a book about Harrisburg...

by George F. Nagle


Table of Contents

Study Areas:



Free Persons of Color

Underground Railroad

The Violent Decade

US Colored Troops

Civil War


Chapter Four:
Legacy of Slavery

Buying a Slave

Just imported from Africa, and to be sold by JAMES SIMMONS, At his Store in Tun Alley, a Choice Parcel of young SLAVES.
     Pennsylvania Gazette, 24 May 1759

Many central Pennsylvania farmers, landowners, ironmasters, innkeepers, and tradesmen all used slaves, but although some brought slaves with them when they migrated to the region, others had to purchase slaves once they were established here. Central Pennsylvania residents who wished to purchase a slave had several options. They could buy a slave in a privately arranged sale from a neighbor or acquaintance that had a slave for sale. They could also read their local newspapers, or regional newspapers, such as the Pennsylvania Gazette, for advertisements of slaves being offered for sale. Some of these were private sales, while others were public sales or auctions, generally held to settle the estate of a deceased slave holder.

Despite, however, the relatively large number of black slaves in the rural counties of the Susquehanna Valley, finding a slave for sale could be difficult. The steady demand for labor kept most sources of workers, free or bound, in short supply. Regional growth, the demands of war on local manpower, laws limiting imports of slaves, and high tariffs placed on imported slaves all contributed to spotty supplies of available slaves.

Another option was to visit a professional dealer in slaves. Most local people who wished to purchase a slave found themselves, at least in the earliest decades, traveling to Philadelphia or Baltimore to find a suitable selection from which to choose. Ever since the year 1684, when the British merchant ship Isabella brought its cargo of 150 African slaves into port, Philadelphia was the chief location to buy a slave for Pennsylvania farmers, landowners, and industrialists. Although the rising and falling tariffs kept yearly imports of Africans small in number until the 1730s, it was always possible to find single slaves, if not “parcels” of slaves, offered for sale, usually right on the wharfs.

Prior to passage of the Gradual Abolition Law by the Pennsylvania legislature in the year 1780, the sale of slaves by merchants was legal. Several slave merchants were located in or near Philadelphia, as the ports and wharves of that city made it easy to import slaves on merchant ships. When legislation was passed in 1761 imposing a hefty £10 duty on imported slaves, the mercantile firms simply landed the slave ships at wharves in Delaware and New Jersey, and took customers to the slaves for inspection. Many of the Pennsylvania merchants who sold slaves also carried a large inventory of other items, and none are known to have been solely involved in slave trading.

The advertisement at the beginning of this section, from merchant James Simmons, was placed in the Pennsylvania Gazette on 24 May 1759, and is typical of the ads placed by Philadelphia merchants offering slaves for sale. Many times, the slaves would be sold right from the slave ships tied up at one of the city's wharfs. An example is that of the slaves being sold from the schooner Penelope, as advertised in the 14 August 1760 issue of the Gazette: “Just imported from the Coast of Africa, in the Schooner Penelope, now lying at Mr. Hughe's Wharff, A Parcel of likely Negroe Boys and Girls, and to be sold by Thomas Carpenter, on board said Schooner.” The following year a similar sale was held at Cooper’s Ferry, in New Jersey, as advertised in the 1 October 1761 issue of the Gazette: “Just imported in the Sloop Company, Captain Hodgson, from the Coast of Africa, A parcel of likely Negroe Slaves; Which may be seen on board said Sloop, lying off Cooper's Ferry. For Terms, apply to Samuel and Archibald McCall, and James Wallace and Company.”

Note that the last advertisement lists the name of the Philadelphia mercantile company, McCall, Wallace and Company, that was selling the slaves. The previous advertisement notes that the slaves were "to be sold by Thomas Carpenter, on board said Schooner," but we do not know if Carpenter, like McCall and Wallace, was a local merchant, nor do we know how involved he was with the local slave trade.

A few Philadelphia merchants immersed themselves deeply into the slave trade. A prominent Philadelphia mercantile firm that dealt in slaves was Willing, Morris and Company, whose advertisement, from the 6 May 1762 issue of the Pennsylvania Gazette, says: “Just imported from the Coast of Africa, in the Brig Nancy, and to be sold at Wilmington, in New Castle County (where Attendance is given) by Willing, Morris, and Company, of Philadelphia, One Hundred and Seventy fine Gold Coast Negroes. N.B. In the West India Islands, where Slaves are best known, those of the Gold Coast are in much greater Esteem, and higher valued, than any others, on Account of their natural good Dispositions, and being better capable of hard Labour."

An interesting aspect of the advertisement by Willing, Morris and Company, is that they brought the slave ship into the port at Wilmington, Delaware, thus avoiding the heavy £10 duty newly imposed upon imported slaves. This had become a common practice among Pennsylvania slave merchants, who would often provide transport from Philadelphia to Wilmington for anyone wanting to inspect the slaves at the ship. Paying the duty, which was strictly enforced by the provincial collector, then became the responsibility of the buyer if the slave was taken across the border into Pennsylvania.

Accounting of the payment of that duty was kept by Thomas Coombe, Sr., Collector of the Port of Philadelphia. Failure to pay the duty frequently caught up with owners of slaves, as seen in the case of Thomas Norris, an innkeeper from Bristol. In December 1762, Norris resold at auction a recently purchased female slave to Edward Broadfield, a producer of preserved fish, for £50. Unfortunately for Broadfield, Norris had neglected to pay the tariff to Collector Coombe when he brought the girl into Pennsylvania, which at £10 constituted twenty percent of the purchase price. Broadfield did not know of the outstanding duty when he bought the slave, and Collector Coombe “forcibly seized” the slave from Broadfield when he tracked the slave down that July. Edward Broadfield was understandably outraged over the oversight, and published a complaint against Thomas Norris in the 4 July 1763 edition of the Pennsylvania Gazette, declaring that he considered the sale of the slave “null and void.” Presumably, most dealers in slaves were more honest with their customers than was Norris.

A survey of newspapers available in southeastern and central Pennsylvania in the early to middle 1700s for advertisements placed by merchants who dealt in black slaves turns up the names of twenty-three mercantile firms that included slaves as a part of their standard inventory. Another three merchants advertised “parcels” of black slaves for sale, available for viewing at locations other than their own established store. These advertisements date from August 1732 to September 1766, the peak years for the importation of black slaves into Pennsylvania, and do not account for all the commercial sales of slaves.

One of the earliest advertisements is from the firm of Allen and Turner, located on Turner’s Wharf. Merchant Joseph Turner, whose wharf was a regular point of sale for slaves, dealt in slaves for a period of at least twenty years, and he usually joined in with other persons, most often fellow merchant William Allen, in this trade. His first ad for slaves was published in the Gazette on 28 August 1732: "Just arrived from St. Christopher's, a Parcel of Fine Negro Boys and Girls, to be sold by Allen and Turner.”

On 13 May 1736, he advertised, along with Alexander Woodrop and William Allen, "Just arrived from Barbadoes, several likely Negroes; among which are two likely Women bred to House work.” That same year, on 12 August, in conjunction with partner William Allen, he advertised, "A Parcel of likely Negro Boys and Girls to be sold by Messrs. Allen and Turner."

