During the century of the domestic trade, roughly equal numbers of males and females were sold away. The exception was the Louisiana sugar plantations, whose population made up some 6 percent of the nation’s enslaved. Importation to New Orleans, where many sugar planters bought their enslaved workers, was about 58 percent male, and traders sent very few young children to that market. The exhausting labor in the cane fields took an exceptionally heavy toll on the laborers’ health, and the demands of the sugar planters meant that the southern Louisiana market tended to import particularly strong workers.
The shortage of women in their childbearing years due to the gender imbalance in purchasing practice made the region unique in North America for having a marked excess of slave deaths over births.
Speculators preferred to purchase what they termed “young and likely Negroes” – mainly teenagers and young adults. They wanted men with the immediate ability to perform hard labor and the potential for a long work career. The merchants also looked for young women with many years of childbearing ahead of them.
Only about 5 percent of the males and 6 percent of the females sold were over thirty. Documentary evidence shows that with the exception of Louisiana, males between ten and twenty-nine years old comprised 72 percent of the trade but only 43 percent of the United States’ total enslaved population. Children under ten made up about 18 percent of the trade and most, especially the under-eights, were sold together with their mothers.
To be “sold down the river” was one of the most dreaded prospects of the enslaved population. Some destinations, particularly the Louisiana sugar plantations, had especially grim reputations. But it was the destruction of family that made the domestic slave trade so terrifying. Francis Fedric, who was born in Virginia and sold away in Kentucky, recalled the scene:
“Men and women down on their knees begging to be purchased to go with their wives or husbands, … children crying and imploring not to have their parents sent away from them; but all their beseeching and tears were of no avail. They were ruthlessly separated, most of them for ever.”
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