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Enslaved persons, chained together in a coffle, are paraded through the streets of Washington D.C. on their way to the slave market.

A series of pages exploring
various aspects of enslavement in Pennsylvania


Buying an Enslaved Person in Pennsylvania

article by George F. Nagle, Afrolumens Project editor.
See also the article Pennsylvania Slave Merchants


The year 1684 saw the first commercial sale of enslaved Africans in Pennsylvania as the British merchant ship Isabella landed at Philadelphia with a cargo that included 150 African slaves. They were immediately purchased by the local Quaker settlers, who were in need of manpower to help clear the land in the three year-old colony. Slave imports after that year were small in number until the 1730's, when a decrease in the duty levied upon imported slaves, combined with a laxity on the part of the provincial collector to collect any imposts at all between 1731 and 1761, combined to allow a surge in the number of enslaved persons brought into the colony by slave merchants. The imports leveled off again, probably due to a preference by buyers for European indentured servants and redemptioners, until the start of the Seven Years' War.

The war, which began in 1756, caught the British army short of manpower. They began to recruit new Scotch-Irish and German laborers who had been arriving in the colony in large numbers. Because the Crown did not compensate the owners for the full value of these servants, settlers, faced with a certain financial loss if they bought European servants, turned to African slaves for forced labor. The numbers of Africans brought into Philadelphia ports reached its high point in the next several years as a result of this new demand.

Advertisements for Slave Ship Arrivals

"Just imported from Africa, and to be sold by JAMES SIMMONS, At his Store in Tun Alley, a Choice Parcel of young SLAVES."

The above advertisement was placed in The Pennsylvania Gazette on May 24, 1759, and is typical of the ads placed by Philadelphia merchants offering slaves for sale. Many times, the slaves would be sold right from the slave ships tied up at one of the city's wharfs:

"Just imported from the Coast of Africa, in the Schooner PENELOPE, now lying at Mr. Hughe's Wharff,
A PARCEL of likely Negroe Boys and Girls, and to be sold by THOMAS CARPENTER, on board said Schooner." (The Pennsylvania Gazette, August 14, 1760)

"Just imported in the Sloop Company, Captain Hodgson, from the Coast of Africa, A PARCEL OF LIKELY NEGROE SLAVES; Which may be seen on board said Sloop, lying off Cooper's Ferry.
For Terms, apply to SAMUEL and ARCHIBALD McCALL, and JAMES WALLACE and Company." (The Pennsylvania Gazette, October 01, 1761)

Note that the last advertisement mentions the name of the Philadelphia mercantile company, McCall, Wallace and Company, which was selling the slaves. The previous advertisement notes that the slaves were "to be sold by THOMAS CARPENTER, on board said Schooner," but I don't know if Carpenter was a local merchant. Another prominent Philadelphia mercantile firm which dealt in slaves was Willing, Morris and Company, whose advertisement appears below:

"Just imported from the Coast of Africa, in the Brig Nancy, and to be sold at Wilmington, in New Castle County (where Attendance is given) by Willing, Morris, and Company, Of PHILADELPHIA,
ONE Hundred and Seventy fine Gold Coast NEGROES.

N.B. In the West India Islands, where Slaves are best known, those of the Gold Coast are in much greater Esteem, and higher valued, than any others, on Account of their natural good Dispositions, and being better capable of hard Labour." (The Pennsylvania Gazette, May 06, 1762)

An interesting aspect of the advertisement by Willing, Morris and Company is that they brought the slave ship into the port at Wilmington, Delaware, thus avoiding the heavy £10 duty newly imposed upon imported slaves. This had become a common practice among Pennsylvania slave merchants, who would often provide transport from Philadelphia to Wilmington for anyone wanting to inspect the slaves at the ship. Paying the duty, which was strictly enforced by the provincial collector, then became the responsibility of the buyer if the slave was taken across the border into Pennsylvania.

Public Sales at The London Coffee House

1764 advertisement for the public auction of a teenaged Black girl at Philadelphia's London Coffee House.

