Tracking a Slave Trader Through His Expense Reports

Historical Treasures, Oddities, And Delights
April 7 2014 9:30 AM

Tracking a Slave Trader Through His Expense Reports

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Slave trader William James Smith kept these records of his business activities from 1844 through 1854. These three pages show how he tallied some of the expenses he incurred on a trading trip in 1844. (You can see all 41 pages of the Smith ledger on the Flickr stream of Wofford College, which holds the book.)

The expenses cover the early part of Smith’s 1844 trip within South Carolina and Virginia. That year, Smith visited Charleston, S.C., Richmond, Va., and several smaller cities in Virginia. It seems likely that he would have made purchases in Charleston and Richmond—two larger cities where slave markets thrived in the antebellum period—and then traveled with the enslaved people he’d purchased, selling them in smaller cities and towns along the way.


Through his meticulous record-keeping, you can track Smith’s passage through Charleston (“Boy for carrying my trunk,” 25 cents) onward to Richmond (“Omnibus in Richmond,” 50 cents).

The expenses for feeding and clothing the people he purchased begin with “1 qt of whiskey for Negroes,” 25 cents. Smith buys dresses ($2 for two) and suits of clothes ($1.50), to make his investments look presentable to buyers. He pays to put them up (“Dorcas and her child, board, 17 days,” $4.25).

The second half of the ledger (starting on this page) is a parade of first names: people Smith bought and sold from 1849–54, along with their prices and the trader’s net gains. At the end of the book, leaves of scratch paper show Smith’s rough mathematical calculations, used to generate his total profits.  

Thanks to Mitch Fraas for the tip. Click on the images below to reach zoomable versions, or visit the ledger's page on Flickr.  

"Slave trader ledger of William James Smith, 1844-1854."

The Littlejohn Collection, Wofford College.

"Slave trader ledger of William James Smith, 1844-1854."

The Littlejohn Collection, Wofford College.

"Slave trader ledger of William James Smith, 1844-1854."

The Littlejohn Collection, Wofford College.



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