"SOLD DOWN THE RIVER": THE RISE OF KENTUCKY'S
SLAVE TRADE WITH THE LOWER SOUTH

By Jeremiah Taylor

     For most contemporary Americans, the assertion that slavery in Kentucky bore a remarkably kind countenance would amount to pure equivocation; for, in their eyes, the archetypal Simon Legree reigned supreme -- from the sultry Mississippi Delta to the gently rolling Bluegrass. Yet, if that state's milder climatic conditions, diversified agrarian practice, and resulting non-intensive modes of agricultural labor are compared with more stringent circumstances in the Lower South, an argument of "mild" bondmanship is not untenable. The celebrated Kentucky author James Lane Allen ably distilled this argument, noting that to the south of his beloved Bluegrass slavery bore "sadder features . . . beneath a devastating sun, amid unhealthy or sterile regions . . . and through the herding together of hundreds of slaves who had the outward, but not the inward discipline of an army."(1)

     It is, however, difficult to ignore a glaring cruelty that was inherent in Kentucky's slave system. Who can forget that dulcet, albeit melancholy, refrain of Stephen Foster's "My Old Kentucky Home, Good Night" -- its imagery of unfortunates torn from the bosom of a fair land and driven where "[t]he head must bow and the back will have to bend?" If the somber vision of a coffle gang bound for the cotton and cane "down the River" fails to besmirch the Commonwealth's "peculiar institution," then nothing shall likely suffice. Ironically, the "kind" and "leisurely" manner of ante-bellum agriculture in Kentucky would play a foremost role in spawning that state's practice of exporting Negroes to the Cotton South. The Southern states, geared toward cash crop cultivation and demanding labor for effective production, would turn to Kentucky and its fellow border states. There, the unprofitable nature of slavery made human chattel relatively expendable -- provided some party experienced capital gain through their disposal.

     It ought to be noted that, had the traffic in African Negroes not been checked, the Bluegrass State would probably have been deprived of its infamous distinction as a center of interstate slave-trading. An early disdain for the importation of slaves from Africa -- probably resulting from fear of insurrection(2) -- culminated in the United States Congress passing on March 2, 1807, a bill which would prohibit importation of all such slaves after January 1, 1808. The penalty would be a fine of no more than $10,000 and no less than $5,000, and imprisonment for not more than ten years, nor less than five.(3) Apparently, such potential punishment did not completely stay a profitable business. During the War of 1812, numerous Africans were introduced into the United States via Florida.(4) Indeed, an increased Southern demand for slaves between 1817 and 1819, would only accelerate smuggling in centers such as New Orleans and Charleston.(5) The government took decisive action in 1820 by declaring engagement in such illegal importation to be equivalent to piracy. This strict prohibition denied Southern planters a supply of affordable, readily available "Guinea negroes," setting the stage for the emergence of a domestic trade.

     A market was most definitely open, but why did Kentucky assist in meeting its demands? Although prevailing agricultural practice and the consequent condition of the slave as a poor investment of capital may be declared the prime factors driving the trade with the Cotton Belt, another answer has been presented -- one that ought to be immediately dispelled as unfounded. In her Key to Uncle Tom's Cabin, Harriet Beecher Stowe has asserted that impoverishment of the soil and slavery's subsequent lack of economic viability are to blame for Kentucky's involvement in the notorious traffic.(6) On the contrary, the Bluegrass Region of the state -- where the bulk of the slave population was concentrated -- has long been blessed with great fertility. The high phosphorus content and the goodly depth of the soil actually resulted in a land favorable for cultivation.(7) The fruitfulness of the region did not escape the notice of travelers. Count Francesco Arese, while touring in the United States in 1837-1838, took notice of the rich land around Lexington, observing many of its fields to be blanketed with grain five feet in height. He found that it possessed "a money beauty, in short an American beauty . . . [and] is a district that appeals to the purse . . ."(8)