Joseph Turner’s activity in the slave trade continued through the early 1750s. On 30 August 1750, William Bird advertised for the return of two "Negroe Men" who had run away from the Union Iron Works in West Jersey. He asked that if captured, they be returned to "Messieurs Allen and Turner, in Philadelphia." A 23 November 1752 ad from the firm of Allen and Turner publicized, "Five Negroe Men and boys, and one Negroe woman; to be viewed on board the Ship Mary, at Joseph Turner’s Wharff."

There may have been additional merchants who regularly sold slaves in Philadelphia during this period, and there were also commercial sales of slaves in this city after 1766. But advertisements placed by merchants who were importing slaves dropped off dramatically after the middle 1760s, mostly owing to the increased pressure against slaveholding imposed by the Quakers. Ever since the first formal protest in 1688 by several members of the Germantown Monthly Meeting, in which the practice of holding slaves was questioned on the most basic of moral principles, Quaker’s considered the following question: “There is a saying that we shall doe to all men like as we will be done ourselves; making no difference of what generation, descent or colour they are. And those who steal or robb men, and those who buy or purchase them, are they not all alike?”

The Germantown Protest set the tone for all future debates over slavery in Pennsylvania. From the very start, it was debated as a moral, rather than an economic issue. Despite that, it took the monthly meetings decades to decide against the holding of slaves by members. Once this happened, however, the pressure on members to manumit their slaves was strong. By the 1770s, Quakers who still held slaves were subject to censure within their meeting, as in Bucks County, where the Middletown Monthly Meeting noted, in 1777, "The following Friends still persist in holding slaves: Jonathan Willett, Joseph Thornton, John Jenks, and William Rodman [the latter having it under consideration]"57 With most Pennsylvania Quakers now against the holding of slaves, public scrutiny of those who supported the slave trade increased. Philadelphia merchants, in order to preserve their good standing with customers, many of whom were Quakers, quickly dropped slaves from their inventories of available goods.

Of the merchants who sold slaves in Philadelphia, none were solely slave merchants. Almost all the advertisements for the commercial sale of slaves also included lists of other goods for sale at the merchants’ place of business. Edward Jones, doing business in Norris Alley, advertised in 1740, "Just Imported from Antigua, in the Brigg Martha, Gurnay Wall Commander, and to be Sold by Edward Jones in Norris' Alley. A very likely Parcel of young Negro Men and Women, Boys and Girls. Also Rum, Sugar, Ginger and Coffee.” Rum and sugar, and other products of the West Indies, were frequently mentioned in ads for parcels of slaves recently imported from the islands. The firm of Kearny and Gilbert, on Water Street, advertised, “Several likely Negroe Men, just imported. Also Barbados Rum, Muscovado Sugar, Molasses and Cocoa." Several months later, this same company offered “a Parcel of choice Gold Coast and Windward Slaves, Men, Boys and Girls; also rum, Sugar, Cannon, Ship Muskets, Swivel Guns, Shot and Cordage.”

Slaves imported from South Carolina were often brought in with products from that region. Thomas Bartholomew, doing business on Arch Street, advertised in 1761 that he had “Just imported from Charles Town, South Carolina, in the Brig Hannah, Captain Noarth, A Parcel of likely young Negroes, and a large Quantity of Carolina Soal Leather, in Hides or Half Hides; also some Rice and Indigo.”

The mercantile firm of Caleb Emerson and Alexander Graydon first advertised African slaves along with European servants on 6 October 1737. Their trade continued to include both European and African people through 1741. This ad, which lists an unusual variety of additional goods for sale, includes several African slaves: "To Be Sold, By Emerson and Graydon, in Front Street, near the Draw Bridge, Several likely Negroes, Men, Boys and a Girl; a parcel of very neat fashion'd Looking Glasses, viz. Peer Glasses and Sconces of sundry sorts: A variety of Irish Linnens, neat Fusees, Muskets, Cutlashes and Gun Powder, &c.”

Alexander Graydon, in addition to his mercantile business, was educated for the pulpit and had a strong interest in science, literature, and the law. Not only was he considered to be an able authority on such matters, when consulted in the genteel coffeehouses of Philadelphia, but also he was eventually appointed as President Judge of Bucks County. Two of the sons of judge, merchant, and slave dealer Alexander Graydon studied law, and they in turn raised socially prominent families in Harrisburg, where they would play a significant role in the rising slavery controversy.58

Philadelphia merchant John Inglis, in 1734, included a long list of items in stock, in addition to African slaves:

To be sold in Lots or singly, a choice parcel of Negroes lately imported, consisting chiefly of young Men and Girls, bred to Plantation Business; also Jamaica Rum, Sugar of sundry Sorts, Molasses, Cotton, and Pimento, likewise a fashionable fresh parcel of Mercery Goods, consisting of Lutestrings, brocaded strip'd & waved Ducapes, Ducapees, Surines and Armillas, Choice of Haberdashery and Cutlery Ware with other Sorts of Merchandize. The Sale to begin on Friday Morning at John Inglis's House in Second Street, opposite to the Post House.59

Like other Philadelphia mercantile firms, merchant John Inglis advertised various types of labor for sale, in addition to black slaves, his stock frequently including "sundry likely English servant men, husbandmen and tradesmen, very cheap for ready money or the usual credit.”

Buying servants and slaves on credit was common, as seen in an ad from Walnut Street merchant Hugh Donaldson, whose inventory included not only “Muscovado Sugar in Barrels, Carolina and English Soal Leather,” but also “three Negroes, viz. One very fine Boy, about 13 or 14; one about 16; and a Fellow about 30 years old,” all to be sold “for Cash or short Credit.” Garrett and George Meade, who also did business on Walnut Street, offered to “dispose of” their newly acquired stock in black slaves “on the most reasonable Terms.” Water Street merchant James Child, in 1765, advertised a lot of “likely new Negroes” with the notation that “Good Bonds will be taken in Payment."

Several decades earlier, Robert Ellis, another Water Street merchant, advertised “A Parcel of likely Negro Boys and Girls just arrived in the Sloop Charming Sally…for ready Money, Flour or Wheat.” Ellis also noted that the sloop was due to sail from his wharf to Charleston, South Carolina in the next fourteen days, and he possibly planned to ship the flour or wheat that he obtained in barter for the slaves to that port. Two years earlier, while doing business with partner John Ryan, he advertised a “parcel” of slaves with a discount for cash payment, offering, “Three or four Months Credit will be given on good security, or an abatement of Twenty Shillings made in each Slave on present Payment.”

Although most commercial slave sales in Pennsylvania originated with Philadelphia merchants, a few could be found closer to Harris’ Ferry. Prior to relocating to his homestead, Tinian, near Middletown in present day Dauphin County, James Burd sold imported goods from his store in Lancaster, including the occasional slave, as seen in this 1765 advertisement:

To be Sold by James Burd, in Lancaster, Wholesale or Retail, Madeira Wine, Teneriffe Ditto, Malaga Ditto, Jamaica Spirits, Antigua Rum, Philadelphia ditto, Brandy, Coffee, double refined Load Sugar, single and Lump ditto, and Muscovado Sugar. As likewise a Negroe Man, has had the Small Pox, about 30 Years of Age, fit for country Business; he drives a Waggon well, and is a very handy Fellow, and might be very serviceable at an Iron Works. Whoever inclines to purchase said Negroe, may have Time to pay the Money, fixing Security, and paying Interest.

