|Slave Auction Notice - Galveston Weekly News - September 27, 1859|
NEGROES – Have now 25 on hand and a portion choice No. 1 negroes. Field hands and house servants…The negroes are all sent out of town every night and exhibited next day before our door. We sell at auction or private sale as may be for the interest of our friends. – J. S. & J. B. SYDNOR - Galveston News, November 20, 1860
As a follow-up to my previous post on the use of hundreds of slaves to build Confederate fortifications on Galveston during the Civil War, I offer below another excerpt from my book, Galveston and the Civil War: An Island City in the Maelstrom (The History Press, 2012). In this post I describe the importance of slavery to Galveston and its antebellum economy.
I will have at least one other post in this series, describding the presence and treatment of abolitionists in Galveston.
Many general Galveston histories either do not give much attention to slavery, or worse, they minimize its importance and the treatment of slaves.
Typical are statements such as:
“Slaves had never been a major factor in Galveston’s economy so the issue of slavery was more emotional than real” - Gary Cartwright, Galveston: A History of the Island (New York: MacMillan, 1998), p. 90
"[Slaves] loved the Island life and were always loathe to leave it” - Earl W. Fornell, The Galveston Era: The Texas Crescent on the Eve of Secession (Austin: University of Texas Press, 1961), p. 115
These statements are misleading and bely the facts:
Galveston was a busy center of the illicit foreign slave trade, had a slave population whose growth outpaced that of its free population, was home to the largest slave market west of New Orleans, and was witness to all the cruelties that attended the institution. It was also the single most important reason that Galvestonians would vote overwhelmingly to leave the Union.
To me, the implication that somehow conditions for slaves on the island were different (and better) than slave life on plantations in the Deep South, for example, is the most disturbing; the logical extension is that there is "good" slavery and "bad" slavery. No. There is only slavery; and it is bad.
Galveston and the Civil War: An Island City in the Maelstrom (The History Press, 2012)
As Galveston grew quickly from its start of a handful of homes and residents after the Texas Revolution, so too did slavery grow on the island. A state census in 1847 showed Galveston with a population of 4,758; by the first full federal census in 1850, Galveston’s population stood at 4,177 but grew to 7,307 in 1860. Of those numbers, the slave population grew from 283 in 1847 to 678 in 1850 and to 1,178 in 1860, a four-fold increase compared to a two-fold increase in Galveston’s free population. Only two “free” African Americans were recorded in Galveston in 1860 (down from 30 in 1850), almost certainly owing to an 1858 state law that required freed blacks to leave Texas, select a master, or be arrested and sold into slavery. (1)
Many – if not most – of the slaves in Galveston came with their owners when they moved to the island, but there was no shortage of slaves available through the legal domestic slave trade and Galveston would become home to the largest slave market west of New Orleans. A number of merchants regularly bought and sold slaves on the streets and in the auction houses of Galveston, including J. Castanie & Co., T. H. McMahan & Gilbert, John O. & H.M. Trueheart, and Col. John S. Sydnor (who operated the city’s largest slave market). The firms advertised in Galveston newspapers offering slaves for sale; typical was an ad by the firm of McMurry & Winstead:
30 more choice Carolina and Virginia Negroes just arrived and for sale at our Slave Depot, Leonard Building, Church Street. Persons coming to this market to buy Negroes, will always find a good assortment at our house, as we are receiving fresh lots every month. (2)
|Slave Manifest - Port of Galveston - SS Texas - 1860 (National Archives)|
Of special interest is the intersection of slavery with Galveston’s maritime economy. In addition to the domestic, factory, and plantation labor mentioned above, Galveston slaves also performed a variety of jobs on the waterfront: as crew on barges carrying cargo and passengers to and from the wharves and ships off the bar; driving wagons from the wharf to warehouses in the city; and loading and unloading the holds of ships. Masters sometimes hired out their slaves as crew on the steamers that plied the coast or traveled inland on the bayous. The bustling seaport also posed risks for slave owners as the ships offered a tempting means for the slaves to escape. To that end, Galveston employed a permanent inspector to “thoroughly search for any slave or slaves who may be secreted” aboard outgoing ships. (3)
Of the slaves in Galveston, one antebellum visitor declared that he feared their “leisure moments are few and his lashes frequent.” One needs to look no further than state law and municipal ordinances to see that this was so. Slaves were proscribed from hiring their own time; slaves found “beyond and away from the premises of their owner…without written permission” were subject to whipping; slaves were prohibited from owning firearms; a slave found gambling could be fined or given “thirty-nine lashes on his…bare back”; disorderly conduct and “efforts to strike any white person” also carried the penalty of thirty-nine lashes. (4)
(1) Robert S. Shelton, “Slavery in a Texas Seaport: The Peculiar Institution in Galveston,” Slavery and Abolition, Vol. 28, No. 2, August 2007, 156; Susan W. Hardwick, Mythic Galveston: Reinventing America’s Third Coast (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2002), 46.
(2) Barbara J. Rozek, “Galveston Slavery,” The Houston Review, Vol. XV, No. 2, 1993, 82.
(3) British and Foreign State Papers, 1851-1852, Vol. XLL (London: William Ridgway, 1864), 575.
(4) Hardwick, Mythic Galveston, 47; Rozek, “Galveston Slavery,” 91-96