In the decades prior to the American Civil War, market places where enslaved Africans were bought and sold could be found in every town of any size in Mississippi. Natchez was unquestionably the state’s most active slave trading city, although substantial slave markets existed at Aberdeen, Crystal Springs, Vicksburg, Woodville, and Jackson.
The 19th century slave trade in Mississippi was linked to the growth of the textile industry in England, which had created a voracious market for cotton by the end of the 18th century. The invention of the cotton gin in 1793, the advent of the steamboat in 1811, and the introduction of the Mexican variety of cotton into the United States in the 1820s, all helped expand the plantation society in Mississippi after its statehood in 1817.
Cotton planters in Mississippi and in neighboring states quickly found that slave labor made their business a highly profitable enterprise. Although a federal law passed in 1807 prohibited the further importation of Africans, a potential slave labor force was already available in the older slave states. Many enslaved people were living on the century-old tobacco plantations in the Chesapeake Bay area, where agricultural productivity was declining while the enslaved population increased.
Natchez played a significant role in the southward movement of the existing enslaved population to the waiting cotton plantations of the Deep South. Slave sales at Natchez were held in a number of locations, but one market place soon eclipsed the others in the number of sales. This was the market known as “The Forks of the Road,” located at the busy intersection of Liberty Road and Washington Road about one mile east of downtown Natchez. (Today, Washington Road is named “D’Evereux Drive,” which changes to “St. Catherine Street” at the Liberty Road intersection.) The market site occupied a prominent knoll, straddling what was then the city's eastern corporation line.
Washington Road connected Natchez with the nearby town of Washington and with the Natchez Trace, a vital interstate route extending northeast into northern Alabama and Tennessee. Liberty Road, also known as “Old Courthouse Road” or “Second Creek Road,” linked Natchez with points to the east and southeast, and ultimately with the southern reaches of Alabama and Georgia. Although the Forks of the Road became best known as a slave market, livestock and other items were also sold there.
The Forks of the Road intersection appears in maps of the Natchez area as early as 1808. The earliest known map illustrating slave markets at that location is a plat of St. Catherine Street drawn in 1853 (see map). In the 1853 map, two “Negro Marts” are shown at the Forks of the Road intersection: one inside the angle of the fork and another across Old Courthouse Road (Liberty Road) to the southwest. The map also shows the City of Natchez “Corporation Line,” which intersected both slave markets and provides a way to accurately locate the market sites today.
The importance of the Forks of the Road as a slave market increased dramatically when Isaac Franklin of Tennessee rented property there in 1833. Franklin and his business partner, John Armfield of Virginia, were soon to become the most active slave traders in the United States. Franklin and Armfield were among the first professional slave traders to take advantage of the relatively low prices for enslaved people in the Virginia–Maryland area, and the profit potential offered by the growing market for slaves in the Deep South.
Armfield managed the firm’s slave pen in Alexandria, Virginia, while Franklin established and ran the firm’s markets at Natchez and New Orleans. By the 1830s, they were sending more than 1,000 enslaved people annually from Alexandria to their Natchez and New Orleans markets to help meet the demand for slaves in Mississippi and surrounding states.
Coffles and brigs
Franklin and Armfield sent an annual overland coffle, or slave caravan, from Virginia to their Forks of the Road market. These coffles usually left Alexandria for Natchez in mid- to late summer and traveled through Tennessee. From central Tennessee, the standard route to Natchez and the Forks of the Road was down the Natchez Trace. Entrepreneurial farmers along the route supplied the coffles with pork and corn. During the overland march, male slaves were usually manacled and chained together in double files, and were under the close supervision of mounted drivers. Women also walked, while children and the injured rode in the wagons that accompanied the coffle. The White men guarding the coffles were normally armed with both guns and whips.
Franklin and Armfield augmented their movement of enslaved people overland to the Natchez market by transporting them in ships to New Orleans. The partnership purchased a fleet of steam brigs capable of transporting cargoes of the enslaved from Virginia around the Florida Peninsula into the Gulf of Mexico. The brigs were capable of steaming up the Mississippi River to the docks at New Orleans. Enslaved people destined for the Natchez market were transferred to steamboats for the remainder of the trip. The steam brigs, which were equipped to carry between 75 and 150 enslaved Africans, normally operated between October and May to avoid excessive heat in the tightly packed slave quarters aboard ship.
A distinctive characteristic of the Forks of the Road slave market was the manner in which sales were transacted. New England writer Joseph Holt Ingraham, who visited the Forks of the Road slave market about 1834, wrote, “[Slaves at the Forks of the Road] are not sold at auction, or all at once, but singly, or in parties, as purchasers may be inclined to buy.” Likewise, classified advertisements placed by Forks of the Road slave traders in Natchez newspapers simply announced the availability of enslaved people for purchase, indicating a casual, first-come-first-served approach to marketing. Lacking the competitive, public spectacle atmosphere of an auction, individual buyers and sellers were free to quietly strike a bargain.
Ingraham’s narrative provides a description of the market, the behavior of the enslaved, traders and buyers, and the way that business was conducted:
“A mile from Natchez we came to a cluster of rough wooden buildings, in the angle of two roads, in front of which several saddle horses, either tied or held by servants, indicated a place of popular resort. ‘This is the slave market,’ said my companion, pointing to a building in the rear; and alighting, we left our horses in charge of a neatly dressed yellow boy belonging to the establishment. Entering through a wide gate into a narrow courtyard, partially enclosed by low buildings, a scene of a novel character was at once presented. A line of negroes . . . extended in a semicircle around the right side of the yard. There were in all about forty. Each was dressed in the usual uniform of slaves, when in market, consisting of a fashionably shaped, black fur hat, roundabout and trousers of coarse corduroy velvet, precisely such as are worn by Irish laborers, when they first ‘come over the water;’ good vests, strong shoes, and white cotton shirts, completed their equipment. This dress they lay aside after they are sold, or wear out as soon as may be; for the negro dislikes to retain the indication of his having recently been in the market. With their hats in their hands, which hung down by their sides, they stood perfectly still, and in close order, while some gentlemen were passing from one to another examining for the purpose of buying.”