Commercial slave merchants sometimes even influenced the terms of slave sales arranged through private sellers. Slaveholder Stephen William, who had a flour mill at Milford Mills (modern day Hulmeville), on Neshaminy Creek, Bucks County, offered to sell “A very likely Negro boy, has had the small pox, this country born; six months credit will be allowed the buyer, giving security.” Buying slaves on credit persisted as long as slaves could be found for sale. In 1798, Thomas Parker of Lancaster bought an African American woman from John McKay of Little Britain Township, spreading his payments to McKay out over four years, the last payment of principle and interest being due in August 1801.60

If rebates for ready cash and easy financing were not enticing enough to sell their human inventory, Philadelphia slave merchants stood ready to circumvent the law to avoid tariffs, if need be, all in the name of making a sale. It was noted earlier that Willing, Morris and Company landed slaves in Wilmington, and transported potential buyers from Pennsylvania to Delaware in order to avoid the £10 import duty. Similar tactics were employed by Garrett and George Meade, who sold their non-human wares from their Walnut Street store, but sold their slaves from the New Jersey side of the river. Beginning in 1762 they consistently advertised that their “likely new Negroes” would be available for inspection and sale from either Roberts’ Ferry or Daniel Cooper’s Ferry in New Jersey. Customers were explicitly instructed to inquire about purchasing slaves at the Philadelphia store, just in case anyone was not clear on the expected procedure, as in this case of an advertised “Parcel of stout, likely, young Gold Coast Slaves … Purchasers are desired to call at said Garrett and George Meade's Store in Walnut street, from whence they will be attended to the Place of Sale.” Other merchants who did business in Philadelphia but maintained their slave sales from New Jersey or Delaware included John Isaac Redwar, Thomas Riche, David Franks, Daniel Rundle, Anthony Stocker, and Benjamin Fuller.61

Of all the mercantile firms listed, the most interesting, and prolific, in terms of slave trading, was the firm of Willing and Morris. Thomas Willing and Robert Morris both came from merchant families, although Thomas Willing had much more substantial financial means and social status, as head of the firm established by his father, Charles Willing. Robert Morris was working for Charles Willing when the old man died of yellow fever in 1754, and quickly came to the attention of Charles’s son Thomas when he took over control of the family business.

Thomas Willing had been educated in the law, in London, and aside from his mercantile business, held positions of increasing power and responsibility in Philadelphia, serving as councilman, alderman, judge, and even holding the office of mayor. These positions gave the young Willing incredible influence and insight into the needs of the developing colony. Robert Morris, meanwhile, had come from more meager beginnings. Orphaned at age fifteen, Morris became an apprentice to Charles Willing, at whose firm he proved himself with hard work and a keen eye for risk. A few years after the elder Willing died, Morris partnered with Thomas Willing to establish the most successful trading firm in colonial and revolutionary Pennsylvania.

Willing and Morris were masters of the triangle trade, sending Pennsylvania raw goods, such as fur and lumber, to England and the West Indies; shipping finished goods, such as furniture, from England to the colonies; and importing rum, sugar, and slaves from the West Indies to Philadelphia.62

Both Thomas Willing and Robert Morris became patriots during the Revolution, and both played significant and heroic roles, Willing as an Associate Justice of Pennsylvania’s Supreme Court, a member of the Committee of Correspondence, and as a delegate to the Continental Congress. Prior to the Revolution, he also strongly supported the local protests against the Stamp Act and spoke in support of the Port of Boston, which had been occupied by British troops in the wake of the Boston Tea Party.

Morris covertly worked to import vital arms and gunpowder for the Continental Army, and was instrumental in making the financial arrangements that supported the revolutionary government of the United States after the war began.

As leaders in the struggle for American independence from Great Britain, Thomas Willing and Robert Morris have unquestioned patriotic histories. It is perhaps because of these roles that many persons have questioned whether they were actually strongly involved in the slave trade. The Revolution, after all, championed the equality of all men, and although it was widely applied only to white men, in Pennsylvania the ideals of equality brought forth from the revolutionary government the fledgling nation’s first gradual abolition law, which will be examined more closely later.

But in the 1760s, Willing and Morris were deeply involved in slave trading. The first advertisement found in the Pennsylvania Gazette for slaves offered by Willing, Morris and Company is dated 11 May 1758, about one year after the formation of the partnership:

Just imported in the ship Carrington, Samuel Appowen master, from Barbados, and to be sold by Willing and Morris, At their store in Front street, near Walnut street, A Negroe Man, a goldsmith by trade, blows the French horn or trumpet, and is very fit either to follow his trade, or for an armourer of a privateer. A likely young Negroe woman. Also Barbados rum, muscovado sugar, &c. They have likewise a parcel of cambricks and lawns; an assortment of Manchester goods, silks, anvils, beck irons, sailcloth, anchors, &c. &c. all which will be sold at the lowest prices.

The advertisement above shows evidence of the triangle trade between England, the West Indies and the North American colonies, which brought slaves, rum and sugar from Barbados, and finished goods from England. A similar mixture of English and Caribbean goods would characterize their subsequent advertisements.

In September 1760, the company advertised, "Just imported, and to be sold by Willing, Morris, and Company, a parcel of likely young Negroes; also rum, sugar, cordage, cables, anchors, carriage and swivel guns, with shot to suit them." A few days later the company advertised that it had "new Negroes," implying that these persons were imported from outside of the mainland colonies and not from South Carolina: "Likely new Negroes, At Fishbourn’s Wharff, to be sold by, Willing, Morris, and Company."

Another ad in the Gazette, dated 12 February 1761, gives details on two slaves, probably sold by Willing and Morris as agents for a client. They advertised, "To be sold by Willing, Morris and Comp. A likely young Negroe man, that has been used to work at the house carpenter trade; also a likely Negroe boy, about 16 years old, used to wait on a family.” Another ad, a month later (12 March 1761) also mentions a few slaves: "Just imported in the ship Pretty Nancy, John Reddick, Commander, from Lisbon and Madeira, and to be sold by Willing, Morris, and Company, a cargoe of choice Lisbon salt, and a few pipes of the best Madeira wine. --- They have also for sale, two Mulattoes, and a Negroe man.”

A later ad, dated 7 May 1761, similarly advertised imported slaves. Note that, even though they had their own wharf in Philadelphia, the company landed the slaves in New Jersey to avoid payment of the £10 tax imposed upon imported slaves:

Just imported from Barbados, in the Ship William and Mary, George Nicholson, Master, and now lodged at Mr. Daniel Cooper's Ferry, on the Jersey Shore, A Negroe Man, and two New Negroe Boys, who are to be sold by Willing, Morris, and Company. The Purchaser to pay the Duty lately imposed by Act of Assembly, if brought into this Province. Said Willing, Morris, and Company, have also for Sale Madeira, and an Assortment of other Wines, Rum and Sugar, &c.

Up to this point, the company had imported small groups of black slaves. However, in May 1762, they brought in on the Nancy a huge group of 170 slaves from the Gold Coast of Africa. That ad, which is printed near the beginning of this section, went well beyond simply announcing the sale. It trumpeted the “fine” quality of the African slaves, implying that they possessed superior attitudes and work ethic, even offering a sort of testimonial that “In the West India Islands, where slaves are best known, those of the Gold Coast are in much greater esteem, and higher valued, than any others, on account of their natural good dispositions, and being better capable of hard Labour.”