  A popular location for the public sale of enslaved persons in Philadelphia was the London Coffee House. Slaves sold by public auction at this location were less likely to be newly arrived Africans, but Blacks already owned by local slaveholders. Persons wishing to purchase a slave would watch the local newspaper for published notices of sales, and either bid in person or designate someone to act as an agent and bid on their behalf. The following advertisement is unusual in that fourteen slaves are up for auction. Most public slave sales at this location involved one or two slaves at one time; this event no doubt drew a large crowd for its novelty

On Saturday the 27th Instant, at the London Coffee House, TWELVE or Fourteen valuable NEGROES, consisting of young Men, Women, Boys and Girls; they have all had the Small Pox, can talk English, and are seasoned to the Country. The Sale to begin at Twelve o'Clock." (The Pennsylvania Gazette, July 18, 1765)

More common are advertisements such as the ones listed below. Slaveholders wishing to sell one or two slaves arranged for "publick vendue" at the Coffee House and placed newspaper ads giving the details of the sale:

"ON Saturday next will be sold at publick Vendue, at the London Coffee house, about Noon, A very strong likely Negroe Boy, about 17 Years old, has had the small pox, understands taking Care of Horses perfectly, can lay Cloth, and wait on Table for a Gentleman Family, and can do every Part of hard Labour. He will be put up at Fifty Pounds, and not under. Enquire of Mr. JUDAH FOULKE." (The Pennsylvania Gazette, May 04, 1758)

than can cook and wash, and has had the Small Pox, to be sold at public Vendue, at the London Coffee House, on Saturday the 20th Instant, at Twelve o'Clock." (The Pennsylvania Gazette, December 11, 1760)

"TO be sold by public Vendue,
at the London Coffee House, on Saturday the 30th Instant, a likely Negroe Wench, fit for Town or Country Business. She has had the Smallpox and Measles.
N.B. She is not sold for any Fault, but on Account of the Decease of her Master." (The Pennsylvania Gazette, January 28, 1762)

"Philadelphia, April 27, 1762.
ON the Tenth of next Month, between Twelve and One o'Clock, will be sold, at the London Coffee House, two likely Negroe Men, and a Negroe Woman; they are sold for no Fault." (The Pennsylvania Gazette, April 29, 1762)

"TO be sold by public Vendue,
at the London Coffee house,
on Saturday, the 17th Instant, at Eleven o'Clock in the Forenoon, a lusty spry Negroe Man, about 30 Years of Age, is a Tanner and Currier by Trade, but is exceeding capable of learning any other Business." (The Pennsylvania Gazette, March 15, 1764)

"TO be sold by public Vendue,
at the London Coffee house, on Saturday, the 24th of November inst. at Twelve o'Clock, A very likely healthy Negroe Girl, between 17 and 18 Years of Age, fit for Town or Country Service; she has been about five Years in the Country, has had the Smallpox, can cook, wash and iron.
N.B. The Duty already paid." (The Pennsylvania Gazette, November 22, 1764)

"TO BE SOLD, By publick vendue,
at the London Coffee House, the 15th day of April instant, A LIKELY Negroe man, about 18 or 19 years of age. Also a likely Negroe woman with a female child, who has had the small pox; can both be recommended for their honesty." (The Pennsylvania Gazette, April 02, 1767)

Not uncommonly, the spectacle of people being sold like livestock at public auction was a sale of last resort, resulting from a failure to sell the slave privately. The next few advertisements indicate that the slaves were to be sold at the London Coffee House if not sold privately prior to the announced sale date:

By public Vendue, at the London Coffee house, on Saturday the 8th Day of October at 11 o'Clock, if not sold before at private Sale, A Likely healthy Negroe Wench, about 24 Years of Age, this Country born, has had the Small Pox, and Measles, understands Town and Country Business well, can Wash, Iron, Cook very well. For further Particulars enquire of JOHN MERRIT, on Society hill, in Almond street, near the Blue bell." (The Pennsylvania Gazette, September 29, 1763)

"TO be sold at the London Coffee house, at 12 o'Clock, on the 17th of March, a likely healthy Negroe Woman, about 25 Years of Age, has had the Small Pox and Measles, can Wash well, and is a good Cook; she can be well recommended for her Honesty. Any Person inclining to purchase the said Negroe before the Day of Sale, may apply to JOHN MERRIT, Caulker, in Almond street, Society hill, near the Blue Bell." (The Pennsylvania Gazette, March 8, 1764)

