The Largest Slave Auction in U.S. History

The story of America’s largest slave auction involves Pierce Mease who was born to Sarah Butler. Her father was Pierce Butler, an Irish-American, South Carolina rice planter, slaveholder, politician, an officer in the American Revolutionary War. He also served as a state legislator, member of Congress of the confederation, 1787 Constitutional delegate, and member of the United States Senate. In addition, just like Benjamin Franklin, George Washington, and Thomas Jefferson, Pierce Butler was one of the Founding Fathers of the United States, .

Pierce Butler. Courtesy of Wikipedia.

Pierce Butler was also one of the largest slaveholders in the United States and because of political and personal reasons, he defended slavery even though he had private misgivings about the slave trade and the institution of slavery. He was also the person who introduced the fugitive slave clause, Article IV, Section 2, Clause 3. It required slaves who escaped to another state and were captured to be returned to their owner in the state from which they escaped.

By 1793, Pierce Butler had become a wealthy plantation owner. He possessed some 500 slaves that grew to more than 1,000 slaves by the time he died in on 15 February 1822. Among Pierce Butler’s possession was Butler Island in Georgia. It was a sprawling plantation that consisted of about 1,600 acres. Another plantation owned by him was located on St. Simons Island, which became the center of cotton production for a time. Both plantations were managed by Roswell King from 1802 to 1819 and then King’s son and namesake, Roswell King, Jr., took over as manager serving from 1820 until 1838.

Despite Pierce Butler’s great fortune, he did not leave anything to his children. Rather his vast estate that consisted of over 10,000 acres was left to his grandchildren. Among the inheritors was Pierce Mease, who appended Butler to his name and who inherited the Old Butler Plantation located on Butler Island.

slave auction

Pierce Mease Butler. Courtesy of La Salle University Digital Commons.

At the time of Pierce Mease Butler’s inheritance, he was residing in Philadelphia and in 1832 that is where he met Frances Anne “Fannie” Kemble. She was on an American acting tour at the time. She was also a member of the famous Kemble theatrical family and was the oldest daughter of the actor Charles Kemble and his Viennese-born wife, the former Marie Therese De Camp. Butler and Kemble fell in love and to wed Butler in 1834, Kemble retired from the stage.

Frances Anne “Fannie” Kemble. Courtesy of Wikipedia.

After wedding, the couple lived in Philadelphia. To manage his newly acquired estate, Butler made regular trips to the Old Butler Plantation. However, neither Kemble nor their children ever went with him on these visits. Because Kemble was an abolitionist, she had lots of questions about the Old Butler Plantation. She was also curious about how it operated, and her questions and curiosity resulted in Butler constantly assuring her that everything was well with his slaves and that nothing untoward was happening. He also promised her that he was not selling them off individually and was not breaking families apart like other slaveholders regularly did.

Despite her husband’s reassurances, Kemble wanted to visit the plantation and because of her insistence, the family finally spent four months there between 1838 and 1839. While there, Kemble kept a diary of her observations. She found that the plantation conditions were primitive compared to Philadelphia and she was shocked by the poor living and abysmal working conditions of the slaves. When she told Butler, he was unhappy with her observations and outspokenness about the plantation. She in turn was embarrassed about the plantation and unhappy about his marital infidelities and thus, their relationship began to sour and eventually turned abusive.

In the 1840s, unable to stomach the slave situation on Butler Island and because of her husband’s abusive behavior Kemble left for England with their two daughters. After a prolonged separation her husband filed for divorce in 1847. Butler cited abandonment and misdeeds by his wife as his reasons. The couple then endured a bitter and protracted divorce in 1849. As was usual at the time, Butler retained custody of their two daughters, just like Caroline Norton’s husband had retained custody of their sons when that couple divorced. In addition, like Norton, Kemble was unable to reunite with her children until they became of age.

After the divorce, however, Kemble felt free to say what she wanted and after the outbreak of the American Civil war, which began on 12 April 1861, she published a book in 1863 titled Journal of a Residence on a Georgian Plantation. She reported on what she had witnessed during her stay at the Old Butler Plantation and wrote that the slave dwellings were “hovels” and described them as “filthy and wretched.” She also noted that the children were half-naked, uneducated, and shoeless and maintained that many slaves looked like King and his son. Moreover, she reported that slaves on the island told her that the Roswells had fathered numerous children with the plantation’s slaves.

slave auction - journal of a residence on a Georgia Plantation

Title page to Kemble’s Journal of a Residence on a Georgia Plantation. Author’s collection.

