Skip to main content
Enslaved People in the Southeast

Auctioning Human Lives

Letter, Lewis Wood to his wife from Platte City, Missouri, February 16, 1862

Letter from Lewis Wood in Platte City, Missouri to his Wife written on February 16, 1862. Image courtesy of Special Collections and Archives Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University.

Slave sales and auctions represented an intricate and economically vital activity for the south. The rise of cotton production and the end of the transatlantic slave trade in 1808 created a market for slaveholders, who rushed to sell enslaved people to meet the increasing demand for labor. In urban centers, enslaved men, women, and children were sold at slave trader offices or in slave markets. In smaller cities and villages, slaves were auctioned on the courthouse steps. Auctions occurred in sparsely furnished rooms or outside where enslaved people were subject to inhumane physical examinations and the biddings of potential buyers. It was not unusual for such auctions to result in the permanent separation of husbands and wives, parents and children.

The item to your left is a two-page letter from Lewis Wood to his wife in Platte City, Missouri.

Manuscript account of a slave sale

Manuscript account of the sale of an enslaved man in Petersburg, Virginia in 1858.

Receipt for newspaper advertising of a slave sale

Receipt for advertising in the Petersburg Daily Express, a local newspaper.

This is an account of the sale of a slave, named Jim, at auction on January 29, 1858, to W. P. Davis for $250.  Jim was sold by his master, Reuben Ragland, Esq., with William Tench as the auctioneer.  This document states that $242.50 was paid in cash to Ragland, and that the balance included a $5 city fee, a city tax of $1.25, and advertising costs of $1.25.  A clip of the ad for the sale, which appeared in the Petersburg Daily Express on January 26, is affixed to the manuscript.  Reuben Ragland was a wealthy Petersburg banker, railroad president, and planter.  He owned two tobacco factories in Petersburg, one of which was used as the Confederate hospital during the Civil War.