This new venture, announced with boasting and fancy advertising, proved relatively successful, as within a month, all but thirty-four slaves had been sold. Twenty of those slaves, “men, women, boys and girls,” remained at Cooper’s Ferry, in New Jersey, in June, according to a follow-up ad. However, the diseases of the new world, combined with the horrible rigors of the middle passage, had taken a toll on some of the slaves. In the same ad, the firm noted that “Fourteen slaves of the said cargo, [were] left at Wilmington, under the care of Doctor John McKinley, who will sell them off, as they recover their Health.”63

The company also held bonds for persons who bought slaves on credit. On 1 September 1763 the company reorganized, running the following legal notice dissolving the old partnership and forming a new one: "The Co-partnership of Willing, Morris and Company, being now dissolved, all persons indebted to the said Company are desired to make immediate payment, more particularly those who are indebted on bond for Negroes, sold in the Lower Counties.” The old company apparently held a substantial debt for buyers of slaves in bonds, or loans--enough of a debt that they emphasized this particular indebtedness in their announcement.

This did not stop their trade in human cargo, though. As the reformed Willing and Morris, several years later, the company still sold people as part of their inventory, as shown in this 27 June 1765 ad: "Five servant men, and a large quantity of empty bottles, to be sold by Willing and Morris.” The previously advertised "servant men" may have been African slaves, although because race was not specified it is more probable they were Irish servants with from five to seven years to serve, as other advertisements from the company mention Irish servants being imported in merchant ships (see 18 April and 2 May 1765, Pennsylvania Gazette). The following advertisement from Willing and Morris, a month later, dated 25 July 1765, shows a continued trade in African slaves. Note also the listing of other items for sale:

JUST imported in the Ship Granby, Jos. Blewer Master, Seventy Gold Coast SLAVES, of various Ages, and both Sexes, to be sold on board said Ship, lying at Mr. Plumsted's Wharff, by WILLING and MORRIS, and a part of them are intended to be sent, in a few Days, to Duck Creek, there to be sold by Mr. THOMAS MURDOCK, for Cash or Country Produce. The said Willing and Morris have for Sale, at their Wharff and Stores, below the Drawbridge, Barbados Rum, Sugar, Coffee, Madeira, Teneriffe, Lisbon, Malaga, Port and Fyal Wines, by the Pipe, Hogshead or Quarter Cask; Bristol Beer, Brandy, Geneva, Shrub, Lemon Juice preserved, Cordage, Sail Cloth, empty Bottles, Glass 6 by 8, 7 by 9, and 8 by 10, Sides of Glass, Boxes of Glass Ware, plain and painted Chests of China Cups and Saucers, a few Casks of Liverpool China Ware, 6, 8, 10, 30d. and sheathing Nails, a Quantity of Mahogany Logs, and many other Articles. Three indented Servants to be disposed of.

As noted in the last line of the above ad, the company also bought and sold the time of Scottish and German immigrants in the 1760s and 1770s, selling them for a term of years in payment for their passage from England and Europe. A 19 November 1771 ad offered for sale "350 Freights of Palatines, all in good Health; their Passages are to be paid to Willing and Morris.” Regardless of whether they sold African slaves, West Indian slaves, or European servants, Thomas Willing and Robert Morris stood as one of the most prominent and visible partnerships that offered human beings to interested buyers for ready money or credit.


While Philadelphia remained a popular destination for the purchase of slaves, not all buyers sought out commercial dealers or the stores of merchants for their purchase. Many sales were made in much less formal locations between strangers who met for that purpose. Public sales, or auctions of slaves, could be attended in the city at various places. One very popular location for the public sale of slaves in Philadelphia was the London Coffee House. Chapter three described the popularity of European style coffee houses in Philadelphia, and the variety of business conducted therein. Any number of items might be encountered for sale on any given day, with slaves being only one of the possible goods offered for public auction. But for those who wished to sell a slave, or a parcel of slaves, at a highly visible vendue, the London Coffee House was the preferred choice.

The sale of slaves at this location became so common that the house had a special block placed at the front for just such purposes. Slaves sold by public auction at this location were less likely to be newly arrived Africans, but blacks already owned by local slaveholders. Persons wishing to purchase a slave would watch the local newspaper for published notices of sales, and either bid in person or designate someone to act as an agent and bid on their behalf. The following advertisement is unusual in that fourteen slaves are up for auction. Most public slave sales at this location involved one or two slaves at one time; this event no doubt drew a large crowd for its novelty:

To Be Sold, On Saturday the 27th Instant, at the London Coffee House, Twelve or Fourteen valuable Negroes, consisting of young Men, Women, Boys and Girls; they have all had the Small Pox, can talk English, and are seasoned to the Country. The Sale to begin at Twelve o'Clock. 64

More common are advertisements such as those listed below. Slaveholders wishing to sell one or two slaves arranged for "publick vendue" at the Coffee House and placed newspaper ads giving the details of the sale. Note that Saturday seemed to be a very popular day to sell slaves at that location. All but two of the following ads give Saturday as the day of the sale (all ads are from the Pennsylvania Gazette):

On Saturday next will be sold at publick Vendue, at the London Coffee house, about Noon, A very strong likely Negroe Boy, about 17 Years old, has had the small pox, understands taking Care of Horses perfectly, can lay Cloth, and wait on Table for a Gentleman Family, and can do every Part of hard Labour. He will be put up at Fifty Pounds, and not under. Enquire of Mr. Judah Foulke.
(4 May 1758)

A Likely Negroe Wench, that can cook and wash, and has had the Small Pox, to be sold at public Vendue, at the London Coffee House, on Saturday the 20th Instant, at Twelve o'Clock.
(11 December 1760)

To be sold by public Vendue, at the London Coffee House, on Saturday the 30th Instant, a likely Negroe Wench, fit for Town or Country Business. She has had the Smallpox and Measles.
N.B. She is not sold for any Fault, but on Account of the Decease of her Master.

(28 January 1762)

Philadelphia, April 27, 1762. On the Tenth of next Month, between Twelve and One o'Clock, will be sold, at the London Coffee House, two likely Negroe Men, and a Negroe Woman; they are sold for no Fault.
(29 April 1762)

To be sold by public Vendue at the London Coffee house, on Saturday, the 17th Instant, at Eleven o'Clock in the Forenoon, a lusty spry Negroe Man, about 30 Years of Age, is a Tanner and Currier by Trade, but is exceeding capable of learning any other Business.
(15 March 1764)

To be sold by public Vendue at the London Coffee house, on Saturday, the 24th of November inst. at Twelve o'Clock, A very likely healthy Negroe Girl, between 17 and 18 Years of Age, fit for Town or Country Service; she has been about five Years in the Country, has had the Smallpox, can cook, wash and iron.
N.B. The Duty already paid.

(22 November 1764)

To Be Sold, By publick vendue, at the London Coffee House, the 15th day of April instant, A Likely Negroe man, about 18 or 19 years of age. Also a likely Negroe woman with a female child, who has had the small pox; can both be recommended for their honesty.
(2 April 1767)

An important selling point, included in five of the previous seven ads, is that the slaves have “had the small pox.” One of the slaves has also had the measles. Smallpox was a highly communicable disease that took a heavy toll on colonial populations. It was spread by contact with an infected individual, and by that means spread rapidly through closely packed groups of people, such as occurred in European cities, or slave ships.