"TO be SOLD on Saturday next, at 12 o'Clock, at the London Coffee house, if not sold before by private Sale, a likely Negroe Woman and Child; she can cook, and do all Sorts of House Work, and is fit for either Town or Country Business. Enquire of SAMUEL SIMPSON, in Chestnut street, near the corner of Third street." (The Pennsylvania Gazette, May 09, 1765)

"A likely NEGROE MAN,
To be sold by public vendue, at the London Coffee House, on Saturday, the 19th instant May, if not sold before.
HE understands all kinds of housework, can wait on table, and tend horses; he has also some knowledge of country work. Any Person inclined to buy him at private sale, is desired to apply to the PRINTERS." (The Pennsylvania Gazette, May 10, 1770)

A STRONG healthy Negroe woman, fit for country business, about 24 or 25 years of age; she is old for no fault but want of employ. For further particulars, enquire of the printers hereof. If she should not be disposed of before Saturday, the 24th of July next, she will then be sold at the London Coffee house, at 12o." (The Pennsylvania Gazette, June 28, 1770)

Even if no slave auction was scheduled, persons looking to purchase slaves could use the Coffee House "on market days" as a meeting place to arrange a sale:

"Philadelphia, August 24, 1774.
THE subscriber is now wanting a number of NEGROES, men, women, boys or girls, farmers, house Negroes, or tradesmen, that are real slaves, and good titles; all persons that have such to dispose of, please to apply to me, at the London Coffee house, on market days, from eleven o' to one, at other times at my house, the north end of Second street, opposite to the Bath. Should I be gone in the country, please to leave descriptions of the Negroes, and where to be found, with Mr. JOHN YOUNG, junior, sadler, in Market street." (The Pennsylvania Gazette, August 31, 1774)

Private Sales

Privately arranged sales, however, became the most common method of buying and selling chattel labor. Slaveholders could either inquire among friends and acquaintances whether it was known if any slaves were for sale, or they could watch the newspapers for advertisements listing slaves for sale. Slaveholders in the rural counties could not always find slaves available when they wanted them, and often resorted to contacts in Philadelphia. Such was the case with Lancaster attorney Jasper Yeates, who in 1770 wrote to Edward Burd in Philadelphia. Burd replied to Yeates' request to find a "Negro Boy" for him:
Philadelphia 5th July 1770

Dear Sir

I received your Favor of the 2d. Instant, In which you seem inclined to purchase a Negro Boy if no white Servt can be procured for you. I inquired 2 or 3 days ago at Mr. Saml. Howells who told me he had no servants of any kind at this Time to dispose of but expected a Palatine Ship in the Fall-- Uncle Jo. last Fall got a Dutch Lad who cost him £26 or £27 & was to serve him 7 Yrs.-- he learnt the English Language in a few Months, is very diligent & handy about everything.

I don't know where you could get a Negro Lad, but if you could [not readable] would it not be better to take a Dutch one, as being in general more active strong & diligent & apter to learn & better disposed to do their Business & the loss is not so great in Case of their dying or turning out ill-- however the Inconvenience of Nero [sic] Servants & the Trouble of teaching them their Duty is very great & if you could get a Negro Boy to answer your Description it would suit, I imagine very well,-- but they are rare Ones. I don't know of any Negroes to be sold, but if I knew your Determin.n I would make Inquiry. . . .

Yor. affectionate Brother
Edward Burd
(Lancaster County Historical Society, Manuscript Collection. MG-207 The Jasper Yeates/LCHS Collection, Folder 24 "Business/Family Correspondence: Edward Burd to Jasper Yeates, 1769-1773.")

The difficulty which Edward Burd had in locating a young Black slave for sale is indicative of the declining interest among Philadelphians for obtaining new slaves. After achieving a record high number of Africans imported in 1762--probably about 500 slaves--importion of slaves slowed to the point that, by 1770, only about 30 per year were being brought into Philadelphia ports. At the same time, ships of Scotch-Irish and German immigrants were arriving in larger numbers, from only a few ships in the late 1750's, to 19 ships in 1770, the year of the letter above. Typically, Burd urges Yeates to consider a "Dutch Lad," reflecting the swing in popular preference back toward European servants.

