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Sold on the Courthouse Steps

Robin Foster
by Robin Foster

An auction block at a commercial slave market is probably the most common visual that comes to mind when you think of people being separated from families during enslavement. You may be familiar with the sale of enslaved people through private parties, but numerous people were also sold through local courts with the courthouse as their backdrop. How would you find documentation of such cases, and what are examples of situations that would have brought about this end result? One quick way to find clues would be through historical newspapers.

The following are three types of court sales of enslaved people:

Sheriff Sales

 According to Thomas D. Russell’s, South Carolina’s Largest Slave Auctioneering Firm – Symposium on the Law of Slavery: Criminal and Civil Law of Slavery, South Carolina sheriffs’ sales took place on the first Monday of each month, a day known as Sale Day.” When people could not pay their debts and lawsuits were brought against them, their property could be sold to satisfy their debt. The article below mentions Sale Day in Abbeville, South Carolina where a “large amount of property consisting of land and negroes” was sold.

It would make sense that these sales would be advertised in the newspaper in order that all interested parties would be notified to attend. One can only imagine a large crowd surrounding the courthouse with onlookers and those looking to make purchases of land and people at “fair rates.”

 

Sale Day Abbeville Standard

Abbeville press. (Abbeville, S.C.) 1860-1869, 7 Dec, 1860, Image 2. Image provided by University of South Carolina; Columbia, SC. Persistent link: http://chroniclingamerica.loc.gov/lccn/sn85042527/1860-12-07/ed-1/seq-2/

 

The ad below which appeared on the same page as the Sale Day announcement above gives the specific town (Greenwood) where the sheriff’s sale would take place. In 1860, Greenwood was still part of Abbeville District. It became part of Greenwood County in 1897.

 

Greenwood Sheriff Sale 1860

Abbeville press. (Abbeville, S.C.) 1860-1869, December 07, 1860, Image 2
Image provided by University of South Carolina; Columbia, SC
Persistent link: http://chroniclingamerica.loc.gov/lccn/sn85042527/1860-12-07/ed-1/seq-2/

 

So where would you look to find the record of these sheriff sales? They kept sheriff sales books.  What information would you expect to find in a sales book? According to Russell’s article, the state legislature required the sheriff to include the following information:

  • all relevant details of executions, levies, advertisements, and sales
  • names of the parties
  • descriptions of property sold
  • dates of sales
  • purchasers’ names
  • sale prices
  • statements about the distribution of proceeds
  • names of the enslaved people sold

Equity Court Sales

The Sheriff held sheriff’s sales to satisfy civil suits.  If the money from the sale did not satisfy as in cases where real estate or enslaved people were mortgaged, the equity court would hold a sale of the property to honor the bill or petition filed against the mortgagee who failed to pay his debt. In cases where enslaved people were mortgaged, two important considerations would be the appraised value of the person along with the estimated dollar value of the person’s work per year.  This is explained in greater detail in Thomas Russell’s article above.

A Sale Day notice below for the sale of “1 likely negro woman,” Huldah, was published in December of 1860. She was to be sold on January 7, 1861 under jurisdiction of the Commissioner of Equity “at public outcry” on the steps of the Abbeville Courthouse. Equity court records should contain more detailed information about the sale and parties involved.

 

Sale of Hulda, Enslaved

Abbeville Press. (Abbeville, S.C.) 1860-1869, December 21, 1860, Image 3. Image provided by University of South Carolina; Columbia, SC
Persistent link: http://chroniclingamerica.loc.gov/lccn/sn85042527/1860-12-21/ed-1/seq-3/

 

Chancery Court Sales

The court of chancery preceded the equity court in South Carolina. Please review South Carolina Court Records on Ancestry.com Wiki. In order to understand where records were generated in your ancestor’s location, you need to know the district name for each county/district.  This article is a great resource.

You now know enough to be able to search online digital newspapers for the time period and area where your ancestor lived to learn about slaves sold through the local courts.  We searched Newspapers.com using the keywords: chancery, sale, and slave to find the following notice:

 

Tennessee Chancery Sale

Fayetteville Observer (Fayetteville, Tennessee), 21 Oct 1858, Thu • First Edition • Page 4.

 

We will share more newspaper notices of enslaved people sold through local courts in our next post.

Sharpen the Saw

Search a digital newspaper using different variations of the keywords below to discover advertisements about sales.  If you do not have access to a subscription site, search the collections at Chronicling America.  Be sure to let share your discoveries on the Facebook post for this article:

  • sheriff sale, Negro or slave
  • Sales Day
  • Negro sale
  • slave sale
  • equity sale, Negro or slave
  • Chancery sale, Negro or slave

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