Sunday, December 11, 2016

Petersburg and the Business of Slavery

Back in August I shared a post on Petersburg slave trader Henry Davis. In that post I included an image of a document showing the sale of slaves once belonging to Richard Ransom Johnson of neighboring Chesterfield County. A number of those slave were purchased by trader Davis, but the sale was facilitated by businessman Thomas Branch and his family affiliates.

Thomas Branch and his sons, James Read Branch and John Patteson Branch, were involved in several interrelated businesses in Petersburg and operated out their building and offices at 1 Old Street (pictured above), just a block south of the Southside Railroad station. Branch's location along the Appomattox River and with ready access to the railroad likely helped him with his various banking and commission-merchant businesses.

As one might imagine, much of the Branch family's business involved different facets of slavery's interwoven nature in the local economy. Branch's banking interests most likely made numerous loans to individuals who sought credit for slave and land purchases. The Branches certainly arranged slave sales and slave leasing, as the previously mentioned enumerated list documents from William Ransom Johnson sale, as well as the newspaper advertisement shown above, which ran in the December 28, 1855, edition of the Petersburg Daily Express. This ad sought slaves to rent to the Petersburg Railroad and offered "liberal wages" to their owners for the slaves' labor. 

In that same issue, Branch and Sons ran another notice, offering: "Two Negroes for Sale at Auction - On Wednesday, 2nd January, at 12 o'clock, we shall sell, in front of our office, TWO NEGRO MEN. One has been running a lighter, and the other is a first rate farm hand-both have good characters. THOS. BRANCH & SONS, Auct'rs."

Branch and Sons were not the only Petersburg commission merchants and auctioneers to get in on the slave game. William Pannill, whose May 30, 1862, advertisement in the Petersburg Daily Express is shown above, also brokered rentals and sales of slaves from his offices at 61 Sycamore Street.

Attorneys Alexander and James M. Donnan also served as middle-men, or in today's terms "head-hunters," who worked on commission to match owners' needs with slaves' skills. In the advertisement above, which appeared in the December 15, 1860, issue of the Petersburg Daily Express, they offered "a number of Servants, of all ages, sexes and capacities--Factory and Field Hands, Draymen, Ostlers, Dining Room Servants, Smiths, Cooks, Washers, Nurses, and others." A veritable slaveholders one-stop shop.  The Donnans outlined that payment could be made twice during the year on an annual lease and that they required hiring individuals to provide the slaves with clothing and two pair of shoes during the year. Renters were asked to please return slaves to their owners by Christmas day "well clothed." 

When we think of slavery we often think of the family separations cauded by the selling apart of family members. Perhaps we should better remember that some enslaved family members were separated for the greatest part of the year when hired out, too. 

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