The relaxed character of the Forks of the Road slave trade is also evident in free Black businessman William Johnson’s diary entry for May 14, 1841: “I rode out this afternoon to the Forks of the Road to try and swop [sic] Stephen off for someone else, but could find no one that I like.” Stephen was one of the people enslaved by Johnson. Here we have a remarkable glimpse of a Black slave-owner casually browsing through the Forks of the Road slave lot. The offhand way in which Johnson relates his visit to the Forks of the Road market indicates that he had no qualms about being in the midst of interstate slave dealers.
Local fears of incoming enslaved people bringing cholera to Natchez prompted passage of an 1833 city ordinance prohibiting interstate slave traders from housing their slaves within the city limits. Situated on the city’s eastern boundary line, the Forks of the Road market proved to be an ideal location for interstate slave sales without violating the 1833 ordinance. Slave traders operating at the Forks of the Road situated their holding pens just outside of the city limits. At peak business times, with as many as 500 enslaved individuals at the market, the intersection probably resembled a sprawling prison camp. Three prominent townhouse mansions, known today as “D'Evereux,” “Linden,” and “Monmouth,” were all within sight of the slave market.
The price to purchase enslaved people tended to rise and fall with the price of cotton and the degree to which expenses incurred by the interstate slave traders affected their margin of profit. Expenses incurred included the costs of the slaves' transportation to Natchez, food, housing, clothing, and medical treatment.
In the period between 1825 and 1830, the average price for enslaved young adult enslaved men in Virginia was $400. In contrast, Isaac Franklin sold four individuals (sex unspecified) at the Forks of the Road in 1826-27 for $700, $600, $500, and $450. By early 1850, enslaved males at Forks of the Road were advertised at $825 each, and females were priced at $700 and $600. By early 1861, with a civil war looming, prices for Virginia field hands had climbed to an average of $1,200 each. Forks of the Road prices were correspondingly high during the early months of 1861 when field hands were advertised from $1,600 to $1,650.
The market closes
Franklin, who had formed a separate partnership with another Virginia slave trader, Rice Ballard, continued to do business as Ballard, Franklin and Company at the Forks of the Road market until late 1845. Subsequent owners of the lucrative market spaces leased their property to interstate traders such as Griffin & Pullum and Thomas G. James, who proclaimed in newspaper advertisements in the early 1850s that their leases at the Forks of the Road were “for a term of years.” In January 1853, the Forks of the Road intersection was especially busy, with James and Griffin & Pullum sharing market space with another longtime interstate slave trader, R. H. Elam. Business at the market continued to boom during the 1850s. In 1858, advertisements by Kentucky trader Tarlton Auterburn implied an endless supply of enslaved people for Mississippi:
“Negroes for Sale. I have arrived at my old stand (Forks of the Road) near Natchez, with a Lot of No. 1 Negroes, which I will sell as low, and on as good terms as any other Trader. I will also receive new lots of Negroes, and keep up a good supply during the trading season. Tarlton Auterburn.”
The last newspaper advertisements for slave sales at the Forks of the Road appeared in the Natchez Daily Courier during the early months of 1863. All slave trading had ceased in Natchez by the summer of 1863 when Union troops occupied the town. Today, the historic intersection, with its familiar “Y” configuration, remains to mark the location of the once-flourishing slave markets at the Forks of the Road.
Jim Barnett is director of the Historic Properties Division, Mississippi Department of Archives and History. Clark Burkett is historian II at Historic Jefferson College, Mississippi Department of Archives and History. This article is condensed from an article originally published in The Journal of Mississippi History, Volume LXIII, Fall 2001, No. 3.
Bancroft, Frederick, Slave-Trading in the Old South, Baltimore: J. H. Furst Company, 1931.
Barnett, Jim and Burkett, H. Clark, “The Forks of the Road Slave Market at Natchez,” The Journal of Mississippi History, Vol. LXIII, Fall 2001, No. 3, 169-187.
Hogan, William R. and Davis, Edwin A., [editors], William Johnson’s Natchez: The Antebellum Diary of a Free Negro, Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1979.
Ingraham, Joseph Holt, The Southwest by a Yankee, Volumes I & II, New York: Harper and Brothers, 1835; reprinted by Readex Microprint Corporation, 1966.
Johnson, Walter, Soul by Soul: Life Inside the Antebellum Slave Market, Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1999.
Phillips, Ulrich B., American Negro Slavery: A Survey of the Supply, Employment, and Control of Negro Labor as Determined by the Plantation Regime, Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1969: 195.
Stampp, Kenneth M., The Peculiar Institution: Slavery in the Ante-Bellum South, New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1978: 254.
Stephenson, Wendell Holmes, Isaac Franklin: Slave Trader and Planter of the Old South, Gloucester, MA.: Peter Smith Publishing, 1968.
Sydnor, Charles Sackett, Slavery in Mississippi, Gloucester, MA.: Peter Smith Publishing, 1933, reprinted by the American Historical Association, 1965: 150-151, 156.