Home > Guest Posts > Kidnapping and Capitalism: Human Trafficking in Antebellum America

This guest post was written by Dr. Scott Heerman, Patrick Henry Postdoctoral Fellow at Johns Hopkins University. He is also the recipient of the 2014-15 J. Franklin Jameson Fellowship from the American Historical Association for his project, “Deep River: Slavery, Empire, and Emancipation in the Upper Mississippi Valley, 1730-1860.”

With its success at the box office and triumph at the Oscars, Steve McQueen’s poignant film, Twelve Years A Slave, alerted a wide audience to one of slavery’s most heartbreaking truths. Across the North, free men and women could find themselves illegally enslaved. Since its publication in 1853, Solomon Northrup’s tale of northern freedom, southern bondage, and ultimate redemption has electrified international conversations about slavery and emancipation.

Of course, Northrup’s case was not isolated. During the 1850s, other prominent kidnapping cases gained national attention: the Christiana Riots, Anthony Burns, Joshua Glover, or the Sherman Booth cases raised the specter of human trafficking into the American public’s consciousness.

Yet the national political landscape that frames these debates obscures critical components of kidnapping practices in antebellum America. Politicians and activists then, and historians now, have rightly focused on these dramatic cases to understand the conflicts between free and slave societies. They correctly point to the violence that pervaded these episodes to expose slavery’s terrorizing effects on African Americans. Moreover, abolitionists seized on these cases to promote the idea that a so-called "slave power" could menace freedmen and women across political boundaries.

Yet casting these cases in this light also obscures some of the underlying forces that propelled the antebellum kidnapping. Many kidnapping cases did not revolve around a few unscrupulous men seizing a chance opportunity. Instead, the criminal processes that haunted African Americans in early America can also be thought of as human trafficking practices that used violence to meet labor demands in the Cotton South.

Beginning after the war of 1812, and accelerating after the panic of 1837, planters in the Deep South constructed a cotton kingdom that in time would be the United States’ largest, most technologically advanced industry. Changes to cotton cultivation and an ever-increasing regime of violence propelled a stunning boom in cotton output. This surge in productivity supported a slave empire that in time expanded cotton country from the sea islands of Georgia and South Carolina to east Texas. As the slave empire expanded, it thirsted for labor.

Most of that labor came either from the natural increase in slave populations, or a domestic slave trade that carried over a million African Americans from the seaboard into the Deep South. With labor demand high, masters would pay hundreds of dollars for seasoned field hands. These circumstances made human trafficking in free African Americans a lucrative trade. Across the nineteenth century, kidnappers transported freedmen and women across long distances and sold them in human markets to sustain America’s defining industry.

As the nineteenth century pressed on, free African Americans from across the nation, including the Midwest, were dragged beyond the cotton curtain. Looking at the kidnapping patterns in Illinois reveal that for decades the slave trade to New Orleans sustained human trafficking. From the turn of the nineteenth century to the eve of the U.S. Civil War, African Americans in Illinois found their freedom tenuous. In total, over 120 kidnapping cases appeared in Illinois. Spread across every corner of the state, African Americans time and again found they could not escape the threat of re-enslavement. In several cases, freedmen and women produced freedom papers, called on white allies in the community to work for their freedom, and convinced elected officials to work on their behalf. Yet still their captors often managed to evade capture or conviction. In these cases, freedom proved paper thin.

In 1841, one such case played out in dramatic fashion. That year, Elijah Morris relocated to Pope County (on the Ohio River bordering Kentucky) after gaining his freedom in Tennessee. With his wife and ten children he became a free landholder in the county and recorded his manumission papers at the local courthouse. This free black family resided outside of Golconda, not far from the free black settlement at Miller Grove. They had lived there for a little over a year until "some daring scoundrels entered" Morris’s house and stole $600 in cash and kidnapped four of his children: Katherine, Martha, David, and James.1 The assailants proceeded to "forcibly steal and take" each of them "into the State of Missouri."2

Later investigations revealed that the gang took the children to Cape Girardeau on the west bank of the Mississippi River before carrying them into the Deep South.3 It is telling that they did not travel just across the Ohio to Kentucky, but instead elected for the Mississippi Valley. With the Mississippi Delta demanding labor and Kentucky’s slave economy shrinking, the route these human traffickers took suggests the labor demands of the cotton kingdom motivated their illicit actions.