Burd, however, does not seem to have explored another popular method of buying a slave, which was to deal with a private owner who had a slave to sell. Many thousands of slaves were bought through privately negotiated transactions among friends, family members, and between complete strangers. Such was the course James Hamilton, a successful lawyer in Carlisle, Cumberland County, decided upon in attempting to purchase a slave in 1798. Hamilton decided to use agents Cranston & Alexander to purchase a slave he believed to be for sale:

Cranston & Alexander to James Hamilton, June 26, 1798

"Philadelphia 26th June 1798

Dear Sir
We are favored with yours of the 11th. Inst. handing your check on the Bank for 100 Dollars & desiring us to purchase a Negroe Boy to be heard of at the Lewistown Stage office on Levi Hollingsworth's Wharf--
"We have made every Enquiry possible there but cannot hear of any such Boy for Sale nor is there a Stage office on this wharf. . .
[letter continues on another topic]
". . .waiting for further Instructions--
we are Sir assuredly your most obt. Servants
Cranston & Alexander"

(Cumberland County Historical Society, Manuscript Collection. MG33-10, "Letters to James Hamilton [1751-1819] for May through December 1798.")

A few years later, Hamilton made another attempt to buy a slave, but this time wrote to a friend, John Brown, who was living in Philadelphia. In an undated (probably November or December, 1802) letter, Hamilton described the merchandise he had seen advertised in The Pennsylvania Gazette, writing "This day I saw an advertisement in the Philadelphia Gazette of a number of paintings to be sold on Thursday at the Merchants Coffee House." He asked Brown to act on his behalf and spend 20 or 30 dollars for one. He then noted "I also observe in the same paper an advertisement of a Girl who has sold for want of employment," and authorized Brown to buy her for "100 or 120 dollars if of pretty good character.” Brown did attempt to purchase the slave, but was unsuccessful. In a reply to Hamilton, dated January 14th, 1803, in which he introduces his nephew, Isaac B. Parker, who was to study law under Hamilton, Brown describes the seller as now "indifferent about selling." (Cumberland County Historical Society, Manuscript Collection. MG16-18, "James Hamilton Correspondence, 1795-1809;" MG34-2, "Letter John Brown to James Hamilton, 14 Jan 1803.")

By summer, Hamilton, or Brown acting on his behalf, had located two more possible servants, a Mulatto boy, and a girl whose race is not specified. Again, as explained in the following letter, Brown is unable to complete the purchase of these individuals for Hamilton:

John Brown to James Hamilton, July 15, 1803 (portion)

"Philad. 15th July 1803

Dr Sir
I have had the pleasure to receive yours of the 9th and immediately went after the negro boy but found he had been sold a few days before for 120 dollars--He was a small weakly Mullato and belonged to a Mr. McCannagh a broker who has a family and I think would not have parted with him if he was good for much--indeed he intimated as much to me. As for the Girl She now refuses to go to the country on any account altho I have made use of every persuasion to induce her and her Master is willing to part with her—therefore we must give her up. I am sorry that I can not succeed in getting you servants that will be useful but indeed I see but very little prospect--every body is complaining in that here round those that are advertized in the papers are generally sold for faults--I cannot think of sending any but such as have a good character as I am sure you would have trouble without any use. . .
[letter continues on another topic] [The letter is signed by John Brown.]

(Cumberland County Historical Society, Manuscript Collection. MG34-2, "Letters to James Hamilton [1751-1819] for January through August 1803.")

Arranging a Sale

Hamilton's contact in Philadelphia, by 1811, was a relative of John Brown, William Brown Parker. Like Brown, Parker continued to search for slaves to purchase for Hamilton. In the following series of letters, Parker described for Hamilton how he met a Mr. Humphreys, who had an eleven year-old slave for sale:
William Brown Parker to James Hamilton, October 27, 1811 (portion)

"Philad. 27th October 1811

On my return to the City I Called at the House where the Black Boy was for Sale, his Master informed me he was then in the Country at his Fathers a few Miles from the City, but that he expected him home in the Course of a week. I Called a second time but he had not returned, when he does he will let me know, he had about 8 years to serve, his price for him is $140. I should have written you before but thought it unnecessary as the Boy was not in town."
[letter continues on another topic]
"I am Dr. Sir Your most obt. St.
Wm B. Parker."

