American slave traders daily ledger on his slave trading trip - A fascinating historical snapshot

Story here. It’s very interesting to see his day by day expenses.

Tracking a Slave Trader Through His Expense Reports

All pages here Slave trade ledger of William James Smith

It looks incredible, and I’ll have more to add when I can view it more in-depth at home. I’m curious not so much in the slavery aspect (I need a break from that subject for a while) but the business-keeping aspect.

In a bizarre way, it almost looks innocent----a nice, efficient gentleman , running an orderly business and taking good care of his inventory.
But then you realize the horror behind it…the “inventory” has names: Martha, John, Emily…
And you wonder if the slaveowner cared at all.

He pays for room and board for himself at 83 cents per day, and for his slaves at 25 cents per day. He buys them soap and whiskey, too.
I shuddered when I read that he paid $1.50 for a whip --I just hope it was for his horse.

It looks like whenever he bought a mother and child or children, he always sold them as such without breaking them up.

There wasn’t much profit. He bought Emily for $435 and sold for 435. Charlotte 400 and sold 425. Lucy Ann 575, and sold 610. He wasn’t exactly getting rich when you consider his expenses.

he lost $40 on John. bought $200 and sold $160. Maybe John got sick and was harder to sell?

Such a cold blooded business.

The people working at PetCO probably care about the animals, but they still sell them. I imagine that the approach was similar.

More likely it was for his own crew. The military and shipping industries both used flogging to keep their men in line. I’m not sure if any other industries did, but it wasn’t something uncommon nor reserved for slaves.

What crew? This guy was riding a horse around Virginia and the Carolinas. I didn’t see any evidence that he even had employees, much less a crewed vessel.

Whiskey was $0.25 a quart back in the 1840s?

You’re correct. I’m used to seeing slave-trader in the context of those shipping them across the ocean and didn’t notice that all the locations in his itinerary were in the US.

So yeah, probably the whip was for the slaves.

These things are always fascinating, in a banality-of-evil way. I’m intrigued that board for the slaves was always 25 cents per person per day. In the cities, I suppose, this would be at the “slave warehouses” as described in Uncle Tom’s Cabin:

I’m actually surprised that, other than the whip–which may have been for the horses, we don’t know–we don’t see any of the accouterments of slavery like handcuffs or leg irons. One way or another, Smith had to restrain his chattels–at the margins he was running, a single escape or fatality could have eaten up much of a year’s profits.

True, Freddy, but I’d assume there was no point in running for most slaves; you don’t know the lay of the land, presumably have no hunting skills relevant to the new environment, and are surrounded by enemies. And even if you make it free…then what? The people you identified with are an insurmountable journey away.

If I were Smith, I’m not sure I’d be willing to take that chance. Any particular slave might have worked previously in a transit area, and might have contacts there. More important, I would think, is that even an unsuccessful escape attempt could be a huge pain in the ass–Smith would either have to give chase himself (and time is money) or pay a slave catcher or bounty hunter.

Would things like chains and leg irons necessarily show in this ledger? It seems mostly to be perishable goods - food, clothing, and the slaves themselves. I wouldn’t expect iron chains to need replacing that often.

I don’t know. I was wondering about that as well. I confess to being blessedly ignorant of the average service life of bondage equipment. But my guess is that over a long period something would either break, or rust, or be lost.

Maybe he had a separate capital account. I don’t know.

This created an image in my mind that made me shiver: He might not have recorded the cost of chains, because the chains and shackles were simply included in the purchase price of the slaves. :frowning:

The slaves were probably locked in chains constantly–from their capture in Africa, through the auction on the dock in Virgina, till they were sold to a plantation in Georgia.

So our nice, meticulous businessman (surely a true southern gentleman) only needed to record one small additional expense:the purchase of a whip.

And he might be your great-grandfather. Or mine.
What is wrong with the human race?

I also don’t quite understand that. Those tiny margins are a straight path to business failure. Either he was bad at negotiating or there was something else going on. The amount he was making for the effort and risk expended seems a bit out of whack business-wise.

Actually it was probably a wagon or buggy whip, not for using on people. You had to use one to control your horse team. They were made of wood and leather and precisely made so they brought a premium price. They still make them today and they are sold thru tack shops. Here is a link:

Contrary to popular opinion, you don’t whip the animal to get them to comply. You snapped the whip by the horses ear to get their attention. You smack a horse with a whip too much and they are just as likely to bolt or go crazy.

For punishment they usually used the cat of nine tails.

The ledger is from 1844 and the trans atlantic slave trade had been outlawed for 35 years at that point. Everyone this person traded in would have been born in America and likely was only in chains when sold and transported.

He gets better, though, as time goes on. If you stick with the full ledger all the way to the bottom, he starts making more and more money, and then his business explodes around 1850. In some seasons he’s clearing more than $10,000, and this wasn’t just good money in 1850, it was sensational.

The biggest risk that I see, especially in the early years when he was running closer to the vest, would be a total loss on a slave that committed suicide, died of natural causes, or escaped. But, I don’t see a single instance where that happened. He does have an odd note in 1848, “Harriet money recovered by law, $480”. I won’t speculate on what happened there. And in 1850 Lucinda was “left at home” for the original purchase price. Perhaps her owner redeemed her at the last minute?

But, no record of any deaths or escapes. Maybe it was the “medacine for negroes” that he bought that made the difference. Nah, it was probably worthless patent medicine.

Well, he was obviously a people person. Maybe he just liked dealing with people.
I’m sorry, I’ll go now.