The November 2015 issue of Smithsonian Magazine has one jaw-dropping article about a topic I personally knew nothing about. The article, written by Edward Ball, is entitled, “Slavery’s Trail of Tears.” Until now the phrase “Trail of Tears” was associated with the forced removal of the Five Civilized Tribes from the southern states to “new Indian Territory,” now Oklahoma, between 1830 and 1838. The Tribes were removed to allow for the confiscation of their land for white settlers. Until I read the current issue of Smithsonian Magazine I was not aware that African Americans had endured a similar “forced removal.”
The Smithsonian Institution is a group of museums and research centers administered by the U. S. Government. It was established in 1846 for the “increase and diffusion of knowledge. It is named for the British scientist James Smithson who died in 1829 leaving his wealth to a nephew who died childless. His estate was delivered to the United States where some $500,000 of gold and other items were eventually housed. The museum now houses millions of artifacts of American life, known as the “nation’s attic.”
“Slavery’s Trail of Tears” subtitled, “Retracing America’s Forgotten Migration-The Journey of a Million African Americans from the Tobacco South to the Cotton South,” tells an almost unbearable story of human bondage and suffering. The article makes this statement about the forced march of “chain gangs” of slaves, also called, coffles: “The Slave Trail of Tears is the great missing migration-a thousand mile long river of people, all of them black, reaching from Virginia to Louisiana. During the 50 years before the Civil War, about a million enslaved people moved from the Upper South-Virginia, Maryland, Kentucky, to the Deep South—Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama. They were made to go, deported, you could, say having sold… The forced resettlement was 20 times larger than Andrew Jackson’s Indian removal campaigns. It was bigger than the immigration of Jews into the United States during the 19th century when some 500,000 arrived from Russia and Eastern Europe. It was bigger than the wagon-train migration to the West. This movement lasted longer and grabbed up more people than any other migration in North America before 1900…. Virginia was the source of the biggest deportation. Nearly 450,000 people were uprooted and sent south between 1810 and 1860. In 1857 alone, the sale of people in Richmond amounted to $4 million. That would be more than $440 million today.”
The Smithsonian article includes a retracing of actual route of the “coffles” of slaves, manacled and chained together, men in front, women and children behind, overseen by white men on horses and whips, marching through brush, sleeping in the woods, moving across creeks and rivers, over mountains, being sold off as they moved south to new auction blocks and new owners. One white slave trading family with living descendants, benefitted financially to the tune of what would be $3.5 million today. The term, “sold down the river” came into use during this march as thousands of men, women, and children were displayed like cattle, inspected like horses, and sold for high prices along the way. One account says that a young mulatto woman, referred to as “fancy women” (used for sex by buyers) was the most beautiful woman ever seen—sold to a lecherous, brute, dog of a white human being. She was sold for $1250 the equivalent of $35,000 today. Just imagine her life after she was sold. The final destination was New Orleans where the slave traders sold their slaves then sold their boats cashing out with great wealth. Slaves were then sold at a New Orleans slave auction block and sent asunder, families ripped apart.
The article includes current efforts to erect historical markers along the Trail of Tears to bring awareness to this overlooked and hidden American human tragedy. The article says this: “During the 50 years of the Slave Trail, perhaps half a million people born in the United States were sold in New Orleans, more than all the Africans brought to the country during two centuries of the Middle Passage across the Atlantic. New Orleans, the biggest slave market in the country, had about 50 slave selling companies in the 1840s. There are no current historical monuments, markers and historic sites that refer in any way to the domestic slave trade in New Orleans. The article concludes with post slavery accounts by long ago sold-off slaves to find relatives, especially sold-off children. One man who had last seen his mother when he was 8, found her when he was 20. Upon seeing him, his mother cried out: “Ain’t you my child?”
Copyright 2015 – L. Arthalia Cravin. All rights Reserved. No part of this commentary may be reproduced, stored in a retrieval system, or transmitted by any means, electronic, mechanical, photocopying, recording, or otherwise, without written permission from the author.