From John Hennessy:
It is the dark underbelly of Fredericksburg’s history: the slave trade. We know it took place here, but who, exactly, were the people in Fredericksburg trafficking in human beings? Were they an unseen underclass–pariahs? Little work has been done on them, but we do know a fair amount about three of them: Charles Yates, one of Fredericksburg’s most powerful merchants of the 18th century, and one of its most respected citizens (for Yates’s letters related to the slave trade, click here). Walter H. Finnall took up the trade here in the 1830s; he probably bought and sold slaves more voraciously than anyone in Fredericksburg’s history. And George Aler, who followed Finnall in the business in the 1840s, and who was the town’s major player in the slave trade at the onset of the Civil War.
We are working on Finnall, and will lay out what we find soon (some vivid and intensely interesting material). For the moment, let’s take an introductory look at George Aler.
Prior to the Civil War, Aler lived in what is today 300 Caroline Street (after the war the home of Sue and Melzi Chancellor, and so often referred to as the Sue Chancellor House). Aler was a brick-maker and ran the most successful of the three brickyards in town. He was, by most accounts, a respected member of the community. He was elected to town council in 1858, built St. Mary’s Church on Princess Anne Street, served on the board of the Fredericksburg Water Power Company, was appointed the town’s superintendent of streets, helped build the fairgrounds west of town, was a member of the Temperance Society, and even, in 1854, wrote a letter complaining about the lax enforcement of laws relating to the observance of the sabbath.
But, from about 1848 until the Civil War, he was Fredericksburg’s dominant slave trader.
The references to him are many and ultimately require careful consideration (a task more suited to an article than a blog post), but we’ll share in raw form some of what we know.
Slave Isaac Williams remembered being purchased by Aler in the 1850s (Williams later escaped and told his story, which was then published).
I was sold to George A. Ayler of Fredericksburg, Virginia, a town situated on the Eappahannock river. Thither I was removed and kept by him in a sort of pen, where slaves and cattle were huddled promiscuously together. I was locked up at night in a little room just large enough to stand up in and kept there for nine days; then I was sold to Dr. James, a Tennessee slave dealer, who gave fifteen hundred dollars for me. (From Sunshine and Shadow of Slave Life: Reminiscences as Told by Isaac D. Williams to “Tege” [East Saginaw, 1885], pp. 9-11)
A young girl Julia Frazier was hired or sold to Aler in the 1850s. Many years later she remembered, “Father put me to workin’ for a nigguh trader…His name was George Aler. Man cursed with every breath he took. Had a saint for a wife. He couldn’ help it; jes’ natural with him.”
Aler’s partner in his brick-making business was John W. Coleman. He too was a slave trader–indeed had been Walter Finnall’s agent in town in the 1830s. Coleman, about whom I know little at this point, is the common link between the two men who dominated the town’s slave trade for nearly 40 years. (Thanks to David Ellrod of the NPS, who has uncovered a bit about Coleman.)
Aler also had a central role in the saga of Ellen Mitchell, a slave of J. Horace Lacy (of Chatham and Ellwood fame) who raised funds to buy her family’s way out of slavery. Ellen Mitchell is worth a post to herself, but Aler’s role in facilitating her fundraising is worth noting. It’s embodied in an article that appeared in the New York Times (and elsewhere) in 1859, which you can find here.
I’ll be working on this more in the coming weeks; it’s a fascinating topic, embodied still by places that survive within our midst.