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

The Vault is Slate's history blog. Like us on Facebook, follow us on Twitter @slatevault, and find us on Tumblr. Find out more about what this space is all about here.

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.



Don’t Worry, Obama Isn’t Sending U.S. Troops to Fight ISIS

But the next president might. 

IOS 8 Comes Out Today. Do Not Put It on Your iPhone 4S.

Why Greenland’s “Dark Snow” Should Worry You

How Much Should You Loathe NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell?

Here are the facts.

Three Talented Actresses in Three Terrible New Shows


The Human Need to Find Connections in Everything

It’s the source of creativity and delusions. It can harm us more than it helps us.


More Than Scottish Pride

Scotland’s referendum isn’t about nationalism. It’s about a system that failed, and a new generation looking to take a chance on itself. 

The Ungodly Horror of Having a Bug Crawl Into Your Ear and Scratch Away at Your Eardrum

We Could Fix Climate Change for Free. What Exactly Is Holding Us Back?

  News & Politics
Sept. 17 2014 7:03 PM Once Again, a Climate Policy Hearing Descends Into Absurdity
Business Insider
Sept. 17 2014 1:36 PM Nate Silver Versus Princeton Professor: Who Has the Right Models?
Sept. 17 2014 6:53 PM LGBTQ Luminaries Honored With MacArthur “Genius” Fellowships
  Double X
The XX Factor
Sept. 17 2014 6:14 PM Today in Gender Gaps: Biking
  Slate Plus
Slate Fare
Sept. 17 2014 9:37 AM Is Slate Too Liberal?  A members-only open thread.
Brow Beat
Sept. 17 2014 5:56 PM Watch Louis C.K., Dave Chappelle, Bill Hicks, Mitch Hedberg, and More on New YouTube Channel
Future Tense
Sept. 17 2014 7:23 PM MIT Researchers Are Using Smartphones to Interact With Other Screens
  Health & Science
Sept. 17 2014 4:49 PM Schooling the Supreme Court on Rap Music Is it art or a true threat of violence?
Sports Nut
Sept. 17 2014 3:51 PM NFL Jerk Watch: Roger Goodell How much should you loathe the pro football commissioner?