Slave Dealers, Trading Companies, and their Product – Setting The Record Straight

Slave Dealers, Trading Companies, and their Product     

By Joe Lowry
Edited by Trish Gully
Researched by the Our Memphis History team                                               

Beginning as early as 1846, enslaved people were brought to Memphis using the mighty Mississippi River. This was mostly paid for by the Bolton Brothers, founded the year before.  The Boltons were the first, the largest and the most prosperous of all the slave traders for the first ten years of their existence.

Due to the many traders based in downtown Memphis, as many as ten different firms by 1859, the buying and selling of slaves flourished. Although slaves were bought, sold, and used in every state of the Union, Memphis was one of the largest slave markets in the world by 1857. This was a legal and very profitable business of the time.

Slave traders boasted that the Scriptures (for 2000 years) tolerated and sanctioned slavery, so they contended that history upheld the buying and selling of other human beings. In addition, slave traders felt that they could inculcate (instill) the values of western civilization in the minds and hearts of their captives, thereby “taming primitive spirits.”

In Biography of a River Town by Gerald Capers, Mr. Capers states that in West Tennessee, “the Negroes were treated pretty good” because they were considered an investment and the owners tended to appreciate their value. He also stated that most slave dealers tended to follow the business of Forrest rather than of the Bolton Brothers, although Forrest was trained by the Boltons.

Forrest used a commonsense approach to marketing; he bought slaves from Kentucky and Missouri, both considered to have higher quality enslaved people. He sought out the strongest, both physically and mentally.  He brought them back to his training farm in Woodstock, Tennessee where they were taught to be blacksmiths, wheelwrights, and skilled farmhands. Some were skilled in mechanics and other trades. He made them marketable.

Many were put to work in the houses near the owners, not only on plantations or as field hands. He attempted to keep families together. People involved in the slave trade throughout the US thought Forrest’s business traded a “superior product.”

Forrest’s firm priced an enslaved person at $1700 to $1800 rather than the $500 the Boltons did. The slave trade, first and foremost, was about money.

Setting The Record Straight About Nathan Bedford Forrest

“It is not unlike the persistent untruths promulgated about Bedford Forrest. No matter how often they are debunked, they appear repeatedly. Forrest was NOT the “Founder” of the KKK. The Klan was founded in Pulaski, TN., on December 24, 1865, by six former Confederate soldiers: John Lester, James Crowe, John Kennedy, Calvin Jones, Richard Reed, and Frank McCord. Nathan Bedford Forrest was not present and did not participate in the “founding” of the Klan.”

                                                OMH Historical Researcher – Bill Nourse


In 1856 ordinances were passed governing the conduct of Negroes. One of those said that all Negroes were required to return home immediately when the Court Square bell tolled at night. Another rule was that no one could teach slaves or freedmen to read or write in a slave state. Slaves were considered property by law and could own no property. In Louisiana, one law stated, “Slaves owe their master respect without bonds and absolute obedience.” Although legal, slavery was coerced labor that relied upon intimidation, brutality, and dehumanization.

Between 1850 and 1860, it took only $18 and $35 a year to maintain, feed, and house a slave. Yet the estimated market value of the 4 million slaves was $3.1 – $3.6 billion dollars. Low overhead and vast profits fueled this industry.

By 1860 there were more than 4 million enslaved people in the South.

Cotton and Its Effect on the Slave Trade

Cotton was the first industrialized product used by the North in their textile mills. Three-quarters of the world’s cotton came from the U.S, mostly from the fertile fields of the Mississippi Delta. Because the textile mills depended on the raw material, the Northern bankers considered slaves a valuable property. If not for the slaves, the cotton crop would have never been planted and harvested at the tremendous rate it was.

The Bolton Bros^
Front St & Union Ave
John A Denie* and, C. Denie
28 Front Street, sold dry goods, real estate, and Negroes
Anderson Delap & Co., Silas Trask**, and William Witherspoon
59 Adams
A. Wallace
South side Court Square
Tom Dickens
Front St & Union Ave
D.W. Wallace Byrd Hill, and his son, William C Hill
"The Negro Depot "
56 Adams between Main and Second north side of the street
N.B. Forrest*** and A.H. Forrest
"Slave Mart"
southwest corner of Adams Ave. and Second Street. In 1859 N.B. Forrest added Maples to his company
Isaac Nevil and A.J. Cunningham
"Negro Mart"
69 Adams
*John A. Denie switched over to Building and Paving material
**Trask switched over to Cotton
***N. B. Forrest became an Agent for Planters Insurance Company
^ By 1859 there is no mention of Bolton after he incurred serious legal and financial problems.



3 thoughts on “Slave Dealers, Trading Companies, and their Product – Setting The Record Straight

  1. So slavery or slave trading was legal or practiced in all states at some point? I’m trying to establish a timeline here and tie it in with northern bankers and industrialists pressuring southern producers to grow more cotton by using slaves. So many people don’t understand the monetary connection that made it nearly impossible for the South not to have slaves. There should be more taught in history to explain that the north was not interested in freeing slaves since they were making money off the backs of slaves as much or more so as the south. I’ve heard that southern plantation owners were rich by southern standards but were nothing by comparison to the industrialists and bankers of the north. That has been my contention for years but too many people don’t want to talk about it. I also find it interesting that Forrest bought slaves out of Missouri; a state that went with the North during the Civil War. I like the good insight into Memphis and the slave trade. It seems to me like some things that affect Memphis now can be attributed to events of the early 1800’s. I need to read more about this.

  2. What about the cotton work camps of the 1850s that consumed enslaved people and worked them to death as field hands? Someone such as Forrest would borrow money to buy some marginal land such as often flooded heavy forest or worse, buy fifty or so field hands, march them to the land under a foreman and told to get the land in production as fast as possible, no matter the human cost. Cotton was so profitable using slaves that as long as a few crops could be brought in, the entire enterprise was profitable.
    In 1860 cotton comprised 55% of the total exports of the United States.

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