After his divorce, Butler’s financial situation grew worse. Moreover, by the late 1850s he had squandered much of his fortune and that, coupled with losses he suffered in the great crash of 1857-1858, made him financially desperate. His only way out was for him to sell off the Old Butler Plantation and its slaves. It was the only way that he could satisfy his creditors and avoid bankruptcy and so that is what he did.

The slave auction, held on the second and third of March 1859, would become known as the largest slave auction in U.S. history. In fact, it was so massive that numerous reporters were sent to Georgia to cover the event. The slave auction had also been advertised for weeks and because the Old Butler Plantation was known to have “choice” and “desirable” slaves, there were many slaveholders wanting and ready to purchase them when they went up for sale:

“For several days before the sale every hotel in Savannah was crowded with negro speculators from North and South Carolina, Virginia, Georgia, Alabama, and Louisiana. … The office of John Bryan, the Negro Broker, who had the management of the sale, was thronged every day by eager inquirers in search of information, and by some who were anxious to buy, but were uncertain as to whether their securities would prove acceptable. … The buyers were generally of a rough breed, slangy, profane and bearish, being for the most part from the back river and swamp plantations, where the eleganices of polite life are not, perhaps developed to their fullest extent.”[1]

Example of the advertisement that ran for Butler’s 1859 slave auction, the largest slave auction in U.S. History. This advertisement appeared in Augusta, Georgia’s Daily Constitutionalist and Republic. Author’s collection,

The March 1859 slave auction also resulted in the publication of What Became of the Slaves on A Georgia Plantation. It was a 20-page pamphlet published in 1863 that served as a sequel to Kemble’s previous account, Journal of a Residence on a Georgia Plantation. The pamphlet was published by the “American Anti-slavery Society” and written by Mortimer Thomson, who wrote under the pseudonym Q. K. Philander Doesticks

slave auction in Richmond, Virginia

Example of a slave auction in Richmond, Virginia. Courtesy of Library of Congress.

The slave auction took place at the Ten Broeck Race Course in Savannah. Doesticks, who was described in Mark Twain‘s Library of Humor as a figure whose “dashing and extravagant drolleries soon attracted attention,”[2] provided detailed information about the sale and noted that it consisted of 436 men, women, children, and infants from the Old Butler Plantation. Furthermore, many of Butler’s slaves knew nothing of the outside world having been born and raised on the Old Butler Plantation.

The pamphlet also reported on the varying prices received for the slaves that were sold. For instance, Sally Walker and her five children brought the most for a family as the total paid for them was $6,180. The lowest price paid for a slave was for an old gray-haired couple, Anson and Violet, who sold for $250 each. The highest price paid was for William described as a “carpenter and caulker.” He sold for $1,750.00. In addition, Doesticks’ pamphlet gave the following details and information about the slave auction, which is provided below verbatim:

“The Race-course at Savannah is situated about three miles from the city, in a pleasant spot, nearly surrounded by woods. As it rained violently during the two days of the sale, the place was only accessible by carriages, and the result was, that few attended but actual buyers, who had come from long distances, and could not afford to lose the opportunity. If the affair had come off in Yankee land, there would have been a dozen omnibuses running constantly between the city and the Race-course, and some speculator would have bagged a nice little sum of money by the operation. But nothing of the kind was thought of here, and the only gainers were the livery stables, the owners of which had sufficient Yankeeism to charge double and treble prices. The conveniences for getting to the ground were so limited that there were not enough buyers to warrant the opening of the sale for an hour or two after the advertised time. They dropped in, however, a few at a time, and things began to look more encouragingly for the seller.

The négroes looked more uncomfortable than ever; the close confinement in-doors for a number of days, and the drizzly, unpleasant weather, began to tell on their condition. They moved about more listlessly, and were fast losing the activity and springiness they had at first shown. This morning they were all gathered into the long room of the building erected as the ‘Grand Stand’ of the Racecourse, that they might be immediately under the eye of the buyers. The room was about a hundred feet long by twenty wide, and herein were crowded the poor creatures, with much of their baggage, awaiting their respective calls to step upon the block and be sold to the highest bidder. This morning Mr. Pierce Butler appeared among his people, speaking to each one, and being recognized with seeming pleasure by all. The men obsequiously pulled off their hats and made that indescribable sliding hitch with the foot which passes with a negro for a bow; and the women each dropped the quick curtsy, which they seldom vouchsafe to any other than their legitimate master and mistress. Occasionally, to a very old or favorite servant, Mr. Butler would extend his gloved hand, which mark of condescension was instantly hailed with grins of delight from all the sable witnesses.

