While much of SlaveVoyages involves recording quantitative data, there is plenty of room to highlight the human history of the traffic. Using sources that typically silenced the voices of enslaved people, Rice University researchers, including myself, were able to run statistical analyses to understand the demographics of the enslaved population that was transported to Texas through the United States coastwise traffic. These sources also allowed us to see past the numbers, and explore the human dimensions of this forced migration.
The U.S. coastwise traffic transported proportionally more infants and children than the trans-Atlantic slave trade. Nearly 40 percent of the captives transported in the traffic were under the age of 15. Since the voyage from New Orleans to Galveston took 33 hours at its fastest, enslavers recognized the lower financial risk of transporting young captives, who were less susceptible to illnesses and death than their trans-Atlantic counterparts. This key difference, and the fact that the trans-Atlantic trade had been prohibited, enabled enslavers to exploit increasingly younger children for future profit.
These children sometimes traveled with their mothers or family members, as designated in many slave manifests. In their 1851 voyage from New Orleans, two young mothers, Ellen and Louisa, both traveled with their infants in a group of 54 enslaved captives to Galveston. But many infants and children were separated from their families. For instance, an infant girl named Mary Catharine made the trip from New Orleans to Galveston in 1830 without the accompaniment of her mother. Half of the people listed on the manifest with Mary Catharine were in fact children themselves, ranging from four to eight years old. Additionally, in one manifest from 1856, a seven-year-old child named Hyram was listed as having traveled without any familial accompaniment.
The coastwise traffic also transported roughly equal numbers of enslaved women as men to Texas. Specifically, 50.1 percent of enslaved people in the coastwise traffic were male, which significantly differed from the average of 64.5 percent of male captives in the trans-Atlantic trade. In the trans-Atlantic traffic, more able-bodied men were transported than women because they provided an immediate labor force. This emphasis on immediate productivity discouraged the creation of family units and, by consequence, the growth of the Black population in the Americas. The balanced gender ratio of the coastwise traffic reveals the dual productive and reproductive roles of enslaved women in expanding Texas’s enslaved population.
Figure 1 – Slave Manifest of the Steamship Mexico, April 18, 1853. National Archives and Records Administration (Washington, DC) - Slave Manifests of Coastwise Vessels Filed at New Orleans, Louisiana, 1807-1860, Outward Series, v. Microfilm Serial M1895, RG 36. Downloaded from Ancestry.com, February 28, 2023.
Most notable among the uncovered narratives of enslaved women and children is that of Virginia Boyd, a pregnant mother with two young daughters whose family was torn apart by this coastwise trade in human lives. Joshua Rothman’s The Ledger and the Chain mentions letters from an enslaved woman named Virginia Boyd to slave trader Rice Ballard. While writing these letters, she was pregnant with her third child by her previous enslaver Samuel Boyd, who had instructed Ballard to “get rid of her” by sending her and her children to another trader named Rutherford in New Orleans. Following this move, Samuel Boyd––a prominent judge and slave trader in Mississippi––believed that Virginia was still too close to him in New Orleans and asked Rutherford to send Virginia, whose “pregnancy was so far advanced that no one would take her,” and her children to Houston via Galveston.
By searching for Virginia in the SlaveVoyages database, we can account for the 1853 voyage of Virginia and her young daughters, seven-year-old Louisa and two-year-old Amelia, who remained unnamed in the aforementioned book. The letters that Virginia sent to Ballard from the trader’s yard in Houston reveal more than just her literacy as she attempted to persuade him to let her return to Mississippi by explaining that it was “appalling ‘for the father of my children to sell his own offspring’” and questioning if it was “really ‘possible that any free born American would brand his character with such stigma as that.’” By August of 1853, Rutherford informed Ballard that Virginia and one of her daughters had already been sold, but her oldest daughter––who we now know was only seven years old––“was still at the trader’s yard in Houston, because... she was worth more sold separately.” This story sheds vivid light on the treatment of pregnant enslaved women and the commodification of enslaved lives, both before and after birth.
While the archival sources provide more information than we previously knew about enslaved individuals, the history of enslaved children and women in Texas remains largely understudied. By making this information available on SlaveVoyages, more stories about the enslaved people involved in the coastwise traffic will come to light.
Victoria Zabarte is a history graduate from Rice University.
Image credits: “Virginia, Louisa, Amelia,” Katelyn Landry, 2022.
The post “Behind the Numbers” first appeared in Echoes: The SlaveVoyages Blog. It is part of a series of posts exploring the history and legacies of the slave trade to Texas.