Tuesday, January 19, 2016

I Will Sell or Trade . . . for Negroes

Not much catches me off guard while browsing through nineteenth century newspapers, but recently I found the above advertisement in the September 25, 1840, issue of the the Richmond Enquirer. In it, farmer Spencer Coleman offered to sell a number of male and female donkeys. In antebellum America, horses were mated with donkeys to produce mules. Mules were especially prized on Southern plantations due to the fact that they often worked harder, ate less, lived longer work lives, and did not require the high level of care that horses did. What I finally realized though is that here was a man trading livestock for what he saw as other chattel property. He offered to "sell or trade" his stock "on accommodating terms for Negroes (meaning enslaved individuals).

In this notice Coleman enhances the value of these four-legged beasts of burden by including some information on their bloodlines. For example: "Two of them will be four years old next Spring, likely, above the common size, from Jenneys which were by Vulcan." Likewise, Coleman mentions, "They are Colts of my Jack Ferdinand, probably the largest and best Jack in the State." By emphasizing these animals' bloodlines, and by this association their potential size and ability, Coleman could expect a better payday from a buyer.

As usually happens, curiosity made me want to find out more about Spencer Coleman.  I found him in the 1840 census. His household included 8 other family members. Coleman owned 23 slaves. The more informative 1850 census showed Coleman as 52 years old, meaning he was born at the very end of the eighteenth century. He still had a large family in his household, and he owned $12,000 in real estate. In 1850, Coleman owned 29 slaves. The even more informative 1860 census lists Coleman as 63 years old, still having a big family, and still had real estate worth $12,000. His personal property was worth $15,400, which included 16 slaves. Coleman was a wealthy farmer on an apparently prosperous farm.

While it appears that Coleman took great care to note the ancestry of his donkeys, one wonders if he took similar care in noting the family trees of his enslaved property as his workforce expanded and contracted over the decades of his adult life.

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