The History of American Slavery

A “Fus’ Rate Bargain”

Accounts of slave appraisals in mid–19th-century Georgia demonstrate how enslaved people sought to keep their families intact as they navigated the auction block.

Slave trader’s business in Atlanta, Georgia, 1864.

Photo illustration by Lisa Larson-Walker. Photo courtesy George N. Barnard/Wikimedia Commons

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From The Chattel Principle: Internal Slave Trades in the Americas, edited by Walter Johnson, with a foreword by David Brion Davis. Published by Yale University Press.

In 1859, while standing on the auction block, a slave named Elisha pleaded with potential buyers to purchase his family as one unit. Each time prospective buyers approached, he encouraged them to buy his wife Molly, son Israel, and 3-year-old daughter Sevanda (“Vardy”).

“Look at me, Mas’r,” he claimed, “am prime rice planter; sho’ you won’t find a better man den me; no better on de whole plantation.” Elisha continued promoting himself, assuring potential buyers that he was “not a bit old yet” and that he could “do carpenter work, too.”

In the same breath, he spoke for his wife, Molly, claiming that she was a “fus’ rate rice hand; mos as good as me.” Then he instructed her to step forward so that they could inspect her. “Stan’ out yer, Molly,” he requested, “and let the gen’lm’n see… . Show mas’r yer arm … she do a heap of work mo’ with dat arm yet. … Let good Mas’r see yer teeth, Molly … teeth all reg’lar, all good—she’m young gal yet.”

After Elisha presented his children, he gave one final plea: “Better buy us, Mas’r, we’m fus’ rate bargain.”1

Slaves such as Elisha developed a keen understanding of their value, going to great lengths to negotiate their sale in such a way as to maintain family ties. They understood the importance of the monetary value assigned to them and used this knowledge to persuade buyers to purchase their entire families. Some boasted about their muscular physique, while others assured interested parties that a long-term investment in them would bring quality offspring in the future.

Although planters and traders considered age, sex, health, temperament, and skill, among other factors, in determining slave prices, it is clear that the priority of those being sold was to keep their family units intact. Slaves such as Elisha, who actively participated in their sale, did whatever they could to discourage potential buyers from dividing their families. To them, family represented the ultimate survival mechanism because relatives helped each other cope with the hardships of slavery. (The term “family” is used here to describe persons related by conjugal, consanguine, fictive, abroad (off-plantation), extended, or polygamous connections.)

The 1859 Butler Plantation sale provides probably the best description of a slave auction in U.S. history. A reporter from the New York Tribune who attended the auction wrote about the event in great detail, and, although some historians question the accuracy of his report, it serves as a good portrait of slave sales because of its detail.2 It took days to transport the 429 slaves to Savannah from McIntosh and Glynn Counties, and when they arrived the auctioneer placed them in horse stables at the Ten Broeck racecourse.3 Prospective buyers had the opportunity to view the slaves for several days prior to the sale. The Tribune writer described the scene: “The Negroes were examined with as little consideration as if they had been brutes indeed; the buyers pulling their mouths open to see their teeth, pinching their limbs to find how muscular they were, walking them up and down to detect any signs of lameness, making them stoop and bend in different ways that they might be certain there was no concealed rupture or wound; and in addition to all this treatment, asking them scores of questions relative to their qualifications and accomplishments.”4

Some planters questioned and commented on the physical ability or inability of slaves relative to their rates. Diana, advertised in a Savannah newspaper, was a 46-year-old three-quarter hand. The remarks next to her name indicate that she may have been feigning an illness to avoid being sold: “Complaining, but looks well.”5 Molly, a female slave auctioned from the Butler estate in 1859, caused quite a stir among potential buyers. When it was her turn to step up on the auction block, the auctioneer announced that “Molly insisted that she was lame in her left foot.” The auctioneer was not convinced that this was the case, however, and had a physician examine her. “Molly was put though her paces, and compelled to trot up and down along the stage,” the report stated, but her “left foot would be lame.” The report does not indicate why Molly was “complaining” about her left foot or why she resisted her sale. But one can easily imagine a myriad of reasons she feigned her injury, assuming that she was indeed in good health, as the witnesses suggested. Perhaps Molly had a loved one already sold to another owner, and she sought to discourage all other potential masters from purchasing her. Or maybe Molly knew that she could remain with the Butler family if the sale were unsuccessful. She may have feared moving to an unfamiliar plantation community and tried to do all she could to stay in the physical environment to which she had grown accustomed. Many bystanders thought she was “shamming” her injury; Molly sold for $695 that day.6

One woman named Sally caught the attention of a few bystanders. A man interested in her noted that she was the wife of “shoemaker Bill.” As he examined her and noticed that she was a “big strapping gal and can do a heap o’work,” he decided to pass and move on to the next slave, because Major Butler said, “It’s been five years since she had any children.”7 This suggests that some planters valued female slaves for their reproductive ability. Yet the capacity to bear children added to the constraints of female slavery in ways unknown to males.

