Richmond Slave Trail
In Virginia and the rest of the United States, the waterways, both rivers and man-made canals served as the main avenues of commerce. Ships from across the Atlantic or from other American ports transported goods that were transferred to smaller ships and bateaus—flat boats designed to navigate shallow water—which in turn carried them further into the interior. Enslaved men were frequently employed on these boats, responsible for transporting hogheads of tobacco from plantations and down the riverways to cities to be sold and exported.
Many plantations in the Upper South reaped the benefit of one of the region's most high-yield cash crops: tobacco. Requiring intensive labor and causing heavy depletions of the soil, the practice of tobacco production was a fast and furious enterprise. To address the problem of soil exhaustion, many farms later switched to "gentler" crops such as grains and vegetables. For the enslaved, daily life on these [right panel]
post-tobacco plantations was considered "less bad" than elsewhere in the country. Here, African captives endured fewer severe physical demands and often benefitted from a task-based system that allowed them to work at their own pace and without supervision. Enslaved people could usually marry, raise families and hire themselves out as laborers although such privileges were left to the discretion of their masters.
However, African captives sent to the Lower South — Kentucky, Tennessee, Georgia, Alabama, Mississippi, Louisiana and Arkansas — experienced much harsher conditions. The invention of the cotton gin in 1793 greatly increased the productivity of the cotton industry and created a massive demand for hands to plow, tend, and harvest the fields. Throughout the Lower South, cash crops, such as cotton, sugar and tobacco, claimed every inch of arable land; consequently, enslaved Africans were not given plots on which to grow their own vegetables, nor were they given the time to build adequate shelters. Gangs of African captives worked from "first light till full dark" as a condition of enslavement under the ready whip of white and black overseers, ruthlessly driven to plant, cultivate and harvest these lucrative crops.
Sources: Wayland Fuller Dunaway, The History of the James River and Kanawha Canal Company; Peter Way, Common Labour: Workers and the Digging of the North American Canals; The South in the Building of the Nation; Volume V; Weeks, Dick. "Slavery in the Civil War Era." The American Civil War Homepage. http://www.civilwarhome.com/slavery.htm
Intended to connect the tidewaters of the James River with the navigable stretches of the Ohio River, the Kanawha canal began as an ambitious project that required the back-breaking effort of thousands of laborers. Between 1836 and 1837 the workforce more than doubled, rising from 1,440 to 3,330 men, the majority of whom were white Irish immigrants. However the summer of 1838 brought with it unusually high temperatures and many of the Irish laborers died of hyperthermia, creating a panic — and subsequent northern migration — of two-thirds of the remaining workforce. Regarded essentially as chattel and therefore thought impervious to uncomfortable conditions, "slaves on the James River toiled through the unpredictable Virginia winter, in all but torrential downpours and on through the summer fever season for which the James River was notorious." Enslaved workers were in the majority by 1839. By 1850, enslaved Africans were becoming stonemasons.
(left panel)About the Trail
Designed as a walking path, the Richmond Slave Trail chronicles the history of the trade in enslaved Africans from their homeland to Virginia until 1778, and away from Virginia, especially Richmond, to other locations in the Americas until 1865. The trail begins at the Manchester Docks, which, alongside Rocketts Landing on the north side of the river, operated as a major port in the massive downriver slave trade, making Richmond the largest source of enslaved blacks on the east coast of America from 1830 to 1860. While many of the slaves were shipped on to New Orleans and to other Deep South ports, the trail follows the footsteps of those who remained here and crossed the James River, often chained together in a coffle. Once reaching the northern riverbank, the trail then follows a route through the slave markets and auction houses of Richmond, beside the Reconciliation Statue commemorating the international triangular slave trade and on to the site of the notorious Lumpkin's Slave Jail and leading on to Richmond's African Burial Ground, once called the Burial Ground for Negroes, and the First African Baptist Church, a center of African American life in pre-Civil War Richmond. - Richmond Slave Trail Commission - 2011 -Title image: "After the Sale: Slaves Going South", 1853, Painted from live by Eyre Crowe, courtesy the Chicago History Museum