Immediately, Morris bought newspaper space pleading for information about the perpetrators. Several months later, he took a second advertisement and offered a $300 reward "for such information as will lead to the recovery of said children or to the conviction of the offenders."4 Seventeen white allies signed his plea for assistance—including John Raum, the county clerk. The press campaign had its intended affect. The following year, a jury indicted William Vaughn for kidnapping these four children and shortly later six other members of his gang faced criminal indictments.5

Yet there is no evidence the jury convicted Vaughn or his gang. It also appears that Morris never managed to reunite his family. Morris had considerable assets in his case: community support, backing from local political leaders, access to capital, and information about the gang of criminals that ransacked his house. Even in these circumstances, human traffickers like Vaughn could outsmart the system and reap enormous profit.

Antislavery communities honed in on these cases and lamented the traffic in freedmen and women that spread across Illinois. Editorializing on the issue, one 1834 article in William Lloyd Garrison’s Liberator concluded, "although there is a law in this state making such conduct criminal, indentured slaves and their children are carried off into slave states and sold with impunity and very few will plead their cause."6 A second article from nearly fifteen years later reported that, "the kidnapping" in Illinois "is regularly organized and is increasing."7 Writing at roughly the same time, Illinois’s Governor Augustus C. flatly declared "kidnapping has been carried to a disgraceful extent in this state."8

Human trafficking in Illinois posed as a persistent threat to black freedom. Understanding kidnapping as a system of illicit commerce into the cotton south casts the constant stream of forced migration in a new mold. Not exclusively about a "slave power," or growing sectional tension, human trafficking re-enslaved men and women to work in the labor-scarce cotton south. This brief survey cannot do justice to the vast complexities that defined human trafficking in America. Instead, it is meant to show the illicit commerce in free people of African descent belonged to larger systems of labor and capital in antebellum America.

  1. Shawneetown Illinois Republican, October 8, 1842, ALPLM. back

  2. People v. Peyton Gordon, William G.W. Fitch, Caleb Slankard, Joshua Hanly, John Simpkins, and Joseph Lynn, 1844–CC–065, Office of the Circuit Clerk, Pope County, Golconda, Illinois. back

  3. Ibid. back

  4. Shawneetown Illinois Republican, February 11, 1843, ALPLM. back

  5. The People v. Peyton H. Gordon, Joshua Hanly, Caleb Slankard, 1844-CC-102; and People v. Peyton Gordon, William G.W. Fitch, Caleb Slankard, Joshua Hanly, John Simpkins, and Joseph Lynn 1844-CC-106, Office of the Pope County Circuit Clerk, Golconda, Illinois. back

  6. Boston Liberator, March 29, 1834 back

  7. Boston Liberator, May 18, 1849, DLC. back

  8. Augustus French to Austin King, July 27, 1849, in Edvarts Boutelle Green and Charles Manfred Thompson eds., Governors’ Letter-Books 1840-1853 (Springfield: Illinois State Historic Society, 1911), 213. back

4 Comments, RSS

  • alexandrs sharpr

    says on:
    January 18, 2015 at 8:09 PM

    I didn’t realise freed slaves were trafficked to this degree. I did see a film about a freed African American slave who was kidnapped and sold on as a slave. I think he was in New York when it happened. He never saw his family for years but eventually escaped. But was brutally treated by the masters and no doubt by the criminals. I wonder if any of the slaves went back willingly to work on these plantations as life would have been harsh too after being freed and the would a lot of them would have found it hard. (There Is a saying ‘even the galley slaves missed their masters’.

    Did the government house these free slaves and have a plan of action to resettle them into the life of the free man. I know they built sub standard segregated schools eventually. But what was the government policy for the immediate resettlement of these greed slaves.

  • Robert Wright

    says on:
    January 28, 2015 at 4:02 PM


    The federal government and some state governments gave money to an NGO called the American Colonization Society that shipped some freed slaves to Liberia, Africa. Otherwise, antebellum freed slaves were pretty much on their own. Some thrived but many fared poorly, which of course became grist for the pro-slavery mill.

    A few freedpersons wished for re-enslavement but most preferred freedom, despite the obstacles. Remember, chattel slavery was not just about controlling the production of enslaved persons, it was also about controlling their consumption and their culture (family, religion, holidays, etc.). While the productive capabilities and choices of freedpersons remained highly constrained, in freedom they gained control of their expenditures, labor force participation, residency, reproduction, and so forth.

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