The story of Daphney exemplifies one of the challenges faced by enslaved women. Along with her husband, Primus, and their 3-year-old daughter Dido, Daphney stepped up to the auction block amidst a small controversy. Apparently Daphney had wrapped herself in a blanket, which prevented potential buyers from administering a thorough examination of her limbs. “What’s the matter with that gal? Has she got a headache?” one person asked. “Who is going to bid on that nigger, if you keep her covered up?” another added. But when they took the blanket off, the bidders were surprised to find a 3-week-old infant concealed in her bosom. Writing about this incident, the Tribune reporter made an appeal to female readers. “Since her confinement,” he noted, “Daphney … was put up on the block, with her husband and her other child, and with her newborn baby in her arms, sold to the highest bidder.”8 This family sold for $625 each, a total of $2,500.9

Several sources reported that slave families involved in this sale were to remain together, but it is difficult to ascertain whether the motivation behind this claim was political. One might argue that the goal to keep families intact at this sale represented a political strategy to minimize the appearance of inhumanity at such auctions. Still, more slave families were separated by sale than historians have generally admitted. In other words, the pleading, begging, and crying by slaves to be allowed to stay together rarely resulted in intact families.10

Consider the case of Jeffrey and Dorcas, slave partners separated by this sale. Because they were not married, there was no chance that they would be sold as a family. Thus, Jeffrey begged and pleaded with his prospective buyer to purchase them as a unit. “I loves Dorcas, young mas’r; I loves her well an’ true,” he began, hoping that his new master would sympathize with him. Jeffrey then assured him that the two would marry and “be good sarvants.” Jeffrey thought about long-term family stability and spoke of his future offspring with Dorcas, claiming, “de chillum will be healthy and strong mas’r and dey’ll be good sarvants, too.” Like Elisha, Jeffrey began showing off his love’s physical strength in one final attempt to encourage his owner to buy her. “Young mas’r, Dorcas prime woman—A 1 woman, sa. Tall gal, sir; long arms, strong, healthy, and can do a heap of work in a day.” He even went so far as to place a monetary value on his loved one: “She is one of de best rice hands on de whole plantation; worth $1,200 easy, mas’r, an’ fus’ rate bargain at that.”11 Playing on the financial interests of potential buyers, Jeffrey did all he could to speak their language by using descriptive words that planters understood so that the two of them could have the same master. Although the prospective buyer seemed touched by his remarks, Jeffrey and Dorcas were sold to different owners the following day. When the two learned of their fate, Jeffrey had “tears streaming down his honest face,” while Dorcas sat “motionless as a statue, with her head covered with a shawl.”12

From the planters’ perspective, the decision to purchase a slave was based on economic interest. But from the slaves’ perspective the auction block was approached not only with trepidation and fear but also with overt manipulation and covert strategies to maintain family ties. Slaves knew their value, and they used their knowledge to try to keep relatives and loved ones together. After all, according to Elisha and Jeffrey, purchasing them with their loved ones was indeed a “fus’ rate bargain.”

From The Chattel Principle: Internal Slave Trades in the Americas; edited by Walter Johnson, with a foreword by David Brion Davis, published by Yale University Press. Reproduced by permission.

1. Philander Doesticks, “Great Auction Sale of Slaves at Savannah, Georgia, March 2nd and 3rd, 1859” (New York, 1859), 10–11.

2. Malcom Bell Jr., Major Butler’s Legacy: Five Generations of a Slaveholding Family (Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1987), 329–340.

3. Ibid., 329.

4. Doesticks, “Great Auction Sale of Slaves,” 10.

5. “Descriptive list of 138 negroes,” J. K. Williams Collection, Coastal Georgia Historical Society, St. Simons Island, Georgia. Emphasis added.

6. “Great Auction Sale of Slaves,” 26, emphasis in original. See the average price for Retreat slaves in 1859 in table for comparison.

7. Doesticks, “Great Auction Sale of Slaves,” 12.

8. Ibid., 20.

9. Such numbers are similar to those found on the list of 138 slaves advertised in the Savannah newspaper one year later. See “Descriptive List of 138 negroes.”

10. Edward E. Baptist, “Cuffy,” “Fancy Maids,” and “One-Eyed Men”: Rape, Com- modification, and the Domestic Slave Trade in the United States,” American Historical Review 106, no. 5 (2001): 1619–1650, especially n. 34.

11. Doesticks, “Great Auction Sale of Slaves,” 22–23.

12. Ibid., 24.