Although most Europeans experienced the disease early in life, spreading quickly as it did there owing to the much higher population density, the disease was relatively rare in the sparsely settled regions of colonial Pennsylvania. Those who had never been exposed to it were the most susceptible, meaning that the disease struck hardest when large numbers of previously unaffected people gathered together, as in the tiny alleys, crowded markets, and bustling wharves of Philadelphia. All it took was one infected individual to be introduced among a group of susceptible neighbors to spark an outbreak, which made it all the more fearsome in pre-Revolutionary Pennsylvania. When outbreaks occurred among those who had never previously been exposed to the disease, the results were debilitating and often deadly.

It began with headaches, muscle aches and high fever, and gradually got worse, with nausea and vomiting. Within days, the telltale rash would emerge, first in the mouth and then spreading to the face and the rest of the body. The rash progressed from red spots to raised bumps that filled with pus, to hard pustules that would scab over. When all the scabs finally dried and fell off, often leaving the person with prominent scars, the disease had run its course and only at that point was the person no longer contagious, however all the linens and bedding, blankets, and clothing associated with their care remained highly contaminated.

Once fully recovered, the person had a very high resistance to the disease and was highly unlikely to be a carrier. Slaves, having come through the middle passage in crowded, unsanitary conditions, or being imported from large slave communities in the West Indies, were frequently exposed to the disease from the European slave factors and sailors, and were particularly at risk during an outbreak.

Small pox had an incubation period of two weeks or more from the time the victim first contracted the virus from a contagious individual, during which the victim showed no symptoms, so no one really knew who might be carrying the disease. Perfectly healthy-looking people could be highly infected and not even know it. This covert nature of the disease was what enabled it to be brought into the middle of healthy populations by people who felt fine, and who were working and living alongside them, until the onset of the sickness. People became highly suspicious of strangers moving in among them. After all, no one knew with who they had been in contact. But those who were known to have already suffered through and survived the disease were safe, thus the strong preference for buying slaves who were warranted to have already “had the small pox.”

Not uncommonly, the spectacle of people being sold like livestock at public auction was a sale of last resort, resulting from a failure to sell the slave privately. The next few advertisements indicate that the slaves were to be sold at the London Coffee House if not sold privately prior to the announced sale date. The first two of these are both from caulker John Merrit, and although the ads are dated more than five months apart, appear to concern his interest in selling the same slave woman, whom he had previously (August 1764) tried to sell on his own. As can be seen below, Merrit was not successful and was now planning to exhibit her for sale at the coffee house.

As a caulker in Philadelphia, Merrit’s specialty would have been to make the many wooden ships that came into port watertight by packing oakum into the seams. Oakum was a specialty item produced by separating lengths of worn hemp rope into individual fibers and then coating it with pine tar. This dirty, tedious job was not infrequently performed by slaves and prisoners. In 1747, Abraham Shelley, keeper of the Workhouse in Philadelphia, advertised that he had “good oakum” at reasonable rates. Some of that oakum may have been produced by the slaves that Shelley kept at the Workhouse or by any of the runaway slaves that were kept there instead of at the local jail. Keeper Joseph Scull also sold oakum from the Workhouse as early as 1739. It was a major source of revenue for that institution: an audit of the books from May 1769 to May 1770 showed that thirteen tons of oakum had been picked during that period by about 125 inmates, sixty of whom were children under age five. The report was published in the Gazette as “General State of the Accounts of the Contributors to the Relief and Employment of the Poor, in the City of Philadelphia, from May 8, 1769, to May 12, 1770.” Merrit’s slave woman, from her description, had probably not been used to pick oakum:

To Be Sold, By public Vendue, at the London Coffee house, on Saturday the 8th Day of October at 11 o'clock, if not sold before at private Sale, A Likely healthy Negroe Wench, about 24 Years of Age, this Country born, has had the Small Pox, and Measles, understands Town and Country Business well, can Wash, Iron, Cook very well. For further Particulars enquire of John Merrit, on Society hill, in Almond street, near the Blue bell.
(29 September 1763)

To be sold at the London Coffee house, at 12 o'clock, on the 17th of March, a likely healthy Negroe Woman, about 25 Years of Age, has had the Small Pox and Measles, can Wash well, and is a good Cook; she can be well recommended for her Honesty. Any Person inclining to purchase the said Negroe before the Day of Sale, may apply to John Merrit, Caulker, in Almond street, Society hill, near the Blue Bell.
(8 March 1764)

To be Sold on Saturday next, at 12 o'clock, at the London Coffee house, if not sold before by private Sale, a likely Negroe Woman and Child; she can cook, and do all Sorts of House Work, and is fit for either Town or Country Business. Enquire of Samuel Simpson, in Chestnut street, near the corner of Third street.
(9 May 1765)

A likely Negroe Man, To be sold by public vendue, at the London Coffee House, on Saturday, the 19th instant May, if not sold before.
He understands all kinds of housework, can wait on table, and tend horses; he has also some knowledge of country work. Any Person inclined to buy him at private sale, is desired to apply to the Printers.
(10 May 1770)

To Be Sold, A Strong healthy Negroe woman, fit for country business, about 24 or 25 years of age; she is sold for no fault but want of employ. For further particulars, enquire of the printers hereof. If she should not be disposed of before Saturday, the 24th of July next, she will then be sold at the London Coffee house, at 12o.
(28 June 1770)

The last two ads above, it may be worth noting, did not include the seller’s name, but preserved a bit of anonymity by instructing interested persons to “inquire of the printer.” Such anonymous ads became common after the 1770s. Even if no slave auction was scheduled, persons looking to purchase slaves could use the Coffee House "on market days" as a meeting place to arrange a sale:

Philadelphia, August 24, 1774. The subscriber is now wanting a number of Negroes, men, women, boys or girls, farmers, house Negroes, or tradesmen, that are real slaves, and good titles; all persons that have such to dispose of, please to apply to me, at the London Coffee house, on market days, from eleven o' to one, at other times at my house, the north end of Second street, opposite to the Bath. Should I be gone in the country, please to leave descriptions of the Negroes, and where to be found, with Mr. John Young, junior, sadler, in Market street.
(31 August 1774)

Privately arranged sales, however, became the most common method of buying and selling chattel labor. Either slaveholders could inquire among friends and acquaintances whether it was known if any slaves were for sale, or they could watch the newspapers for advertisements listing slaves for sale. Slaveholders in the rural counties could not always find slaves available when they wanted them, and often resorted to contacts in Philadelphia or other large cities.

Such was the case with Lancaster attorney Jasper Yeates, who in 1770 wrote to his brother-in-law, Edward Burd, in Philadelphia. Yeates has been married for only three years, and apparently was seeking a servant, either a white indentured servant or a black slave, to serve in his relatively new household in Lancaster. Unable to find a suitable servant locally, Yeates turned to his family contact in Philadelphia, where, presumably, a greater variety of help could be found.

