March 2-3, 1859: What Was the Largest Slave Auction in American History?

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A Brief History

On March 3, 1859, the largest sale of African slaves in the United States came to a sad conclusion near Savannah, Georgia when the last slaves formerly owned by plantation owner Pierce Mease Butler (1806-1867) were sold in order for Butler to satisfy his considerable debts.  Known to history as The Great Slave Auction or alternatively as The Weeping Time, a total of 436 human beings were sold like pieces of property.  Soon, the US Civil War would be fought, and slavery would end in the United States, preventing any such future crimes against humanity such as this mass slave sale.

Digging Deeper

Butler was the grandson of a Philadelphia man who had amassed a fortune owning numerous plantations with hundreds of slaves working the fields, those plantations being spread out throughout the South of the United States where slavery was legal.  Pierce M. Butler was more or less a ne’er-do-well that was an absentee landlord that did not pay close attention to his properties and frittered his money away on ill-advised gambling, risky business ventures, and lavish spending on luxuries.  P.M. Butler had inherited half his grandfather’s estate, the other half going to another grandson as the elder Butler had disinherited his own son.

Miniature of Pierce Butler (1744–1822), Pierce Mease Butler’s grandfather.

Prior to the Great Slave Auction, creditors had claimed Butler’s Philadelphia mansion and some of his other properties, but significant debts remained, and gambling debts are notorious for being collected by any means necessary.  Thus, the last remaining vestiges of Butler’s wealth were his slaves, and the auction was scheduled by infamous slave trader Joseph Bryan of Savannah, Georgia, who advertised the sale in local newspapers.  The advertisement stipulated that there was not be any separation or division of slave families.  Slaves were transported by train and overland to the auction site, where they were huddled in a mass while awaiting the auction.

Buyers from all over the South descended upon Savannah, with high hopes of scoring bargains and tales of top notch slaves being sold.  Prospective buyers behaved much as we have seen in television and film, poking and pawing the slaves, checking out dentition and more or less going over the people as one would check over a chattel animal for sale.  Poor weather had discouraged some buyers, and about 200 potential customers were on hand for the auction on the first day (March 2, 1859), possibly with more buyers showing up the second day of the sale.

Pierce Mease Butler and his daughter Frances Kemble Butler, c.1855

Of the 436 slaves offered for sale, 429 were sold, the remaining 7 being sick or infirm.  Despite the stipulation that families remain intact, and indeed the families were sold only as intact units, the purchasers felt no obligation to keep those slave families intact and, in many cases, soon sold off family members to diverse other slaveholders, destroying family bonds.  In one case of a family member being sold to a third party, the second slave holder that had purchased a slave in violation of the agreement not to separate families demanded the original buyer refund his money and take the girl back.  A fight developed in which the second buyer was shot to death.  The first buyer was later in turn shot to death by the nephew of the murdered man.  A feud between the Pate and Somers families developed and continued until every adult male named Pate had been killed!

An investigative journalist named Mortimer Thomson posed as a potential buyer and milled about with the buyers while taking notes and observations about the sale.  He published his story under the nom de plume of “Q. K. Philander Doesticks” in the New York Tribune under the title “What Became of the Slaves on a Georgia Plantation.”  The article was a scorching rebuke of the American slave trade and the institution of slavery.

An animation showing when United States territories and states forbade or allowed slavery, 1789–1861.  Maps by User:Golbez.  Animation by Kenmayer (talk).

The only memorial to this most inhumane and embarrassing blot on American History is a marker erected in 2008, located a few miles outside of Savannah where the auction occurred, having been erected by the Georgia Historical Society.

Question for students: What do you think was the worst event in American history and why?  Please let us know in the comments section below this article.

Peter or Gordon, a whipped slave, photo taken at Baton Rouge, Louisiana, 1863; the guilty overseer was fired.  Photograph by Mathew Brady (1822–1896).

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Historical Evidence

For more information, please see…

Butler, Pierce M. What Became of the Slaves on a Georgia Plantation? (Illustrated): Great Auction Sale of Slaves at Savannah, Georgia. Amazon Digital Services, 2010.

[AMAZONPRODUCTS asin=”B004AYD7R0″]

Butler, Price M. What Became Of The Slaves On A Georgia Plantation? Great Auction Sale Of Slaves, At Savannah, Georgia, March 2D & 3D, 1859. lulu.com, 2011.

[AMAZONPRODUCTS asin=”1105165639″]

Doesticks, QK Philander. Great auction sale of slaves, at Savannah, Georgia, March 2d and 3d, 1859. Cornell University Library, 1859.

[AMAZONPRODUCTS asin=”1429714417″]

The featured image in this article, “Five hundred thousand strokes for freedom; a series of anti-slavery tracts, of which half a million are now first issued by the friends of the Negro” by Wilson Armistead (1819?-1868) and “Picture of slavery in the United States of America ” by George Bourne (1780-1845), is in the public domain in its country of origin and other countries and areas where the copyright term is the author’s life plus 70 years or less.

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About Author

Major Dan

Major Dan is a retired veteran of the United States Marine Corps. He served during the Cold War and has traveled to many countries around the world. Prior to his military service, he graduated from Cleveland State University, having majored in sociology. Following his military service, he worked as a police officer eventually earning the rank of captain prior to his retirement.