@Article{ coleman1938,
    author = {J. Winston Coleman, Jr.},
    title = {Lexington's Slave Dealers and their Southern Trade},
    journal = {Filson Club History Quarterly},
    volume = 12,
    number = 1,
    month = {January},
    pages = {1-23},
    year = 1938,

Coleman mentions several early travel accounts that witnessed slave trading in Kentucky, including:

  • Henry B. Fearon in 1819, noticing flatboats on the Mississippi with “a great many coloured people, particularly females,” from Kentucky, bound South for sale.
  • Estwick Evans in 1819, reporting on the speculation in slaves and livestock from Kentucky at Natchez.
  • Rev. James Dickey noticing a coffle of slaves traveling from Paris to Lexington in 1822.

According to Coleman, it is difficult to tell how extensive early slave trading in Lexington was because few traders openly advertised. But by early 1840s, the firm of Hughes and Downing in Lexington was making regular shipments to Natchez. By drawing on an 1853 lawsuit between Hughes’s estate and Salem Downing, in which William Pullum testified, Coleman is able to estimate the general profitability of the southward trade at that moment. According to Pullum’s testimony, “From $100.00 to $150.00 profit per head on each slave carried from Kentucky to Natchez” was considered good by slave dealers. The same lawsuit also revealed some of the methods that traders used, including chaining all slaves together on the deck of a steamboat until they passed from the Ohio River onto the Mississippi, where they were unchained.1

He also cites William Wells Brown’s narrative for evidence of how slaves were groomed for sale. Lincoln’s experience of seeing slaves on the Mississippi was also a case of seeing slaves from Kentucky taken South, “strung together precisely like so many fish on a trot-line.”

Lewis C. Robards was the first slave trader to advertise his business publicly in Lexington newspapers:

I wish to purchase a lot of merchantable negroes for which I will pay the HIGHEST CASH PRICE. Persons having negroes can find me at the Phoenix (Chiles) Hotel.—L. C. Robards.2

Others in Lexington included James G. Mathers (operated slave jail on East Main) and John Mattingly (who sold slaves at Megowan’s jail, corner of Short and Mulberry).

p. 11:

By 1849 Lewis C. Robards had attained the position of the leading ‘negro buyer’ of Lexington, and the following year rented the slave jail of William A. Pullum, the veteran dealer, who stated that, on account of his ill health, he had leased out his ‘old stand,’ near the Bruen House, facing on Broadway with the slave ‘coops’ fronting on Mechanics Alley.

There Robards kept slaves “in vermin-infested slave-pens or ‘coops’ eight feet square, seven feet high, constructed on damp brick floors, with small barred windows near the roof and with heavy, iron-gated doors” (p. 11). In 1849, he also “leased, as a jail, the old Lexington Theatre on Short Street” (p. 11), later purchasing it. By 1851 he was advertising the theater as (Robards words) “the largest and best constructed building for a jail in the West,” with “large and airy” rooms (p. 12). What Robards called his “choice stock” of female slaves were kept on “second floor of a two-story brick building adjoining the old theater site” (p. 12). Coleman speculates that Orville Browning’s diary entry about a Lexington slave jail was referring to Robards’s place:

In several of the rooms I found very handsome mulatto women, of fine persons and easy genteel manners, sitting at their needle work awaiting a purchaser. The proprietor made them get up & turn round to show to advantage their finely developed & graceful forms—and slaves as they were this I confess rather shocked my gallantry.

Coleman continues on p. 12:

Robards’ ‘choice stock of beautiful quadroon and octoroon girls, of which Senator Browning speaks, was indeed the talk and toast of steamboat bar-rooms, tippling houses and taverns, even as far away as old New Orleans. Over the mint julep, planters’ punch, and other potent beverages which make men reminiscent, many short-necked, beady-eyed Frenchmen and gangling hawk-faced Kentuckians and Tennesseans swapped vivid stories of the ‘inspections’ in Robards’ jail where the ‘choice stock,’ stripped to the skin, dumbly submitted to the leering gaze and inimate examination of traders ostensibly interested only in the physical soundness of prospective purchases.

An example of such a “rigid physical examination” is included in the case of “Delphia, a handsome mulatto girl of eighteen, [who] was sold by Robards during the late summer of 1854,” whose “small, hands, tapering fingers and the beautiful proportions of her body” were noted in a lawsuit, filed when Delphia later died of consumption when she reached Natchez.

Vivid descriptions of cases involving sales by Robard on pp. 13-14. Coleman also discusses many cases in which Robards was accused of kidnapping free people of color and selling them South, including the case of Martha (five years old and free) who lived near Portsmouth, “until one night a band of white ‘nigger thieves’ broke open the door with an ax, and ‘grasping the wool on top of her old uncle’s head’ seized Martha and her six little brothers and sisters and carried them away into captivity to Robards’ slave jail in Lexington” (pp. 14-15). Another case, from 1850, involved James McMillen, one of Robards’s agents, breaking into the cabin of Arian Belle, a free woman living in Mason County, “and seizing her ‘secretly and clandestinely in the dead of night,’ made off with her and ‘Melissa,’ her four-year-old child,” who were subsequently boarded onto the river boat Sea Gull and sold to a Louisiana sugar planter. White friends of Belle’s intervened (p. 15). According to testimony in one case, Robards’s jail was “a rendezvous for a gang of kidnappers and nigger thieves” (p. 15, fn. 45).

Robards’s agents included McMillen, George W. Maraman, Rodes Woods, William Hill, George Payton, Booz Browner, John T. Montjoy, Everett Stillwell and his brother, Alfred O. Robards (p. 15).

Robards sold his business in 1855 under pressure from sheriff and creditors (p. 15), and some of his slaves went to Bolton, Dickens, and Co.

Coleman describes “Robert H. Elam, of Natchez, [who] was also an importer of slaves from Kentucky … as a broker for the small traders from the Bluegrass” like Griffin and Pullum (p. 17), as well as several others in the 1850s whom Coleman mentions with example advertisements in Natchez newspapers.

Several runaway advertisements included about Mississippi or Georgia plantation owners who suspected slaves raised in Kentucky to have returned there (p. 19).

Also mentions Lewis Hayden testimony in Stowe’s Key, in which Hayden refers to his experiences in Lexington, Kentucky, and to the slave trader Pullum (as Pulliam).3 Hayden says that he “never knew a slave-trader that did not seem to think, in his heart, that the trade was a bad one. I knew a great many of them, such as Neal, McAnn, Cobb, Stone, Pulliam and Davis, &c. They were like Haley,—they meant to repent when they got through.” Hayden also notes that:

The trader was all around, the slave-pens at hand, and we did not know what time any of us might be in it. Then there were the rice-swamps, and the sugar and cotton plantations; we had them held before us as terrors, by our masters and mistresses, all our lives. We knew about them all; and when a friend was carried off, why, it was the same as death, for we could not write or hear, and never expected to see them again. I have one child who is buried in Kentucky, and that grave is pleasant to think of. I’ve got another that is sold nobody knows where, and that I never can bear to think of.

  1. This case could be good to look at for details about the Lexington trade. Citation is Hughes’ Administrator vs. Salem Downing, Fayette Circuit Court, file 1280, January 12, 1853. There are numerous other cases cited from the circuit court related to slave trading.

  2. Cited from *Lexington Observer & Reporter, July 22, 1848.

  3. Coleman claims Hayden was employed as a waiter at the Phoenix Hotel, although this source doesn’t indicate that.