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People & Events
The Weeping Time
1857

Resource Bank Contents

An American Slave Market

In March of 1857, the largest sale of human beings in the history in the United States took place at a racetrack in Savannah, Georgia. During the two days of the sale, raindrops fell unceasingly on the racetrack. It was almost as though the heavens were crying. So, too, fell teardrops from many of the 436 men, women, and children who were auctioned off during the two days. The sale would thereafter be known as "the weeping time."

The owner of the slaves, Pierce Butler, had inherited the family's Georgia plantations some twenty years earlier, along with his brother John. But Pierce had squandered away his portion of the inheritance, losing a rumored $700,000; now he was deeply in debt. Management of Pierce Butler's estate was transferred to trustees. The trustees sold off Butler's once-grand, now-neglected Philadelphia mansion for $30,000. Other Butler properties were sold as well. But it was not enough to satisfy creditors, much less to ensure that Butler would continue to live in luxury. So the trustees turned to the Georgia plantations and their "moveable" property -- their slaves.

At the time, the overall holdings of the Butler family included 900 slaves. These would be divided into two groups of 450. Half would go to the estate of John, who had since died. These slaves would remain on the plantations. The fate of the other 450 -- Pierce's half -- was more precarious. About 20 would continue to live on Butler property. The remainder, some 429 men, women, and children, were boarded onto railway cars and steamboats and brought to the Broeck racetrack, where each would be sold to the highest bidder.

There were naturally differing viewpoints regarding the auction, Pierce Butler, and the large fortune he would gain after paying his debts. Philadelphia socialite Sidney George Fisher noted in his diary, "It is highly honorable to [Butler] that he did all he could to prevent the sale, offering to make any personal sacrifice to avoid it." Of the auction, Fisher wrote:


It is a dreadful affair, however, selling these hereditary Negroes. . . . Families will not be separated, that is to say, husbands and wives, parents and young children. But brothers and sisters of mature age, parents and children of mature age, all other relations and the ties of home and long association will be violently severed. It will be a hard thing for Butler to witness and it is a monstrous thing to do. Yet it is done every day in the South. It is one among the many frightful consequences of slavery and contradicts our civilization, our Christianity, or Republicanism. Can such a system endure, is it consistent with humanity, with moral progress? These are difficult questions, and still more difficult is it to say, what can be done? The Negroes of the South must be slaves or the South will be Africanized. Slavery is better for them and for us than such a result.


Mortimer Thomson, a popular newsman of the day known affectionately as "Doesticks," wrote a lengthy, uncomplimentary article about the auction for the New York Tribune entitled "What Became of the Slaves on a Georgia Plantation." He reported how the slaves, eager to impress potential masters who they perceived as kind, would sometimes cheerfully respond to 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 Thomson commiserated with the unfortunate slaves after the sale, stating, "On the faces of all was an expression of heavy grief; some appeared to be resigned to the hard stroke of Fortune that had torn them from their homes, and were sadly trying to make the best of it; some sat brooding moodily over their sorrows, their chins resting on their hands, their eyes staring vacantly, and their bodies rocking to and fro, with a restless motion that was never stilled. . . ."

The two-day sale netted $303,850. The highest price paid for one family -- a mother and her five grown children -- was $6,180. The highest price for one individual was $1,750. The lowest price for any one slave was $250.

Soon after the last slave was sold, the rain stopped. Champagne bottles popped in celebration. And Pierce Butler, once again wealthy, made a trip to southern Europe before returning home to Philadephia.





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Related Entries:
Journal of a Residence on a Georgian Plantation
"On the Management of the Butler Estate"
"What Became of the Slaves on a Georgia Plantation"
An American Slave Market
The Weeping Time
Catherine Clinton on the Weeping Time
Cornelia Bailey on the Weeping Time





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