     The Bluegrass Region's natural fertility has been established; but what of the effects of tobacco-induced soil exhaustion? Though detrimental to the productivity of land when carelessly cultivated, tobacco did not bring sufficient prices on the market to induce large production in the Bluegrass.(9) Indeed, tobacco culture would gravitate toward the western river counties, from whence the New Orleans market could be more readily accessed. The counties of Caldwell, Christian, Daviess, Graves, Henderson, Hopkins, and Logan were the leading growers by 1860.(10)

     Hemp fiber, however, was another matter. By 1840, Fayette, Mason, Scott, Clark, Bourbon, Woodford, Jessamine, Shelby, and Franklin Counties in the Bluegrass would produce two-thirds of the state's total crop; Kentucky would, as a whole, lead the nation.(11)

     An additional benefit of hemp was its inability to greatly deplete the soil. When its harvested stalks were spread upon the field for dew rotting (a process that facilitates the separation of lint from the wood), soluble matter was leached out and absorbed by the ground, at least partially restoring the nutrient content of the soil. Also, ash resulting from burning the hurds (i.e., fragments of stock remaining after isolation of the fiber) played a part in preserving the productivity of cultivated fields.(12)

     In short, Stowe's reasoning diverges from the realm of the factual. If the true causes of numerous Kentucky slaves being sold "down the River" are to be revealed, other factors must be examined.

     The slave-holding culture of Old Virginia had quickly spread into the westernmost counties of Kentucky. Indeed, it is probable that bondmen accompanied longhunters into the wilderness of "Caintucke" prior to 1775. Nor was settlement undertaken without their presence and assistance. Late in the winter of 1775-1776 Benjamin Logan's family came to the station of St. Asaph's, in what would become Lincoln County; making the journey from the Holston settlements with them was a slave named Molly and her three sons.(13) Interstate slave commerce with the cotton-growing South would begin within less than half a century of the first arrivals of these sable settlers. However, as is often the case in the realm of history, no certain date might be produced to mark the commencement of trade with the deeper South. Perhaps the earliest known manifestation of this traffic revealed itself in 1818, when the English traveler Henry Bradshaw Fearon reported seeing fourteen flatboats upon the lower Mississippi laden with a cargo of Kentucky slaves.(14) Clearly, the economic value of Kentucky Negroes had waned enough in the twenty-six years since statehood to induce some entrepreneurs to seek profit elsewhere.

     In order to understand why slavery was unprofitable in the Commonwealth -- at least sans the presence of external markets -- it is necessary to first note the initial pattern of settlement and land distribution. Under the patent system, Virginia granted land in Kentucky through three different methods. As early as December 1778, tracts were given as a reward for military service during the Revolution, the martial status of the individual determining the acreage -- be it one hundred or fifteen thousand. In order to meet the demands of those pouring over the mountains and into that wild "Eden," the Virginia Legislature established new settlement and preemption rights in 1779.(15) Four hundred acres of land would be granted to every individual or family who had settled there prior to January 1, 1778. If cabins or any such improvement had been made prior to this date, the builder would be entitled to a one thousand acre preemption. Finally, those post-1778 settlers would need apply at one of the Virginia land offices, have the desired land surveyed, recorded, and the record forwarded to the Kentucky land office, where prior settlers might have six months to prove any of their claims.(16) Unlike the more uniform distribution of land of lower average acreage in the Old Northwest, the patent system allowed for the transplantation of a slave-holding Virginia aristocracy. The establishment of the well-to-do in the Bluegrass was further guaranteed by the activities of speculators, who sometimes reaped sums as high as $100 per acre before 1800.(17)

     While the patent system allowed for the formation of estates large enough for the introduction of slave labor, the average Kentucky "plantation" would not encompass vast expanses. Indeed, in the Inner Bluegrass -- where lay the richest earth -- only 236 or approximately five percent of farms contained 500 or more acres in 1850. Men like Jacob Hughes with a Fayette County estate of 2,605 acres, and Solomon Vanmeter of Clark County with 1,900 acres were not common examples of ante-bellum landholding in the state.(18) Hardly, then, can the term "plantation" be utilized when describing slave-driven agriculture in Kentucky. Nor did contemporaries indulge in such usage. As Thomas Bullitt, a resident of Jefferson County, recalled, "we always spoke of 'farms,' not 'plantations,' as was the case farther south."(19) This general lack of large plantations in Kentucky might be attributed to the activities of the above-mentioned speculators, and, perhaps to a greater degree, the fact that Kentucky law prevented an established system of primogeniture.(20)