William Brown Parker to James Hamilton, November 22, 1811

"Philad. 22 Novemr. 1811

Dear Sir
On my return a few days ago from Maryland and New Castle, I found your esteemed favor of the 29th of last Month at the House. My absence from home was longer than I Contemplated which must form my apology for not answering you sooner. The Negro Boy which I last wrote you about, was sold during my stay in the Country, to a person in Lancaster Co. I have been this morning with Mr. Joshua Humphreys of this City, who advertises a Black Boy for Sale, who has between 11 & 12 years to Serve, he says he is an excellent waiter, and understands taking Care of Horses and driving a Carriage--he is between 15 & 16 years of age--his price is $150. Should the above meet your approbation you can send on a Check by the return Mail. Mr. H. informed me there had been several persons speaking to him about the Boy, but he had given none of them a decisive answer, until he hears from me again--which your reply by the return post will enable me to do. Your Brother had left the City before I got to it.
I am your most Obed. & Hble St.
Wm B. Parker"

Hamilton gave his approval for the purchase, and Parker completed the sale upon receipt of Hamilton's check. In the following series of letters, Parker gives additional details about the slave, who's name is Luke, and discusses how he found transportation for Luke to Carlisle:
William Brown Parker to James Hamilton, December 12, 1811

"Philad. 12th Decr. 1811

I have your letter of the 27th Ult. from Gettysburgh before me, on the receipt of which, I waited on the Gentleman who had the Boy for Sale and made the Purchase--he is now ready and will be sent forward by the first waggon going your way that will take charge of him. I have had the Indenture made out in the usual way and in your name--with the receipt for the amount paid at Mr. Henry's shall be forwarded you by some safe hand.
Always happy to be of service to you--with my Compliments to Mrs. Hamilton and the family--
I am your most obed. Servt.
Wm B. Parker."

William Brown Parker to James Hamilton, December 20, 1811

"Philad. December 20th 1811

Dear Sir
I have your favor of the 14th Instant before me and hasten to reply to its contents. In a former letter I gave you a Sketch of the Negro Boys Character, as I received it from his Master Mr. Joshua Humphreys, a Gentleman of respectability and veracity, his reasons for disposing of the Boy are these, That once when he was sent to Market he appropriated a 5d. bit or a 11d. to buy Cakes for himself out of the Money that was given to him, but he believes him to be perfectly honest otherwise, that he is in no way given to Liquor, or telling falsehoods--
Mr. Humphreys has not other Complaints against him than merely using a small trifle of money in the manner above stated, and that by his being sent into the Country, he will become a valuable Servant and grow up strictly honest. He has waited on Tables and been intrusted with the Key of the Side Board where the Liquor was, and that in no Instance he was found to use any of it. He is capable of taking Care of Horses and driving a Carriage well, which he has done for the last 2 years, to the entire satisfaction of Mr. Humphreys, he was brought up from a Child by Mr. Henry Hollingsworth of this City, son in Law to Mr. Humphreys, who sold him about 2 years ago for want of employment, for him, his parents are decent people of Colour, belonging to Mr. Hollingsworth's Father.
If from the foregoing description of the Boy, you are satisfyed to take him with the imperfections as stated, I shall be glad to hear from you, and when I meet with a Waggoner who will take Charge of him, I will make an agreement with him for the Journey.
I am your most hble Servt.
Wm B. Parker
If you know of any person from Carlisle now in the City, by letting me know where they are to be found, perhaps I may prevail on them to take him up in the Stage, as his Servant, which I suppose will cost but half fare--and at this inclement season he would have more inducements to run away if he was so disposed--by sending him in a waggon.-- I have not paid for him yet, If you Conclude not take him tell me whither I shall deposit the Money in Bank to your Credit or remit it to you.

