This is the third in a series of four blogs related to the “To Be Sold” exhibit which opens on October 27 at the Library of Virginia. Each post will be based on court cases found in LVA’s Local Records collection and involving slave traders. These suits provide insight into the motivation of individuals to get into the slave trading business, as well as details on how they carried out their operations. Even more remarkably, these records document stories of enslaved individuals purchased in Virginia and taken hundreds of miles away by sea and by land to be sold in the Deep South. The following narrative comes from Lunenburg County Chancery Cause 1860-026, Christopher Wood, etc. vs. Executor of William H. Wood.
From 1834 to 1845, Richard R. Beasley and William H. Wood were business partners “engaged in the trade of negroes [sic], buying them here [Virginia] & carrying them to the South for sale.” It was a partnership that was renewed every twelve months. Over the next decade, other individuals such as Robert R. Jones invested in the partnership but Wood and Beasley were the primary participants. The slave trade enterprise was funded by the personal capital of the partners, as well as loans from banks and private individuals. For example, in 1838, Beasley invested $5,800 and Wood $2,343 and they borrowed $6,905 from the Bank of Virginia and private individuals for a combined total of $15,048. In 1844, the total investment by the partners was $27,213 with over $24,000 invested by Beasley alone.
The partnership generally operated in the following manner: Beasley purchased the slaves in Virginia and Wood managed the transportation and selling of the slaves in the towns of Natchez and Port Gibson, Mississippi, and in New Orleans, Louisiana. The slave trade proved to be very successful, bringing in large profits to the partnership. In 1836, Beasley and Wood purchased in Virginia 19 male slaves, 12 female slaves, and one child at a total price of $27,601 and sold them in Port Gibson, Mississippi, for $43,626. Expenses for transportation, clothing, food, etc., were $1,955, leaving a net profit of $14,070 to be divided among the partners. In 2014 dollars, that would be almost $303,000. (I used the Federal Reserve Bank Consumer Price Index (Estimate) calculator for this figure) The partnership experienced great losses following the Panic of 1837. However, beginning in 1840, they were once again enjoying huge profits until Wood’s 1845 death, which ended the partnership. William H. Wood died in Gainesville, Alabama, while transporting slaves to sell in Mississippi.
Following Wood’s death, Beasley became the administrator of his estate. As such, he was responsible for settling all of Wood’s debts, which were substantial. He was forced to sell slaves, land, and crops to satisfy Wood’s creditors. Consequently, very little of Wood’s estate remained to be inherited by his heirs. They were not happy with the small amount left to them and sued Beasley for mismanagement of the accounts. They accused him of not disclosing profits from the slave partnership that rightly belonged to Wood, as well as illegally using funds from Wood’s personal estate to pay debts owed by the partnership. Wood’s heirs sued, asking the chancery court of Lunenburg County to review the partnership’s accounts in order to determine a fair settlement.
Both sides filed depositions and exhibits including correspondence, receipts, and contracts that offer an inside look into the slave trading business. In a letter to William H. Wood dated 24 January 1845, Beasley praised him for the profit received from a recent sale of slaves. Aside from the sale of one slave family which he thought was “too cheap,” he was “perfectly satisfied.” He went on to write about the “brisk” slave market in Virginia noting that 450 to 550 slave girls were selling for $350 to $450 each. He also gave his thoughts on the immediate future of the slave market and the impact cotton and tobacco prices would have on slave prices.
“I don’t think the market can be glutted with cheap negroes [sic]. Though I am still of the opinion that negroes must fall though the last accounts of cotton it was firm & rising. If that continues the next new negroes will be brisk and probably will rise in the New Orleans market. They [Negroes] may be scarce here in consequence of tobacco’s rising. It’s selling from 8 to 11 dollars. That may have a tendency to make negroes a little scarce for a while. I think the trade will be great next year. I want you to go for every dollar.”
Beasley offered Wood some advice on when was the best time to get “every dollar.” He advised that Wood should strike quickly, as soon as the local planters brought their cotton and wheat to New Orleans to put on the market, and to sell the slaves for cash only. He was not to wait too long because the planters were “more apt to disappoint you after they have sold their cotton and wheat” and would want to purchase slaves on credit. Beasley warned Wood: “Even you don’t go for credit.” This warning was given for good reason. A deponent in the chancery suit recalled a conversation with Wood in 1844 asking for his advice on getting into the slave trade business. Wood advised him not to “as there was nothing to be made at it.” Wood informed the deponent that he was owed somewhere between $10,000 and $12,000 for slaves sold to Southern planters on credit (approximately $279,000 in today’s dollars).
As Beasley pointed out in his 24 January 1845 letter to Wood, the price of slaves was dependent on the price of cotton. In a letter to Beasley dated 15 December 1844, Wood wrote from Gainesville, Alabama, that he recently sold “Martha & her children [at a] price $1,000 less than they ought to have sold.” This was also the case with the other slaves he sold. The reason? The falling price of cotton. He told Beasley, “to think of negroes maintaining the former prices when cotton was worth eight cents is the heighth [sic] of folly I think.” Beasley pressured Wood to send him money made from a recent sale of slaves. Wood agreed to do so but pleaded with Beasley not to use the money to purchase more slaves in Virginia. “(T)hey must come down from one hundred to two hundred dollars … four hundred is as much as ought to be paid for [slave] men.”
The documents filed in the chancery cause also bear witness to the experiences of the slaves who were sold by Beasley and Wood. A deponent named George C. Hatchett was asked about the sale of a woman owned by William H. Wood. Hatchett stated, “He kept the negro [sic] woman 8 or 10 months, when he told me, that he should carry her South, because two negro men were claiming her as a wife, and he [Wood] feared she might cause some disturbance.” Next week’s blog will endeavor to tell the stories of some slaves bought and sold by Beasley and Wood.
Christopher Wood, etc. vs. Executor of William H. Wood, 1860-026, is part of the Lunenburg County Chancery Causes, which are available for research at the Library of Virginia. The processing of this collection was made possible through the LVA’s innovative Circuit Court Records Preservation Program (CCRP) which seeks to preserve the historic records of Virginia’s circuit courts.
Next week: Hester Jane Carr’s Story
–Greg Crawford, Local Records Program Manager