Mark Twain/Expression "Sold Down the River"

Most of us are familiar with the expression “sold down the river” as a metaphor for betrayal. An utterly treacherous man with no conscience “would sell his own mother down the river.”

I’d never thought about the etymology, until recently I saw a rebroadcast of a TV adaptation of Mark Twain’s story “Puddin’head Wilson” (Ken “The White Shadow” Howard played the title role).

The plot of the story revolves around a light-skinned mulatto slave woman who wanted her even paler baby to have a better life. Her master had a baby boy who was the same age as hers, so she switched the babies. Her own son was raised in luxury, while her master’s son was raised as a slave.

Her son grew up to be a rotter, a spoiled brat with a major sense of entitlement. He gambled away a fortune, and was desperate for money. Only then did his mother tell him the truth. But even so, his mother loved him, and would do anything for him. So she offered him a way to make some money: she told him that that he could sell her. All she asked was that he sell her to a nice family UP the Mississippi River, in Missouri, where she’d probably be used as cook or housekeeper. Instead… he sold her DOWN the river, where she’d probably be worked to death in a Mississippi cotton field.

So, we have a truly evil character, a man so cruel and so duplicitous that he sold his own mother down the river.

My question is… did Mark Twain coin that phrase? Is his story the reason that expression became popular? Or was Twain just creating a LITERAL example of a phrase that was already in wide use?

No, he didn’t make it up. He probably did help popularize it, though. I’m not sure about that.

It’s not just in “Puddin’head Wilson”. It also comes up in “Huckleberry Finn”, where the slave Jim runs away because he’s to be sold down the river in the lower Mississippi valley. I believe it also comes up in other Twain works where being sold just downriver in Arkansas was seen to be a terrible thing. I can believe it - that region was swampy and unpleasant back then and would be terrible to work even as free people. Even now, parts of it are swampy and terrible to work.

This site has one of the earliest written examples at 1837 at which point Mark Twain was still a toddler.

This particular variant of the phrase is surely from the Twain story you describe, although the more general usage is older.

Being sold down the river had two general meanings.

  1. Sold to a trader to be taken todown the river to Nerw Orleans the largest antebellum slave trading market in the US, likely the world.

  2. being sold down the river to go to work in the Mississippi delta, the geographis area with the lowest life expectancy white or black in the region and arguably the harshest conditions for living…

[hijack, but you got me me thinking of it]
In many tough-cop crime movie–I’m thinking particularly of '40s movies, but I’ve seen it on modern TV–you’ll hear a cop or detective say warningly to a bad guy “… we’ll take you downtown.”

I figured out, but have zero corroborating evidence, that this stems from the old, architecturally dramatic NYC Police Headquarters in downtown, in TriBeCa.

So you are positing that they only took criminals “downtown” in NYC? Because pretty much all cities, before ‘sprawl’, will have police headquarters downtown.

When I saw the first few words of your post, I thught you were going to reference 'up the river".

Yeah, I thought of that. And my first thought, as you say, was “why does ‘up the river sound’ familiar?”

I just remembered hearing “we’re taking you downtown” said in many movies said in a NYC accent.

So now you’ve made me remember my second non-backed up crime-movie sentence:

I believe, and I thought of this while travelling on the train up the Hudson, that “being sent up river” means being sent to Sing-Sing prison, which is up-river from NYC directly on the Hudson shore.

Even more interesting from that page is that the phrase wasn’t used figuratively until after Twain’s death.

I seem to remember this was a theme in Uncle Tom’s Cabin.

The Wikipedia article about Sing Sing seems to agree with your recollection, as does this on-line etymology dictionary which purports to be based on the American Heritage Dictionary of Idioms.

Most definitely. The plot revolves around Tom being sold from a relatively pleasant plantation in Kentucky and eventually arriving at Simon Legree’s huge, brutal, isolated cotton plantation in the Mississippi Valley. The expression “sold down the river” is used repeatedly, although to the best of my recollection literally and not metaphorically.

Uncle Tom himself is “sold down river,” and there are lots of other references.

Thank you for the citations- clearly, the phrase was used long before Mark Twain’s story was written!

Let me reiterate this as the responses have drifted:

  1. The expression to “sell down the river” was used widely in and about the American slave trade to indicate selling a person for maximal profit and into more depraved conditions, and difficult to trace a single origin. Hence it is used generically to indicate depraved profit seeking.
  2. With reference to ones mother in particular as in “he’d sell his own mother down the river”, this reference is uniquely traceable to Mark Twain’s “Puddin’head Wilson” as astorian pointed out. This expression indicates depravity staked upon depravity.

From what I’ve read, the implication is that upriver (i.e. Kentucky, other points away from the deep south) the farm and plantation work was lighter and more varied. Downriver, there were the big cotton plantations.

The “hard work and starving” is as I recall from a previous discussion - the problem with picking cotton is it’s a month or so of hard work followed by nothing to do. It is painful - apparently the cotton bolls have sharp points and hands become heavily callused from all the tiny pricks sustained doing the work (“cotton pickin’ hands”). Also, the rest of the year there is very little to do; with paid help, they’d either leave for other jobs or you’d pay them to do nothing, which is why slaves were more economical. To improve the economical aspect, slaves were essentially starved on minimum rations during down time, which was not healthy. (and probably did not help if trying to make more slaves)

All in all, not a desirable situation for slaves (as if any slavery is desirable). Plus, the harsh conditions obviously led to a higher “turnover” and an ongoing demand for more slaves. Since importing slaves had been illegal and risky for much of the decades before the civil war, the appropriate source was to buy up slaves that became available up-river. And presumably then for callous slave-owners upriver, they could get better prices for slaves from down-river. I assume Tom sold his mom downriver for a few dollars more…

In Heinlein’s “Logic of Empire”, the phrase “sold south” is used/revived in the context of selling the contracts of indentured laborers (all but slaves in practice) from the stiflingly hot but bearable north polar region of Venus to the lower latitudes where worker mortality is accounted for in the balance sheets.