Burd replied to Yeates in a letter dated 5 July 1770, beginning “I received your Favor of the 2d. Instant, In which you seem inclined to purchase a Negro Boy if no white Servt can be procured for you.” His search would not be easy, however. Edward Burd made inquiries of Samuel Howell, a Water Street merchant, who regularly imported European servants. Howell told Burd “he had no servants of any kind at this Time to dispose of but expected a Palatine Ship in the Fall.” It is possible that Burd was uncomfortable looking for a black slave, as he tried to talk Yeates into considering a German indentured servant instead, noting, “Uncle Jo. last Fall got a Dutch Lad who cost him £26 or £27 & was to serve him 7 Yrs.-- he learnt the English Language in a few Months, is very diligent & handy about everything.” As he developed his argument against buying a slave, Burd revealed that finding African American slaves in Philadelphia was getting difficult:

I don't know where you could get a Negro Lad, but if you could [not] would it not be better to take a Dutch one, as being in general more active strong & diligent & apter to learn & better disposed to do their Business & the loss is not so great in Case of their dying or turning out ill-- however the Inconvenience of Nero [sic] Servants & the Trouble of teaching them their Duty is very great & if you could get a Negro Boy to answer your Description it would suit, I imagine very well,-- but they are rare Ones. I don't know of any Negroes to be sold, but if I knew your Determin.n I would make Inquiry.65

Jasper Yeates eventually obtained black slaves, registering three slaves at Lancaster in 1780: twenty-two-year-old Phillis, twenty-year-old Patty and sixteen-year-old Prince. Despite this, the difficulty with which Edward Burd had in locating a young black slave for his brother-in-law is indicative of the declining interest among Philadelphians for obtaining new slaves. After achieving a record high number of Africans imported in 1762--probably about 500 slaves--importation of slaves slowed to the point that, by 1770, only about thirty per year were being brought into the port at Philadelphia. At the same time, ships of Scots-Irish and German immigrants were arriving in larger numbers, from only a few ships in the late 1750's, to nineteen ships in 1770, the year of the letter above. Typically, Burd urged Yeates to consider a "Dutch Lad," reflecting the swing in popular preference back toward European servants.

Burd, however, does not seem to have explored another popular method of buying a slave, which was to deal directly with a private owner who had a slave to sell. Many thousands of slaves were bought through privately negotiated transactions among friends, family members, and between complete strangers.

Such was the course James Hamilton, a successful lawyer in Carlisle, Cumberland County, decided upon in attempting to purchase a slave in 1798. As Jasper Yeates had done eighteen years earlier, Hamilton turned to the resources of the big city, and decided to use Philadelphia agents Cranston & Alexander to purchase a slave he had heard was being offered for sale at a city wharf. Unfortunately for Hamilton, his information was faulty, as the agents replied, “We are favored with yours of the 11th. Inst. handing your check on the Bank for 100 Dollars & desiring us to purchase a Negroe Boy to be heard of at the Lewistown Stage office on Levi Hollingsworth's Wharf-- We have made every Enquiry possible there but cannot hear of any such Boy for Sale nor is there a Stage office on this wharf.”66

A few years later, Hamilton made another attempt to buy a slave, but this time wrote to a friend, John Brown, who was living in Philadelphia. In an undated (probably November or December 1802) letter, Hamilton described the merchandise he had seen advertised in the Pennsylvania Gazette, writing, "This day I saw an advertisement in the Philadelphia Gazette of a number of paintings to be sold on Thursday at the Merchants Coffee House." He asked Brown to act on his behalf and spend twenty or thirty dollars for one. He then noted, "I also observe in the same paper an advertisement of a Girl who has sold for want of employment," and authorized Brown to buy her for "100 or 120 dollars if of pretty good character.”

Brown did attempt to purchase the slave, but was unsuccessful. In a reply to Hamilton, dated 14 January 1803, in which he introduced his nephew, Isaac B. Parker, who was to study law under Hamilton, Brown described the seller as now "indifferent about selling."67 By summer, Hamilton, or Brown acting on his behalf, had located two more potential servants: a Mulatto boy, and a girl whose race is not specified. Again, as explained in the following letter from John Brown to James Hamilton, Brown was unable to complete the purchase of these individuals for Hamilton:

Philad. 15th July 1803
Dr Sir
I have had the pleasure to receive yours of the 9th and immediately went after the negro boy but found he had been sold a few days before for 120 dollars--He was a small weakly Mullato and belonged to a Mr. McCannagh a broker who has a family and I think would not have parted with him if he was good for much--indeed he intimated as much to me. As for the Girl She now refuses to go to the country on any account altho I have made use of every persuasion to induce her and her Master is willing to part with her—therefore we must give her up. I am sorry that I can not succeed in getting you servants that will be useful but indeed I see but very little prospect--every body is complaining in that here round those that are advertised [sic] in the papers are generally sold for faults--I cannot think of sending any but such as have a good character as I am sure you would have trouble without any use.

Brown’s letter to Hamilton illustrates an important, but little examined, point about the private purchase of slaves in Pennsylvania following the revolution, which is that intricate negotiations often had to be made, frequently taking into account the will and preferences of the slave. The sale of the female slave fell through because the girl refused to “go to the country [the term used for the back counties of Pennsylvania] on any account.” Brown even tried “every persuasion to induce her,” but to no avail. This scene, which occurred in 1803, is very different from the more accepted image of slaves being forcefully dragged away from family by a new master to unknown parts.

Other instances can be found from this time period where the seller of a slave seemed inclined to take the wishes and preferences of the slave into consideration. In 1808, Joshua Elder, who was discussed earlier, advertised in a Harrisburg newspaper to sell his twenty-two-year-old “Negro Man” who, he noted, “is fond of working with horses, and wishes to go into the country.” Even more remarkable is the case of a “Mulatto girl” named Ruth, who, following the death of her Londonderry Township master, William Frazer, in 1816, was given a pass to travel on her own, in “order to hunt another master.” The administrator of the estate quickly came to regret allowing this slave that much choice, as after several weeks he had lost track of her. It appears that Ruth had no intention of returning herself to bondage, but had instead headed for freedom in another county.69

Such respect for the feelings and preferences of the slave was a new phenomenon, born of the Enlightenment-bred rhetoric of the Revolution. As a member of the Committee of Correspondence in 1772 Boston, Samuel Adams carefully laid out the natural rights of man, numbering liberty second only to the right to life. “When men enter into society,” he wrote, “it is by voluntary consent; and they have a right to demand and insist upon the performance of such conditions and previous limitations as form an equitable original compact.”

Adams was referring to the natural rights of colonists, of course, not slaves. But his inspiration was from James Otis’ The Rights of the British Colonies, in which Otis attributed natural rights to “all men…white or black.” But what aspect of slavery can ever remotely be viewed as “voluntary consent?” Pre-Revolutionary era treatment of black slaves is more typically seen in cases such as the Mulatto slave Harry, who on a summer day in 1756 “absented himself from his master’s service.” At twenty-five years of age, this “nimble lively fellow,” had “formerly belonged to George Johnson, in Frederick county in Virginia; from thence assigned to one John Lindsay; from thence to John Clark, of Lancaster; from thence to one Cookson,” before finally being sold to Thomas Bartholomew in Philadelphia. At that point, Harry apparently decided to strike out on his own, declaring himself a free man,70 much to the dismay of his latest owner. Unlike the slave girl that James Hamilton’s friend, John Brown, tried his best to persuade to “go into the country,” some four decades later, Bartholomew’s Harry was an unwilling party to the removal to Philadelphia. Such treatment and attitudes were the norm in pre-Revolutionary Pennsylvania, and were still far from rare even when Hamilton continued his search for a slave in the early 1800s.

