The Great Slave Auction of 1859 also called the weeping time was a significant event in American history, as it marked the last large-scale sale of enslaved people in the United States. The auction, which was held in Savannah, Georgia, lasted for several days and saw the sale of over 400 enslaved Africans.
The great slave auction was organized by Pierce M. Butler, a wealthy plantation owner from Georgia. He owned hundreds of enslaved Africans who worked on his rice and cotton plantations located on Butler Island and St. Simons Island. These plantations were the primary source of Butler’s wealth and that of his family.
It’s worth mentioning that the labor of enslaved people was vital to the growth of the southern economy and the wealth and power of many white southern families were built on the exploitation of enslaved Africans.
Butler’s decision to sell the Africans enslaved on his plantations was driven by his financial struggles, but it also highlights the dehumanizing nature of slavery. Enslaved Africans were treated as property and were bought and sold at the whim of their owners, regardless of the impact on families and communities.
Savannah was chosen as the location for the auction due to its proximity to the Butler estate, and due to it being a large center for slave trade.
Pierce Butler had the impending sale advertised in The Savannah Republican and The Savannah Daily Morning News by Joseph Bryan, a slave dealer in Savannah. The advertisements ran daily, except on Sundays, up until the last day of the sale.
The text of some of the advertisements was, “For Sale, Long Cotton and Rice Negros! A gang of 440, Accustomed to the culture of Rice and Provisions, among them are a number of good mechanics and house servants. Will be sold on 2nd and 3rd day of March at Savannah by J Bryan.“.
The auction was held at the Ten Broeck race track, which was located just outside of Savannah and attracted thousands of people, including potential buyers, curious onlookers, and abolitionists who were horrified by the spectacle.
Days before the auction, the enslaved Africans were brought to Savannah by steamboat and train and housed in horse barn stalls. They had nothing but the hardwood floors to sit and eat on in the stalls.
The enslaved Africans were put up for sale on the day of the auction and sold to the highest bidder. The bidding was fierce, with buyers from all over the South competing for the most able-bodied and skilled enslaved people.
The auction was a cruel and inhumane event, as human beings were treated as nothing more than property to be bought and sold. Families were torn apart as parents, children, and siblings were sold to different buyers.
A total of 436 people were advertised in the sale catalog, but only 429 were sold. Those who were not sold were either sick or disabled. The majority of those sold were rice and cotton field workers, but there were also skilled farmers, carpenters, shoemakers, blacksmiths, and cooks among them.
The two-day sale brought in $303,850 (equivalent in purchasing power to about $10,860,000 today). A mother and her five grown children received the highest bid of $6,180. The highest price for an Individual was $1,750, whereas the lowest price was $250.
The sale’s proceeds went to satisfy Butler’s significant debts, much of it from gambling. The auction is regarded as the largest single sale of enslaved people in U.S. history.
The auction was widely covered in the press, and many people were outraged. Ultimately, the event helped to galvanize the abolitionist movement and played a significant role in the lead-up to the Civil War and the eventual abolition of slavery in the United States.
There are two Georgia historical markers commemorating this historic event. One is at 2053 Augusta Avenue in Savannah, Georgia, erected by the city and the Georgia Historical Society in 2008. The other is at Butler Plantation, erected by the Georgia Historical Society in 2019.