     It would not be a miscalculation to assume that average slave-holding farmers would have found ways to extend their boundaries had a single, labor-intensive and profitable cash crop been discovered that suited the native soil and climate. But no such opportunity presented itself. In fact, rarely were those "modest" farms put to complete and vigorous cultivation. Large orchards were a common fixture, and on many of the finer estates one might find beautiful woodland parks with towering trees, a smooth blanket of bluegrass, and grazing livestock.(21)

     Indeed, much of the land on the average "plantation" was invested in the "grazing system" -- that is, substantial acreage was utilized for pasturing livestock. Lest one accuses such ante-bellum farmers of gross inefficiency, consider the demand for animal commodities. In the winter of 1838-1839, 4,549 cattle, 2,309 horses, 3,177 mules, 7,864 hogs and 3,250 sheep -- all market-bound -- crossed the Ohio River from Kentucky.(22)

     Moreover, there was a large market in the South. In 1823, Paul Wilhelm, Duke of Wurttemburg, noted the demand -- especially in New Orleans -- for Kentucky hams, the America equivalent of the fine Westphalian variety.(23) Moreover, the Cotton South's demand for mules solidified as new lands came under the plow; the Bluegrass State met the call by exporting many of these once indispensable engines of agrarian labor.(24)

     This prevalence of animal husbandry, however, might never have transpired had more land been given to some time-consuming and purse-filling crop. But the climate was of too mild a cast, and the growing season not sufficiently long. Hence, Eli Whitney's wondrously simple product of Yankee ingenuity, the cotton gin, meant little there -- save it opened up a substantial market for several home-grown commodities. Nor was the slave given opportunity to prove his positive financial value in the care of livestock. Pastures demanded minimal maintenance, and undertakings such as feeding left considerable time for the slave to remain idle. Further, many "planters" simply did not trust their chattels' stewardship of valuable livestock.(25)

     Remembering the routine of life on the Oxmoor estate (once one of the finest farms in the state), Thomas Bullitt explained, "The 'crops' raised were hemp, corn, and wheat. Hemp was the money crop, though corn and wheat were also sold."(26)

     This was typical; hemp, cereals and (to a much lesser degree in the Bluegrass) tobacco were chief in a land climatically hostile to cotton, sugar cane, and rice. However, these all afforded the slave relatively considerable leisure in seasons of growth and dormancy. Sometimes those labors involved were so light as to make for a festive event. A corn-shucking, for instance, "meant fun, feasting, wrestling, boxing, singing, and a general good time . . . I have never seen a more interesting sight in any theatre, or even at the World's Fair, than was to be seen at the old-fashioned negro corn-shucking."(27)

     Even cultivation of the "money crop," hemp, was not favorable to the presence of large work-forces. One estimate holds that three slaves could cultivate a fifty-one acre tract of hemp, yielding an average of 700 pounds of fiber per acre, with an aggregate of 35,700 pounds.(28) Bullitt records that an accomplished hand might break (meaning to remove the lint from the wood) anywhere from one hundred to two hundred pounds. In an exceptional case, "[O]ne man, Daniel, one day broke three hundred and sixty pounds."(29)

     One other factor of hemp production ought also to be considered. The market for the fiber was quite unstable. Booms such as that following the termination of the Napoleonic Wars in 1815 -- when European textile manufacturers demanded cotton, thereby inducing the American South to demand hemp for bale rope and cotton bagging -- were not the standard economic condition.(30) In fact, the fate of the Kentucky hemp grower was largely staked to a Southern market. The snow rotted Russian variety was generally preferred for maritime use.(31) It was not, then, the most dependable of income sources.

     In short, such a system of diversified agriculture dominated by relatively "light" utilization of available labor could find little positive in the presence of a large slave populace; here was the foremost problem. In 1790, the total slave population stood at 12,430, but had grown to a total of 40,343 by the turn of the century -- a goodly increase of 224.5%. By 1810, an increase of nearly 100% had resulted in a population of 80,561.(32) This overpopulation reveals a system laden with inefficiency.

