Largest Slave Auction in American History
Pierce Butler, a Major in the British Army, was born to an aristocratic Irish family on July 11, 1744 in County Carlow, Ireland. As the third son, he could not inherit his father’s title or land, so his father purchased a British Army commission for Pierce. In 1767, Major Butler went to South Carolina with the 29th Regiment of Foot, where they were tasked with suppressing colonial resistance to Parliament. While there in 1771, he married heiress Mary Middleton and became a very rich man. Butler sold his commission and purchased large parcels of land in South Carolina. When the Revolutionary War began Pierce Butler owned 10,000 acres on which he operated rice plantations and oversaw a labor force of Negro slaves. When the war began, Butler became an officer in South Carolina’s militia and trained locals to fight off invading British soldiers. By the end of the war, Pierce Butler and his wife had lost their land and fortune. Elected a Senator from South Carolina, Butler wrote the fugitive slave clause in Article 4 of the United States Constitution. That phrase required slaves who escaped to another state be returned to the owner in the state from which they escaped. Pierce Butler began rebuilding his personal land and property holdings and by 1793 owned 500 slaves that worked on his rice plantation on Butler Island and cotton plantation at St. Simons Island, both part of the Sea Islands of Georgia. Before his death on February 15, 1822, Pierce Butler owned more than 1,000 slaves and 10,000 acres of land. The elder Pierce Butler left nothing to his children and his entire estate only to his grandchildren who would change their last name to Butler.
Major Butler’s eldest daughter, Sarah Butler, married James Mease and they had five children, including Pierce Butler Mease on March 23, 1810 in Philadelphia, who changed his name to Pierce Mease Butler to qualify to inherit a share of his maternal grandfather’s estate. As his grandfather’s namesake, Pierce M. Butler inherited Butler’s Plantation on Butler Island, Georgia. Most Americans of their day would never have heard about Butler Island or the slaves the Butler family owned if, in 1834, Pierce M. Butler had not married Frances Anne “Fannie” Kemble, an actress and staunch abolitionist from London, England. Though constantly assured that the slaves were treated well, never sold and content in their circumstances, in 1838 Fannie wanted to see for herself and spent four months in residence on Butler Island. That visit led to their divorce and her writing a book she titled Journal of a Residence on a Georgia Plantation. She was appalled at the sight of “filthy and wretched” slave dwellings that lacked tables and chairs, knives and forks, and decent bedding. Children were dirty, barefoot and uneducated. While it was true that slaves were not sold, she complained that they were “sold-out” to work on other plantations. She also noticed that the plantation on St. Simons Island had more mulatto slaves than at Butler Island. Pierce explained that white men had easier access to that plantation than at Butler Island. Fannie noticed that one slave looked exactly like Roswell King and his son, Roswell King, Jr. They had managed the Butler family plantations for years under Major Pierce Butler. Slaves on both plantations told Fannie that the Roswells had fathered a number of children with many slaves. Sickened by what she saw and heard, Fannie left the Sea Islands, filed for divorce and returned to England.
The story of Pierce Mease Butler and his slaves continued on for 20 years, culminating when Pierce’s financial empire collapsed in 1859 under the weight of enormous debt. Out of options, Butler had to sell his human property to satisfy creditors at what would be the largest sale of slaves on record in the United States. The sale took place on March 2-3, 1850 at the Ten Broeck Race Course in Savannah, Georgia. Buyers purchased 436 men, women and children from his Butler Island and Hampton plantations near Darien, Georgia. Although Butler asked that families be sold together, that wouldn’t be the case for many and the event would be remembered as “the weeping time.” Newspapers and magazines reported the event nationwide and as the historical marker placed in remembrance of the event says, “and reaction to the sale deepened the nation’s growing sectional divide in the years immediately preceding the Civil War.” Johni Cerny
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