As noted above, the threat of sale, which disrupted family ties, was perhaps the most powerful disciplinary weapon slaveholders possessed. As the domestic slave trade expanded with the rise of the Cotton Kingdom, about one slave marriage in three in slave-selling states like Virginia was broken by sale. Many children were separated from their parents by sale. According to one estimate, at least 10 percent of the teenage slaves in the Upper South were sold in the interstate slave trade. Fear of sale permeated slave life, especially in the Upper South. “Mother, is Massa going to sell us tomorrow?” ran a line in a popular slave song. As a reflection of their paternalist responsibilities, some owners encouraged slaves to marry. Others, however, remained unaware of their slaves’ family connections, and their interest in slave children was generally limited to the children’s ability to work in the fields. The federal census broke down the white population by five-year age categories, but it divided slaves only once, at age ten, the point at which they became old enough to enter the plantation labor force.

A broadside advertising the public sale of slaves, along with horses, mules, and cattle, after the death of their owner. The advertisement notes that the slaves will be sold individually or in groups “as best suits the purchaser,” an indication that families were likely to be broken up. The prices are based on each slave’s sex, age, and skill.

Slave traders gave little attention to preserving family ties. A public notice, “Sale of Slaves and Stock,” announced the 1852 auction of property belonging to a recently deceased Georgia planter. It listed thirty-six individuals ranging from an infant to a sixty-nine-year old woman and ended with the proviso: “Slaves will be sold separate, or in lots, as best suits the purchaser.” Sales like this were a human tragedy. “My dear wife,” a Georgia slave wrote in 1858, “I take the pleasure of writing you these few [lines] with much regret to inform you that I am sold.... Give my love to my father and mother and tell them good bye for me, and if we shall not meet in this world I hope to meet in heaven. My dear wife for you and my children my pen cannot express the grief I feel to be parted from you all.”

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