     Contemporary Kentuckians were not blind to this fact. Speaking before Kentucky's third Constitutional Convention in 1849, Squire Turner of Madison County estimated that the approximately $61 million of slave property in the state brought under three percent profit on the invested capital. At any case, he said, perhaps 75% of those bondmen "are superannuated, sick, women in unfit condition for labor, and infants unable to work, who yield no profit."(33)

     Moreover, after the War of 1812, new frontiers in the South, with their lands relatively affordable and their climates more cordial to cotton and cane, served to attract Kentucky "planters" desirous of augmenting their purses.(34) One such individual, Robert L. Underwood, bemoaning his role as the supporter of his Negroes, instead of vice versa, declared his intention of removal to the cotton country of Mississippi. His slaves were "entirely unprofitable in Kentucky."(35)

     As further evidence of the slaves' lack of financial viability in the economic structure of ante-bellum Kentucky, one should consider the dispersed nature of their population. Though approximately 28% of the white families in the state held human chattel in 1850, only five individuals (out of the state's 38,385 slaveholders) owned 100 or more. Indeed, 50% of those owning slaves held under five, though the average number of slaves per slaveholder stood at 5.4.(36) That there was no significant concentration of slave ownership reveals that large-scale plantation economy was practically non-existent in the Bluegrass State.

     In his important Impending Crisis of the South, Hinton Helper provides another viable point. Assigning each slave an arbitrary value of $400 -- which ought to be sufficient for comparison if the aged, very young, and those in poor health are taken into consideration -- Helper weighed the value of human property in each slave state against that of real and personal property (sans, of course, the sum of the value of bondmen). According to such an estimation, Kentucky's borders encompassed in 1850 a slave population worth about $84,392,400. However, if this figure is ignored, and real and personal property only assessed, Kentucky was the richest of the fifteen slave states, that value totaling $217,236,056.(37) Needless to say, slave property comprised a much smaller portion of Kentucky's wealth than it did in the other Southern states; hence, the importance of slavery there must be impugned.

     The fact that Kentucky had reached a point of saturation as far as slaves were concerned seemed to find expression even in state legislation. The non-importation law of 1833, which prohibited the introduction of Negroes from beyond the Commonwealth's borders for purposes of sale, can be viewed as a concrete manifestation of a growing belief that Kentucky contained more slaves than was economically prudent

     The condition of the "peculiar institution" in Kentucky being most unstable, the proper catalyst was only needed to fling open the southern floodgates. This essential spark soon materialized. After 1815, the fertile lands of the then new Old Southwest and a general demand for products such as cotton and sugar dramatically elevated the Southern demand for Negroes. In 1817 and 1818 chained gangs of blacks marching South became a rather common sight in the Border States.(38) Henry Fearon had witnessed the very dawn of this controversial business.

     One should not, however, conclude that such a business attracted the approval of the general public or, for that matter, that of a majority of prominent slaveholders. Truly, as Professor N. S. Shaler put it, to be called such a lowly creature as a "negro trader" was "the last word of opprobrium to be slung at a man."(39)

     Yet these salesmen to the Cotton Kingdom managed to thrive, despite a generally negative reception by the mass public. Edward Stone (who lived in a charming old manor house called The Grange, near Paris in Bourbon County, with a basement stoutly iron-barred for the containment of his merchandise) was among the first to openly purchase Negroes with the intention of bringing them to such bustling markets as New Orleans and Natchez.(40) On September 26, 1826, upon what he intended to be the last of such business trips to the South, Stone and four white companions were slain on the Ohio River when the human cargo in their flat-bottomed boat rose up in mutiny. One Lexington newspaper declared the tragedy a divine judgment upon all such "soul peddlers."(41)