The room in which the sale actually took place immediately adjoined the room of the negroes, and communicated with it by two large doors. The sale room was open to the air on one side, commanding a view of the entire Course. A small platform was raised about two feet and a-half high, on which were placed the desks of the entry clerks, leaving room in front of them for the auctioneer and the goods.

At about 11 o’clock the businessmen took their places, and announced that the sale would begin. Mr. Bryan, the Negro Broker, is a dapper little man, wearing spectacles and a yachting hat, sharp and sudden in his movements, and perhaps the least bit in the world obtrusively officious–as earnest in his language as he could be without actual swearing, though acting much as if he would like to swear a little at the critical moment; Mr. Bryan did not sell the goods, he merely superintended the operation, and saw that the entry clerks did their duty properly. The auctioneer proper was a Mr. Walsh, who deserves a word of description. In personal appearance he is the very opposite of Mr. Bryan, being careless in his dress instead of scrupulous, a large man instead of a little one, a fat man instead of a lean one, and a good-natured man instead of a fierce one. He is a rollicking old boy, with an eye ever on the look-out, and that never lets a bidding nod escape him; a hearty word for every bidder who cares for it, and plenty of jokes to let off when the business gets a little slack. Mr. Walsh has a florid complexion, not more so, perhaps, than is becoming, and possibly not more so than is natural in a whiskey country. Not only is his face red, but his skin has been taken off in spots by blisters of some sort, giving him a peely look; so that, taking his face all in all, the peeliness and the redness combined, he looks much as if he had been boiled in the same pot with a red cabbage. Mr. Walsh mounted the stand and announced the terms of the sale, ‘one-third cash, the remainder payable in two equal annual installments, bearing interest from the day of sale, to be secured by approved mortgage and personal security, or approved acceptances in Savannah, Ga., or Charleston, S. C. Purchasers to pay for papers.’ The buyers, who were present to the number of about two hundred, clustered around the platform; while the negroes, who were not likely to be immediately wanted, gathared into sad groups in the back-ground, to watch the progress of the selling in which they were so sorrowfully interested. The wind howled outside, and through the open side of the building the driving rain came pouring in; the bar down stairs ceased for a short time its brisk trade; the buyers lit fresh cigars, got ready their catalogues and pencils, and the first lot of human chattels was led upon the stand, not by a white man, but by a sleek mulatto, himself a slave, and who seems to regard the selling of his brethren, in which he so glibly assists, as a capital joke. It had been announced that the negroes would be sold in ‘families,’ that is to say, a man would not be parted from his wife, or a mother from a very young child. There is perhaps as much policy as humanity in this arrangement, for thereby many aged and unserviceable people are disposed of, who otherwise would not find a ready sale. …

The manner of buying was announced to be bidding a certain price a-piece for the whole lot. Thus, George and his family were started at $ 300, and were finally sold at $600 each, being $2,400 for the four. To get an idea of the relative value of each one, we must suppose George worth $ 1,200, Sue worth $900, Little George worth $200, and Harry worth $100. Owing, however, to some misapprehension on the part of the buyer, as to the manner of bidding, he did not take the family at this figure, and they were put up and sold again, on the second day, when they brought $620 each, or$2,480 for the whole-an advance of $80 over the first sale. Robert, and Luna his wife, who were announced as having ‘goitre, otherwise very prime,’ brought the round sum of $1,005 each. …

It seems as if every shade of character capable of being implicated in the sale of human flesh and blood was represented among the buyers. There was the Georgia fast young man, with his pantaloons tucked into his boots, his velvet cap jauntily dragged over to one side, his cheek full of tobacco, which he bites from a huge plug, that resembles more than anything else an old bit of a rusty wagon tire, and who is altogether an animal of quite a different breed from your New York fast man. His ready revolver, or his convenient knife, is ready for instant use in case of a heated argument. White neck-clothed, gold-spectacled, and silver-haired old men were there, resembling in appearance that noxious breed of sanctimonious deacons we have at the North, who are perpetually leaving documents at your door that you never read, and the business of whose mendicant life it is to eternally solicit subscriptions for charitable associations, of which they are treasurers. These gentry, with quiet step and subdued voice, moved carefully about among the livestock, ignoring, as a general rule, the men, but tormenting the women with questions which, when accidentally overheard by the disinterested spectator, bred in that spectator’s mind an almost irresistible desire to knock somebody down. And then, all imaginable varieties of rough, backwoods rowdies, who began the day in a spirited manner, but who, as its hours progressed, and their practice at the bar became more prolific in results, waxed louder and talkier and more violent, were present, and added a characteristic feature to the assemblage. Those of your readers who have read “Uncle Tom,” [by Harriet Beecher Stowe] — and who has not? — will remember, with peculiar feelings, Legree, the slave-driver and woman-whipper. That that character is not been overdrawn, or too highly colored, there is abundant testimony. Witness the subjoined dialogue : A party of men were conversing on the fruitful subject of managing refractory “ niggers;” some were for severe whipping, some recommending branding, one or two advocated other modes of torture, but one huge brute of a man, who had not taken an active part in the discussion, save to assent, with approving nod, to any unusually barbarous proposition, at last broke his silence by saying, in an oracular way, ‘You may say what you like about managing niggers; I’m a driver myself, and I’ve had some experience, and I ought to know. You can manage ordinary niggers by lickin’ ‘em, and givin’ ‘em a taste of the hot iron once in a while when they’re extra ugly; but if a nigger really sets himself up against me, I can’t never have any patience with him. I just get my pistol and shoot him right down; and that’s the best way.’