An extreme example is seen locally in the case of Chloe, of East Pennsboro Township. By the time she was thirteen years old, the slave Chloe had been sold and resold seven times. Chloe was originally registered by Cumberland County ferry operator William Kelso in 1789 as a seven-year-old "Negro child." Upon Kelso's death, possession of Chloe passed to Kelso's minor daughter Rebeckah. In 1794, Rebeckah transferred Chloe to Philadelphia merchant John Harland. Within a few months, Chloe was subsequently sold by Harland to Peter Gerandan for 118 Spanish milled dollars. A month after that sale, Peter Gerandan sold Chloe to a buyer identified only as L. Crousillat for the same amount he had paid to Gerandan. Five months later, in March 1795, L. Crousillat sold Chloe to Oliver Pollack, again for the price of 118 Spanish milled dollars. Pollack was a resident of Cumberland County, although the transaction was recorded in Philadelphia. Pollack kept Chloe until November 1796, at which time he sold the thirteen-year-old child to Andrew Carothers, of East Pennsboro Township, for £60.71 At which point in this series of exchanges was Chloe consulted for her “voluntary consent?”

Cumberland County slaveholder Robert Clark owned several slaves, including a man named Eanus and his son. Some time late in 1799 or early 1800, Clark, who lived in Southampton Township, sold Eanus’ young son to Jesse Kilgore, in nearby Newton Township. Unlike the situation with the slave girl in Philadelphia, whom John Brown could not convince to leave her city master, this sale was not dependent upon the wishes of the boy or his father. The child was removed from the home of his family at Clark’s house and taken to Kilgore’s house, where he was expected to remain, probably until his twenty-eighth birthday.

The child, however, was not happy with his new master and ran away in the spring of 1800, eventually finding his way back to Clark’s house, where he intended to stay with his father. Kilgore soon found out where his missing slave had gone, and traveled with his brother, William Kilgore, to reclaim the boy. They arrived at Robert Clark’s house on 5 April, and determined that the child was in Clark’s kitchen, with his father. What happened next serves to illustrate not only how little attitudes toward slavery had changed in the back country of Pennsylvania, as opposed to those in Philadelphia, but also the horrors of slavery as it tore families apart.

Eanus was with his son in the kitchen of Robert Clark’s house, being only recently reunited with the young boy after the heart-wrenching sale of the child to Jesse Kilgore. The Kilgore brothers entered the kitchen to confront the runaway child. Jesse “took [Eanus' son] by the shoulder and told him to come along,” according to court documents. Eanus could not bear the sight of his son being torn away from him again and began crying. He got up and took hold of the boy, to attempt to keep him there, although he must have known the hopelessness of his situation. Jesse Kilgore got the child away from Eanus and started to leave with him. He must have anticipated trouble, because he took out a rope that he had brought along for such an emergency, and began to tie the child up. This was too much for Eanus, who left the room. Seeing his child being forcefully taken away, tied like an animal, caused the father to resort to desperate measures.

Eanus left the room and found a gun, which he brought back into the kitchen. Leveling it at the Kilgores, he threatened, “if they didn't leave the boy alone he would blow them all up.”72 The potentially deadly confrontation between the Kilgore brothers and the enslaved Eanus was about as far from Samuel Adams’ “equitable original compact” as it could be. While Philadelphia slaveholders were beginning to see their slaves as human beings, possibly possessing some rudimentary rights, such was not the case in the rest of the commonwealth. Unlike the comparatively “enlightened” attitudes of post-Revolutionary Philadelphia slaveholders toward the institution, the relationship between most central Pennsylvania slaveholders and their slaves, even at the start of the nineteenth century, remained bound by the same social norms that existed more than one hundred years before.

In the case of Eanus and his son, the child was not allowed to remain at Clark’s house with his father. Eanus succumbed to the legal reality of the situation, knowing that even if he shot the Kilgores, he would not be able to keep his son. He put down his gun, and for his desperate action to try to preserve his family, was charged with assault and battery.


By the early 1800s, most central Pennsylvanians that wished to buy a slave could find one advertised locally. James Hammill, of Shippensburg, was able to purchase one-year-old twin sisters Bett and Kesiah from Robert Shannon in 1802. John Clark, of Donegal Township, Lancaster County, looked beyond Pennsylvania’s border to secure his slave. He was able to buy fourteen-year-old Lawson Taylor from a Delaware slaveholder in 1814. Clark paid three hundred dollars for the teenaged boy, whom he would have had to register as a bound servant, rather than a slave, in order to get around Pennsylvania’s prohibition against importing slaves from other states. Such machinations to circumvent the law were not uncommon.73

About this same time, in Carlisle, James Hamilton was still eager to obtain a slave years after his earlier attempt had proved fruitless. Hamilton's contact in Philadelphia, by 1811, was a relative of John Brown named William Brown Parker. Like Brown, Parker continued to search for slaves to purchase for Hamilton. In a series of letters to Hamilton, Parker described his first attempt at securing a young male slave.

Writing on 27 October, 1811, Parker said “On my return to the City I Called at the House where the black Boy was for Sale, his Master informed me he was then in the Country at his Fathers a few Miles from the City, but that he expected him home in the Course of a week. I Called a second time but he had not returned, when he does he will let me know, he had about 8 years to serve, his price for him is $140.” Parker had to leave town for a while, and was not able to return right away to finalize the sale, as Hamilton desired. When he did return, he was disappointed to find that “the Negro Boy which I last wrote you about, was sold during my stay in the Country, to a person in Lancaster Co.”

Fortunately, Brown had another lead. Writing in late November, Brown described how he eventually met a Mr. Humphreys, who had an eleven-year-old slave for sale:

I have been this morning with Mr. Joshua Humphreys of this City, who advertises a black Boy for Sale, who has between 11 & 12 years to Serve, he says he is an excellent waiter, and understands taking Care of Horses and driving a Carriage--he is between 15 & 16 years of age--his price is $150. Should the above meet your approbation you can send on a Check by the return Mail.

This description of the slave and his experience apparently sounded good to Hamilton, who gave his approval for the purchase, and Parker completed the sale upon receipt of Hamilton's check. In subsequent letters, Parker gave additional details about the slave, whose name was Luke, and discussed the problems of transporting Luke from Philadelphia to Carlisle, reporting in December that the slave “is now ready and will be sent forward by the first waggon going your way that will take charge of him. I have had the Indenture made out in the usual way and in your name--with the receipt for the amount paid at Mr. Henry's shall be forwarded you by some safe hand.” In response to James Hamilton’s inquiries for more details about his new purchase, Parker offered the following descriptive details:

In a former letter I gave you a Sketch of the Negro Boy’s Character, as I received it from his Master Mr. Joshua Humphreys, a Gentleman of respectability and veracity, his reasons for disposing of the Boy are these, That once when he was sent to Market he appropriated a 5d. bit or a 11d. to buy Cakes for himself out of the Money that was given to him, but he believes him to be perfectly honest otherwise, that he is in no way given to Liquor, or telling falsehoods--
Mr. Humphreys has not other Complaints against him than merely using a small trifle of money in the manner above stated, and that by his being sent into the Country, he will become a valuable Servant and grow up strictly honest. He has waited on Tables and been intrusted with the Key of the Side Board where the Liquor was, and that in no Instance he was found to use any of it. He is capable of taking Care of Horses and driving a Carriage well, which he has done for the last 2 years, to the entire satisfaction of Mr. Humphreys, he was brought up from a Child by Mr. Henry Hollingsworth of this City, son in Law to Mr. Humphreys, who sold him about 2 years ago for want of employment, for him, his parents are decent people of Colour, belonging to Mr. Hollingsworth's Father.

