Bolton, Dickens and Company

A professional slave trading firm that eventually became one of the largest in the country, an example fo the kind of vertically integrated, interregional firms profiled by schermerhorn2015. It was comprised of Washington Bolton, Isaac Bolton, Thomas Dickens, and Wade H. Bolton, and ran “through transactions amounting in the aggregate to several millions of dollars.”1 They used innovative, seasonally-specific marketing practices to buy slaves in the Upper South and sell them in the Deep South, using Memphis as a convenient way station between the two regions. According to one Tennessee newspaper, at their peak “the Boltons were worth nearly $1 million.”2

Isaac and Wade were brothers, and Thomas was a son-in-law of Isaac’s (or had sons who became Isaac’s son-in-laws?).3 Washington (or Wash) Bolton was a brother-in-law by his sister’s marriage to Isaac Bolton.4 Wash joined the firm in 1850 or 1855.

Bolton, Dickens and Company bought out Lewis Robards in 1855, at a time when the firm was still very active in Lexington, and previous to that date the firm and Robards had close ties.5 But the firm was beginning to extend its operations and shift farther south. In 1854, the firm advertised in Memphis for the sale of slaves gathered in Virginia, Kentucky, and Missouri.6 By fall of that year, Thomas Dickens advertised for the firm in St. Louis, Missouri, but also purchased property in Richmond.7 Issac received slaves forwarded from Dickens and Washington Bolton and sold them at Vicksburg. Wade Bolton remained based in Memphis, where an advertisement placed by the firm in 1855 stated that the firm had “completed one of the best prisons in the State” and was “now receiving daily large supplies of Fresh negroes from the buying markets.”8 Elsewhere, the company’s ads referred to the Memphis prison as their “Negro Mart.”9

Washington Bolton was the firm’s primary agent in Kentucky at the time of the kidnapping of Henrietta Wood, so he is probably the “Bolton” referred to in her interviews.10 This was the Bolton who used James McMillan as an agent—a man also mentioned in connection with Lewis Robards and with the kidnapping of Arian Belle. Bolton wrote McMillen on October 3, 1855, before a shipment of slaves from Lexington to the South:

We must have negroes if possible. Can’t you buy the man and wife in jail? Buy every good negro you can and have them here by Friday. If you believe we can make 150 a head profit on the Peed negroes, buy them, if not let them runaway. … dont let any of your negroes get away …11

The firm was later plunged into a bloody feud lasting from 1857 to 1870. It began about a week before the firm dissolved, when Issac murdered James McMillan in Memphis.12 He and Wade were arrested and imprisoned, and both were eventually acquitted. According to some members of the firm, Wade then refused to settle up with all the partners until and unless they shared in the expenses resulting from Isaac’s trial, some of which it was alleged had resulted from bribes paid to witnesses and jurors. Wade’s argument was that the trial had arisen out of McMillan’s sale of a free man to the firm, though Wade also denied that he had refused to settle up and claimed he and Isaac had shouldered most of the expense from the trial themselves.13

In the meantime, “Washington had entered into partnership with one White, in negro trading, and, from being poor when he became a partner with Boltons and Dickens, he amassed considerable property, and had money” at the time of his death in 1862.14

Wade H. Bolton was later murdered by Thomas Dickens, who was nonetheless acquitted. Subsequently, Dickens himself was murdered.

See also the firm’s account book between 1856 and 1858, which has been digitized by the New-York Historical Society.

  1. See names listed in 1858 court case in Fayette County, Kentucky, cited in coleman1938, 15n47. and April 14, 1858,

  2. deyle2005, 95.

  3. deyle2005, 94.

  4. Some sources refer to Wash as a distant cousin of the other Boltons, but others deny any relation.

  5. coleman1938, 15. An ad in the Lexington Observer and Reporter, August 22, 1855, says that a member of the firm can “always be found at Lewis C. Robards’ office in Lex.” Copied in the Coleman Collection at UK, Notes, 1784-1940, Trials and Suits, 1822-1858, Folder #12.

  6. coleman1938, 16.

  7. coleman1938.

  8. deyle2005, 94.

  9. “$500 Reward!,” Vicksburg Whig, June 8, 1853.

  10. See bancroft1931, 250-268, on the firm.

  11. coleman1938, 19.

  12. See detailed testimony about this murder reprinted on front page of Vicksburg Daily Whig, April 7, 1858, and April 14, 1858, on, in which witnesses claim that McMillan said Wash Bolton had known all about the freedom of the man he sold to Isaac Bolton. Also lawyer John Hallum’s recollections.

  13. See summary in Bolton v. Dickens.

  14. See Bolton v. Dickens. The White mentioned could be a “William F. White” mentioned in some Tennessee Supreme Court cases involving Wash Bolton.