Slave Trading in Louisville

Historical Marker #1990 in Louisville notes the historical significance of the interstate slave trade to Kentucky’s economy before the Civil War.

During the antebellum era, Kentucky, like the other border and upper-South states, served as an exporter of enslaved laborers to the Deep South cotton states. Kentucky’s diversified agriculture and fluctuating climate, due largely to its geographical location, produced more slaves through natural increase than the state required. To handle the excess slaves, Kentucky owners often hired or rented out their workers. Some owners, however, chose to sell superfluous laborers.

Slave traders knew best where to position their businesses. Upper-South urban areas, including St. Louis, Missouri, Richmond, Virginia, and Lexington and Louisville, Kentucky, all provided both the human product and the routes of travel needed to move slaves to the Deep South. Louisville, on the Ohio River, proved to be especially beneficial. That river artery led to the Mississippi River and to markets in Vicksburg and Natchez, Mississippi, as well as New Orleans, Louisiana.

Traders scoured the countryside, purchasing slaves from owners who either had too many laborers to work or had grown frustrated with the duties the institution required. Then, often holding these individuals in jails or "pens" until a sufficient number were gathered to ship to the Deep South markets, the dealers sent advertisements ahead, notifying potential buyers when their human supply would arrive.

Slave traders also advertised in local newspapers for purchases. For example, in the January 14, 1851, issue of the Louisville Daily Democrat, dealer Matthew Garrison ran a notice that read "NEGROES WANTED, I wish to purchase, specially for a tobacco farm several Negroes, both male and female, between the ages of 14 and 24; also a few house servants," and noted his address as "Second st., between Main and Market."

Slave trading also occurred intrastate. Jefferson County sheriff’s sales of runaways and county commissioner sales that settled deceased individual’s estates put thousands of enslaved people on the market. Like the interstate sales, intrastate trading often separated wives from husbands, parents from children, and relocated people to new and unfamiliar locales.

Slave trading in Kentucky was a reality of the institution that lasted until it was outlawed by the 13th Amendment to Constitution in December 1865.