     Though the interstate slave trade would be conducted quietly prior to 1840, a number of factors would come about with the result of elevating the practice. Rising cotton prices between 1845 and 1860, the generally prosperous state of commerce largely due to the discovery of gold in California, and the 1845 admission of Texas (and, therefore, the opening of a new cotton country) served to create circumstances that gave Kentucky opportunity to further vent the pressures of an excess slave population.(42) Slave traders were granted another advantage when in 1849 the state legislature revoked the 1833 non-importation statute, allowing them the opportunity to purchase and make a profit on "likely negroes" from other Border States.(43)

     On July 22, 1848, Lewis C. Robards, who would become the most public of Kentucky's dealers, advertised in the Lexington Observer and Reporter his desire to purchase blacks for sale to the Lower South.(44) Although Robards had earned a reputation as Lexington's leading slave dealer by 1849, his practices were not without questionable integrity; diseased and/or aging blacks were often (with the aid of such devices as grease worked into the skin or shoe black applied to graying hair) advertised as being in prime health and sold with purposeful haste. He was also accused -- with substantial evidence -- of abducting free blacks and selling them into slavery.(45) To enumerate yet another repellent factor, Lexington, the slave-trading hub of the Bluegrass, was probably the foremost place (New Orleans aside) to purchase handsome light-skinned females for purposes obvious.(46) Robards, with his own "choice stock," was a specialist in this odious traffic.(47)

     One might wonder, then, that if many Kentuckians were truly disgusted by the spectacle of coffle gangs bound for the land "down the river," why such firms as Robards' were able to prosper. Again, always keeping in mind the relatively low value of the Kentucky bondman (at least on the Kentucky market), the sale of a servant was usually dictated by one or more of the following factors: (1) when such a sale was necessary to settle an estate; (2) when a slave's delinquent behavior necessitated his or her disposal; (3) when the owner was in dire need of money for the payment of debt, etc.; (4) when captured fugitives were unclaimed for one year; (5) and, finally, when that simple and primal desire for material gain manifested itself.(48)

     Whatever the case, the infamous business that played such a role in inspiring Stowe's Uncle Tom's Cabin and Stephen Foster's cherished song did seem to check the growth of the state's slave population. The total percentage of bondmen in Kentucky's population had stood at 24 percent in 1830; by 1860 it saw a decrease to 19.5 percent.(49)

     The actual number of exports, however, was probably not as high as many nineteenth century estimates. Robert Wickliffe, in a speech before the General Assembly in 1840, stated that around 60,000 Negroes had been exported from Kentucky in the seven years preceding.(50) Because of historical hindsight and over a century of removal from the most heated controversy, more modern calculations are usually of greater reliability. J. Winston Coleman states that "from twenty-five hundred to four thousand slaves were annually being transported from Kentucky to the Southern markets" in the period following the repeal of the non-importation law.(51) Frederic Bancroft's mathematical formula derives an average of approximately 3,400 per annum from 1850 to 1860.(52)

     Accurate or not, such figures speak of more than numbers. They represent a multitude of persons torn from familiar surroundings and spirited away to a harsher land -- where many would mourn "for the Old Kentucky Home, far away." Quite involuntarily, these poor souls would help sustain a stagnated "peculiar institution" in Kentucky by meeting the tasks of the demanding agricultural establishment of the Lower South while elsewhere feeding the love of mammon. Only with the blood-washed convulsion of civil war would the Bluegrass State be freed of those rueful processions "down the River."

ENDNOTES

1. James Lane Allen, The Blue-Grass Region of Kentucky (New York: Macmillan, 1911), 52.

2. Winfield H. Colins, The Domestic Slave Trade of Southern States (New York: Broadway Publishing, 1904), 10.

3. Ibid., 12.

4. Richard Drake, Revelations of a Slave Smuggler (New York: R.M. DeWitt, 1860), 51.

5. Collins, Domestic Slave Trade, 13-16.

6. Harriet Beecher Stowe, The Key to Uncle Tom's Cabin (Boston, 1853; reprint, New York: Arno Press, 1969), 279.

7. Darrell Haug Davis, Geography of the Blue Grass Region (Frankfort: Kentucky Geological Survey, 1927), 24.

8. Count Francesco Arese, A Trip to the Prairies and in the Interior of North America, trans. Andrew Evans (New York: Harbor Press, 1934), 44.