William Brown Parker to James Hamilton, December 28, 1811

"Philada. 28th Decr. 1811

Dear Sir
I have yours of the 24th before me. The present will be handed you by Martin Leiper son of Mr. Thomas Leiper of this City, who is a Collegian at Carlisle, he has kindly offered his Services to take the Black Boy Luke under his Care for you--the expenses I have paid, and shall forward you a statement, with the Indenture at a future period by some safe hand. I hope the Boy will meet your approbation which is the sincere wish of his late master Mr. Humphreys.
of your Most obed. Servt.
Wm B. Parker
With the Compliments of the Season to the whole family and friends."

William Brown Parker to James Hamilton, January 31, 1812


Parker, having successfully arranged for the delivery of Luke to Hamilton at Carlisle, now writes that he must still send the indenture for the child. Because children of slaves, born after 1780, were not subject to being held for life as slaves, an indenture which spelled out the precise time of bondage was substituted for a deed. It should be noted that not all slaveholders held deeds for their human property. Very often, the proof of ownership was in other official documents, such as wills, tax records, bills of sale, and on registration rolls at the county courthouse. After 1780, however, indentures became increasingly common, and by the time of the sale documented in these letters, they were a legal necessity.

Note also the costs associated with the purchase of a slave. In a statement on the reverse side of the letter, Parker gives a detailed breakdown of the fees and costs involved in buying Luke. From the original price for the slave, paid to Mr. Humphreys, is added taxes, the cost of hiring a horse to take the slave from his old home to the stage station, stage ticket and meals, and a legal fee for transferring the indenture.

"Philada. 31st January 1812

Dear Sir
I have your favor of the 12th Instant before me and am happy to find Luke appears to please so far as he has been tryed, and I have no doubt but he will prove a good, and useful Servant, which would be highly gratifying to his late Master, Mr. Humphreys.
I have waited untill now in expectation of some person going to Carlisle with whom I Might send the Indenture, and the receipt for the Taxes, but as none has yet offered, I will keep them a little longer in hopes to find one.
On the other side you will find a Statement of the Money sent me--the small Balance of $1.93/00 I have requested my Brother to call on you with. I have nothing more to Communicate, the Navigation of the Delaware has been stopt since the 25 of last mo. and no appearance of its getting clear of Ice--always happy to serve you--
I am your Most obedt. Servt.
Wm. B. Parker."

Statement of expenses relating to the purchase of Luke, as mentioned above, on the reverse side of that letter:

By Cash received for your Check Bk Pennsa. $190.
Paid at Alexr. Henry & Co. for Taxes as pr. receipt    $4.07
do. for Horse hire. . .to go to Mr. Joshua Humphreys
     on the Lancaster Road, to have the Black Boy }
     prepared to go in the Stage to Carlisle
do. the Stage fare and Supper & expenses of the boy to Carlisle   10.
do. at the aldermans's office for transferring the Indenture from Mr. Humphrey's to you    1.
do. Mr. Joshua Humphreys for the Boy 150.
Cash now remitted in a Bank Note  20.
Balance due J. Hamilton Esqr.    1.93
" I hope the above will meet your approbation. Yours WBP"

Six months have passed since Luke has been sent to Carlisle, and in a letter which concluded this series, Parker gives an indication that Hamilton is less than pleased with his new purchase. The following is an excerpt:
William Brown Parker to James Hamilton, July 18, 1812 (portion)

"Philada. 18th July 1812

Dear Sir
. . .I am really sorry to find from your letter that Luke is Complained of so soon--but as he is young, we must overlook triffling offences--and as he advances in years, I hope his Conduct will improve."

(Cumberland County Historical Society, Manuscript Collection. MG34-17, "Letters to James Hamilton [1751-1819] from William Brown Parker. Period of Correspondence: 1806-1813.")


Pennsylvanians who wished to buy slaves could choose from several public or private sources, depending on the time period. Prior to the revolution, public sales of slaves, many newly brought from Africa, were common in port cities, such as Philadelphia. Arrangements could also be made for a private sale. After the Gradual Emancipation Act of 1780, however, sources for slaves began to dwindle, and public sales became rare, even in large cities. Persons looking to buy a slave had to watch for advertisements in local newspapers, or rely on word of mouth. 



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