James Hamilton agreed to the sale, satisfied with the details provided by Brown. From the description of Luke’s experiences in Philadelphia, we can see that Hamilton was apparently looking for a suitable black house servant. Luke was brought up in the household of the prominent Hollingsworth family of Philadelphia, and had been subsequently sold to merchant Joshua Humphreys. As a house servant to both owners, Luke had waited on the family at meals, run errands, gone to market, cared for horses, and drove a carriage.

Although Luke seemed like an ideal servant, Brown acknowledged his imperfections, and hinted that shipping him in a wagon from Philadelphia to Carlisle, like so much cargo, was not a wise move, particularly in winter, as it would give the slave “more inducements to run away if he was so disposed.” To avoid that possibility, Brown found a young Philadelphia man, home for the Christmas holiday, who was studying at Dickinson College in Carlisle. The student, Martin Leiper, son of Philadelphia merchant, quarry owner, and building contractor Thomas Leiper, agreed to take charge of Luke and deliver him to James Hamilton when he returned to Carlisle to resume his studies. Shortly after the New Year holiday, Luke was safely delivered to his new master in Cumberland County.74

In January of the next year, William Brown Parker sent a letter to James Hamilton detailing his expenses regarding Luke, and taking care of the matter of the indenture, which remained with him. Parker, having successfully arranged for the delivery of Luke to Hamilton at Carlisle, wrote that he must still send the indenture for the child. Because the children of slaves born after 1780 were not subject to being held for their entire life as slaves, but had to be manumitted at age twenty-eight, an indenture that spelled out the precise time of bondage was substituted for a deed. It should be noted that not all slaveholders held deeds for their human property. Very often, the proof of ownership was in other official documents, such as wills, tax records, bills of sale, and on registration rolls at the county courthouse. After 1780, however, indentures became increasingly common, and by the time of the sale documented in these letters, they were a legal necessity. Because this document was so important, Parker did not trust just anyone with its safe delivery, writing, “I have waited untill now in expectation of some person going to Carlisle with whom I Might send the Indenture, and the receipt for the Taxes, but as none has yet offered, I will keep them a little longer in hopes to find one.”

Parker also kept careful accounting of the costs associated with the purchase of a slave. In a statement on the reverse side of the letter, he gives a detailed breakdown of the fees and costs involved in buying Luke. From the original price for the slave, paid to Mr. Humphreys, is added four dollars and seven cents in taxes, three dollars for the cost of hiring a horse to take the slave from his old home to the stage station, ten dollars for the stage fare to Carlisle, including “supper & expenses,” and a one dollar legal fee, paid to the city alderman for transferring the indenture.

Altogether, Hamilton paid $168.09, not counting the cost of corresponding with William Brown Parker, to purchase his house slave from a private Philadelphia seller. This substantial investment in human property did not guarantee happiness, though. Six months after his purchase, Hamilton was already dissatisfied with Luke. In a letter dated 18 July, 1812, Parker wrote, “I am really sorry to find from your letter that Luke is Complained of so soon--but as he is young, we must overlook triffling offences--and as he advances in years, I hope his Conduct will improve."75 It appears that James Hamilton’s insistence on finding a slave in the larger city did not yield a better servant than he might have found locally. He might have saved himself some time, money and trouble by doing as most central Pennsylvanians did during this time period, which was by searching the local newspaper and purchasing a slave from a neighbor.

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57. “A Minute Against Slavery, Addressed to Germantown Monthly Meeting, 1688,” in Joseph Walton, ed., Incidentes Illustrating the Doctrines and History of the Society of Friends (Philadelphia: Friends’ Book Store, 1897); Society of Friends, Middletown Monthly Meeting, Men's Minutes, Bucks County, Pennsylvania, Church Records, vol. 2.

58. Pennsylvania Gazette, 4 October 1780; American Weekly Mercury, 27 November 1740; Pennsylvania Gazette, 6 October 1737, 8 September 1757, 18 May 1758, 12 March 1761; Alexander Graydon, Memoirs of His Own Time: with Reminiscences of the Men and Events of the Revolution, John Stockton Little, ed. (Philadelphia: Lindsay & Blakiston, 1846), 18-19.
In addition to selling slaves, many Philadelphia merchants also profited from the sale of items necessary to the slave trade. The need for specialized clothing made of cheaper fabric is one example. In an advertisement placed in the Gazette on 4 October 1780, Philadelphia hardware merchant William Sitgreaves listed a large variety of textiles for sale, including “a few bales of blue and white Welch plains, suitable for Negroe clothing.”

59. Pennsylvania Gazette, 20 June 1734.

60. Pennsylvania Gazette, 4 September 1740, 18 June 1741, 6 May 1756, 8 September 1763, 16 February 1764, 5 September 1765; American Weekly Mercury, 8 June 1738; Lancaster Journal, 25 March 1801.

61. Pennsylvania Gazette, 21 May, 6 August 1761, 8 July 1762, 26 May, 28 July, 8 September 1763, 21 June, 19 July, 20 September, 11 October 1764.

62. Robert Eric Wright and David J. Cowen, Financial Founding Fathers: The Men Who Made American Rich (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2006), 115-120.

63. Pennsylvania Gazette, 3 June 1762.

64. The block for slave sales at the London Coffee House is described in Nash, “Slaves and Slave Owners,” 58. The transcribed slave sale ad is from Pennsylvania Gazette, 18 July 1765.

65. "Business/Family Correspondence: Edward Burd to Jasper Yeates, 1769-1773," MG-207 The Jasper Yeates/LCHS Collection, folder 24, Lancaster County Historical Society.

66. “Cranston & Alexander to James Hamilton, June 26, 1798,” MG33-10 "Letters to James Hamilton (1751-1819) for May through December 1798," Manuscript Collection, Cumberland County Historical Society.

67. "Letter John Brown to James Hamilton, 14 Jan 1803," MG16-18 "James Hamilton Correspondence, 1795-1809," MG34-2 "Letters to James Hamilton (1751-1819) for January through August 1803,” Manuscript Collection, Cumberland County Historical Society.

68. “John Brown to James Hamilton, 15 July 1803 (portion),” MG34-2 "Letters to James Hamilton (1751-1819) for January through August 1803," Manuscript Collection, Cumberland County Historical Society.

69. Oracle of Dauphin, 13 February, 1808; Pennsylvania Republican, 16 February 1816.

70. Pennsylvania Gazette, 12 August 1756.

71. “Slave transfer from Rebeckah Kelso to John Harland, 17 July 1794, Philadelphia,” box 9, folder 15, Cumberland County Historical Society, Carlisle, Pennsylvania.

72. Schaumann, Indictments--1750-1800, 180.

73. “Registrations of Children of Slaves”; "Slave Returns Listings in Cumberland County;” Martha B. Clark, "Lancaster County's Relation to Slavery," Journal of the Lancaster County Historical Society 25 (1911): 43.

74. William Brown Parker to James Hamilton, 27 October 1811, 22 November 1811, 12 December 1811, 20 December 1811, and 28 December 1811, MG34-17 "Letters to James Hamilton (1751-1819) from William Brown Parker, Period of Correspondence: 1806-1813," Manuscript Collection, Cumberland County Historical Society.

75. Ibid., William Brown Parker to James Hamilton, 31 January 1812, 18 July 1812.


Caution: Copyrighted material. Published September 2010.

© 2010 George F. Nagle



This is the first in a series of books from the Afrolumens Project. Drawing on a large number of sources, and making good use of the treasure trove of information on the pages of the Afrolumens Project, this is the first truly comprehensive history of Harrisburg's African American community.

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