And this brute was talking to gentlemen, and his remarks were listened to with attention, and his assertions assented to by more than one in the knot of listeners. But all this time the sale was going on, and the merry Mr. Walsh, with many a quip and jest, was beguiling the time when the bidding was slow. The expression on the faces of all who stepped on the block was always the same, and told of more anguish than it is in the power of words to express. Blighted homes, crushed hopes and broken hearts, was the sad story to be read in all the anxious faces. Some of them regarded the sale with perfect indifference, never making a motion, save to turn from one side to the other at the word of the dapper Mr. Bryan, that all the crowd might have a fair view of their proportions, and then, when the sale was accomplished, stepped down from the block without caring to cast even a look at the buyer, who now held all their happiness in his hands. Others, again, strained their eyes with eager glances from one buyer to another as the bidding went on, trying with earnest attention to follow the rapid voice of the auctioneer. Sometimes, two persons only would be bidding for the same chattel, all the others having resigned the contest, and then the poor creature on the block, conceiving an instantaneous preference for one of the buyers over the other, would regard the rivalry with the intensest interest, the expression of his face changing with every bid, settling into a half smile of joy if the favorite buyer persevered unto the end and secured the property, and settling down into a look of hopeless despair if the other won the victory.”[3]

slave auction in the south

Another example of a slave auction in the South. Courtesy of La Salle University Digital Commons.

 During Butler’s slave auction, the Daily News out of London reported on his participation:

“Mr. Butler lived in public during the week; he was seen here, there, and everywhere; and it could not but be a subject of speculation among his acquaintances whether he was fully sensible of the significance of what was going on. He made no secret of his case. He did not live on his estate, but at Philadelphia; he had speculated and lost; he delivered over his plantations to General Cadwallader and other claimants, brought his negros to the Savannah raceground to be sold, and looked after his own interest. There was the usual comedy of auctions meetings, and the unparalleled tragedy of slave auctions, though the theory was that families were sold together.”[4]

As the American Civil War raged between the North and the South, controversy continued to erupt among the public over slave auctions and the selling of slaves. This was made evident by a short article published in the Anti-Slavery Bugle of Liston, Ohio on 7 May 1859. Titled, “The Soiled Linen of the United States,” the article remarked on the opinions expressed by the Herald and the New York Tribune:

“We perceive that some of the English journals have reproduced the account of “The Great Slave Auction in George,” which was so conspicuously paraded in the columns of our Republican papers some time ago. We are much given in this country to washing our dirty linen before the public, and some of our Republican organs always take care that the unsavory operation shall not escape the eyes of the entire world — Herald.

Aha! are you there? Slave auctions are ‘dirty linen,’ are they? Then why have you so persistently and profitably contended for a quarter of a century that they are perfectly right and proper―that negroes were made to be sold and worked up as slaves in cotton and rice-fields, and are otherwise worthless nuisances? ‘Dirty linen,’ is it? Who more than you has argued and insisted that it should be kept dirty forever? And when the only sort of washing you will allow it is that of a Slave Auction why should you complain of the exposure? Is it not worth something that our reports have served to make even you ashamed of the giant iniquity you yet steadily uphold? — New York Tribune.”[5]

References:

  • [1] Q. P.K. Doesticks and P. Butler, Great Auction Sale of Slaves, at Savannah, Georgia, March 2d & 3d, 1859.: A Sequel to Mrs. Kemble’s Journal (Savannah, Georgia, 1863), p. 3.
  • [2] Mark Twain’s Library of Humor (London: Chatto & Windus, 1888), p. 545.
  • [3] Doesticks and Butler, p. 9–14.
  • [4] -, Daily News, April 4, 1859, p. 4.
  • [5] Anti-Slavery Bugle, “The Soiled Linen of the United States,” May 7, 1859, p. 3.

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