Posted by: The staff | June 11, 2010

“Fredericksburg seems to be the best place to sell slaves in the State”: More evidence on the Auction Block

From John Hennessy, NPS (Click for prior series of post–Part One, Part Two, and Part Three):

Large Sale of Slaves. Fredericksburg seems to be the best place to sell slaves in the State. On Tuesday, at Charter’s Hotel, forty-three slaves were sold for $26,000.  One bricklayer brought $1,495.  One woman and child, 5 or 6 years old, brought $1,350.  Several were quite old servants.  It was a considered a tremendous sale.

This is from a small notice in the Fredericksburg News, January 6, 1854, of a slave sale held at what we now call Planter’s Hotel–the site of the disputed auction block.  The glee over the high prices produced by this sale is almost palpable.  The sale was organized, incidentally, by John Seddon, brother of the future Confederate Secretary of War.

Since our last post on this topic, Noel Harrison and Eric Mink of our staff and collector extraordinaire Jerry Brent have dug out a few additional items related to auctions in front of Planter’s Hotel.  Most vividly is this picture, which shows former slave George Triplett, who is reported in several sources to have been the last slave sold on the block in 1862.  Add another source to the list.    The image–from Jerry Brent’s collection–includes the following note on the back:

“The Old Slave, George Washington Triplett, Born in Stafford County, Va., Dec. 27th. 1833. Copy of certificate. Robert T. Knox & Brother. GREY EAGLE MILLS. Fredericksburg, Va. Sept. 29th. 1903. This is to certify that Mr. J.E.Reid, on 29th of September 1903 took the picture of one of our worthy colored men, George W. Triplett by name, who was the last colored man sold on the slave rock.(1862). It is a well established fact and has never been controverted or denied, and that I was an eye witness to the taking of the picture. (signed) James T. Knox of R.T.Knox & Brother.”

James T. Knox, born about 1844, was the son of miller and entrepreneur Thomas Knox, who lived in what is today the Kenmore Inn on Princess Anne Street. It was the elder Knox who purchased Planter’s Hotel after the war, and it would remain in the Knox family for decades.  This background is important in two ways. First, James Knox likely knew the building and its environs as well as anyone alive in 1903.  Second, James Knox, by virtue of his birth in 1844, may well have known first-hand of the use of the block in front of the hotel for slave sales.  You’ll note that in his testimonial on the photograph, he went out of his way to assert the truth of Triplett’s claim.

Yet another tidbit: a copy of the early 1862 sale noted in a comment by Noel Harrison. We now have four documented sales between 1854 and 1862.

In the face of this evidence in black and white, it might be useful to be reminded of exactly what these sales entailed.  Here is a description of a slave sale in Fredericksburg in 1860 (its precise location unknown, but it’s not inconceivable that it was in front of the Planter’s Hotel, which was surrounded by the sorts of warehouses described by the teller).  It is from the WPA slave narrative of Fannie Brown, who was ten when she witnessed this scene:

“I recollec’ one day I… went up close among de white folks gathered roun’ de warehouse peepin’ in through de windows to see de slaves. Den after a big crowd come roun’, I heard a nigger trader say, “Bruen…let my niggers out….”  Jim, a big six-foot, tall slave, come out smilin’, and his shirt was took off, and den dey start exzaminin’ him. Dey jerked his mouth open an’ look at his teeth an’ den slapped him on his back, an’ den dey said, “Dis is a prime nigger. Look at dose teeth.” Somebody say one hundred dollars, another two hundred an’ so on ’till one thousand dollars was reached. Den Jim …. was handcuffed an’ put in de coffle  wid de other slaves dat had been sol’

Finally, it is worth noting that the Fredericksburg News, December 7, 1856, included an advertisement for the auction of land, to be held in front of Planter’s Hotel.  This so far is the only known instance of anything other than slaves being sold at the site, but it’s also suggestive that the site may have had something intrinsic about it that attracted auctions of more than just slaves.


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