diversity, antislavery ideologies, economic diversification, or the increasingly staggering cost of purchasing and maintaining enslaved laborers—became anathema to the southern economic and cultural identity. Cotton had become the foundation of the southern economy. Indeed, it was the only major product, besides perhaps sugarcane in Louisiana, that the South could effectively market internationally. As a result, southern planters, politicians, merchants, and traders became more and more dedicated—some would say “obsessed”—to the means of its production: slavery. In 1834, Joseph Ingraham wrote that “to sell cotton in order to buy negroes—to make more cotton to buy more negroes, ‘ad infinitum,’ is the aim and direct tendency of all the operations of the thorough going cotton planter; his whole soul is wrapped up in the pursuit.”[2] Twenty-three years later, such pursuit had taken a seemingly religious character, as James Stirling, an Englishman traveling through the South, observed, “[slaves] and cotton—cotton and [slaves]; these are the law and the prophets to the men of the South.”[3]

Try It

The South in the American and World Markets

The first half of the nineteenth century saw a market revolution in the United States, one in which industrialization brought changes to both the production and the consumption of goods. Some southerners of the time believed that their region’s reliance on a single cash crop and its use of stolen labor to produce it gave the South economic independence and made it immune from the effects of these changes, but this was far from the truth. Indeed, the production of cotton brought the South more firmly into the larger American and Atlantic markets. Northern mills depended on the South for supplies of raw cotton that was then converted into textiles.

But this domestic cotton market paled in comparison to the Atlantic market. About 75 percent of the cotton produced in the United States was eventually exported abroad. Exporting at such high volumes made the United States the undisputed world leader in cotton production. Between the years 1820 and 1860, approximately 80 percent of the global cotton supply was produced in the United States. Nearly all the exported cotton was shipped to Great Britain, fueling its burgeoning textile industry and making the powerful British Empire increasingly dependent on American cotton and southern slavery.

The power of cotton on the world market may have brought wealth to the South, but it also increased its economic dependence on other countries and other parts of the United States. Much of the corn and pork that enslaved people consumed came from farms in the West. Some of the inexpensive clothing, called “slops,” and shoes worn by enslaved people were manufactured in the North. The North also supplied the furnishings found in the homes of both wealthy planters and members of the middle class. Many of the trappings of domestic life, such as carpets, lamps, dinnerware, upholstered furniture, books, and musical instruments—all the accoutrements of comfortable living for southern Whites—were made in either the North or Europe. Southern planters also borrowed money from banks in northern cities, and in the southern summers, took advantage of the developments in transportation to travel to resorts at Saratoga, New York; Litchfield, Connecticut; and Newport, Rhode Island.


Click through this interactive to see how the Second Middle Passage changed the demographic composition of the American South.

Review Question

Why did some southerners believe their region was immune to the effects of the market revolution? Why was this thinking misguided?


domestic slave trade: the trading of slaves within the borders of the United States

second middle passage: the internal forced migration of slaves to the South and West in the United States

  1. See Walter Johnson, Soul by Soul: Life Inside the Antebellum Slave Market (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1999), 140–141; and John Brown, Slave Life in Georgia: A Narrative of the Life, Sufferings, and Escapes of John Brown, a Fugitive Now in England (London: Chamerovzow, 1855), 16–17.
  2. See Joseph Holt Ingraham, The Southwest, by a Yankee (New York: Harper, 1835), Vol. 2, 91, quoted in Woodman, King Cotton and His Retainers, 135. A similar quote, recorded in 1854 and attributed to Edward Russell, appears in Johnson, River of Dark Dreams, 12.
  3. James Stirling, Letters from the Slaves States (London: Parker, 1857), 179–180.