9. J. Winston Coleman, Jr., Slavery Times in Kentucky (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1940; reprint, New York: Johnson Reprint Corporation, 1970), 43.

10. James F. Hopkins, A History of the Hemp Industry in Kentucky (Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 1951), 34.

11. Coleman, Slavery Times, 44.

12. Hopkins, Hemp Industry, 22.

13. Lowell H. Harrison, The Antislavery Movement in Kentucky (Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 1978), 1.

14. Henry Bradshaw Fearon, Sketches of America (London: John Murray, Straham and Spottiswoode, 1819), 286.

15. "Settlement" meant residence of at least one year or raising one crop of corn.

16. Ivan E. McDougle, Slavery in Kentucky (Lancaster, Pennsylvania: New EraPrinting Company, 1918; reprint, Westport, Connecticut: Negro Universities Press, 1970), 4-6.

17. Richard L. Troutman, "The Physical Setting of the Bluegrass Planter," Register of the Kentucky Historical Society 66 (October 1968) : 368.

18. Ibid., 369-370.

19. Thomas W. Bullitt, My Life at Oxmoor: Life on a Farm in Kentucky Before the War (Louisville: John P. Morton & Co., 1911), 36-37.

20. McDougle, Slavery in Kentucky, 7.

21. Troutman, "Setting of the Bluegrass Planter," 375.

22. Thomas D. Clark, Agrarian Kentucky (Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 1977), 35.

23. Paul Wilhelm, Duke of Wurttemburg, Travels in North America, trans. W. Robert Nitske (Norman, Oklahoma: University of Oklahoma Press, 1973), 164.

24. Clark, Agrarian Kentucky, 35.

25. Thomas D. Clark, A History of Kentucky (Lexington: John Bradford Press, 1954), 193.

26. Bullitt, My Life at Oxmoor, 38

27. J. F. Cook, Old Kentucky (New York: Neale Publishing, 1908), 61-62.

28. Coleman, Slavery Times, 44.

29. Bullitt, My Life at Oxmoor, 46.

30. Hopkins, Hemp Industry, 86-87.

31. Ibid., 189-190.

32. Lewis Collins and Richard Collins, History of Kentucky, vol. 2 (Covington, Kentucky, 1874; reprint, Frankfort: Kentucky Historical Society, 1966), 261.

33. Report of the Debates and Proceedings of the Convention for the Revision of the Constitution of the State of Kentucky (Frankfort, Kentucky: A.G. Hodges & Co., 1849), 73.

34. Coleman, Slavery Times, 142-143.

35. Harrison, Antislavery Movement, 16.

36. McDougle, Slavery in Kentucky, 11.

37. Hinton Rowan Helper, The Impending Crisis of the South: How to Meet It (New York: Burdick Brothers, 1857; reprint, Cambridge, Massachusetts: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1968), 306.

38. Collins, Domestic Slave Trade, 41.

39. Nathaniel S. Shaler, The Autobiography of Nathaniel Southgate Shaler (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1909), 36.

40. Coleman, Slavery Times, 144-145.

41. Ibid., 174-175.

42. Wallace B. Turner, "Kentucky Slavery in the Last Ante Bellum Decade," Register of the Kentucky Historical Society 58 (October 1960): 293.

43. Clark, History of Kentucky, 196

44. J. Winston Coleman, Jr., "Lexington's Slave Dealers and Their Southern Trade," Filson Club History Quarterly 12 (January 1938): 9-10.

45. Coleman, Slavery Times, 210-211.

46. Frederic Bancroft, Slave Trading in the Old South (Baltimore: J.H. Furst, 1931; reprint, Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 1996), 131.

47. Coleman, "Lexington's Slave Dealers," 12.

48. McDougle, Slavery in Kentucky, 13.

49. Turner, "Kentucky Slavery," 292.

50. Asa Earl Martin, The Anti-Slavery Movement in Kentucky Prior to 1850 (Louisville: Standard Printing Company, 1918), 89.

51. Coleman, Slavery Times, 193-194.

52. Bancroft, Slave Trading, 391-392.

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