1832 - 1834

A Slave Pen Journey

National Underground Railroad Freedom Center

John W. Anderson owned this slave pen in Germantown, Kentucky in the 1830s. It is now on exhibit at the National Underground Railroad Freedom Center.
The first step in a journey through the Anderson Slave Pen begins with enslaved persons being bought by John W. Anderson at a sale or auction like the one announced in this poster.
Those purchased by Anderson entered his holding facility, the Anderson Slave Pen, through a door reinforced with iron bars and topped with another iron bar.
As a broker, Anderson would gather enslaved persons until he felt he had a sufficient number -- no fewer than 30 -- to take to market in Natchez, Mississippi, or New Orleans, Louisiana.
Male slaves were kept on the top floor of the structure, shackled to a central set of rings to prevent escape. Movement was severely restricted, if not impossible, and conditions did not approach humane.
Female and child slaves were held on the lower floor of the structure, which contained a large fireplace (represented by this reconstructed iron chimney) where cooking for the pen's occupants and possibly the main house took place.
Since it was common practice at this time in Kentucky to brand a log in a building with an owner's name, the National Underground Railroad Freedom Center was able to definitively establish ownership of the building.
Life in the building was terrible and hopeless, especially for those enslaved males on the upper floor. What few windows exist in the building are covered in iron bars, but left open to the elements. The original chinking, shown here between the two bottom windows, provided little insulation.
The bars kept those within from even contemplating escape -- only the children were small enough to get through the bars, and their escape would be futile, as there was no one outside to help spirit the children away.
Anderson's brokerage career was short-lived. He died, ironically, in 1834, while chasing a runaway slave, one of the few able to exact escape from the Anderson Slave Pen. After only four years of trafficking in enslaved persons, however, Anderson made a small fortune, which he used to finance his other enterprise, horse breeding.
After Anderson gathered a sufficient number of enslaved people, they were walked 750 miles to Natchez, Mississippi, to be sold at large public auctions like the one depicted here (in Charleston, South Carolina).
As depicted in this abolitionist pamphlet, occasionally Anderson would transport his slaves to the Natchez market by boat on the Ohio and Mississippi Rivers.
At auction, slaves would often be required to wear tags such as this one from M. Price Auction House in New Orleans. The tag features images of a whip and shackles and a stamped number identifying the wearer.
On the back of the tag, a slogan may be printed. M. Price's states that "All slaves Guaranteed in sound health."
Most enslaved persons sold at the Natchez or New Orleans auctions went on to work at a cotton plantation in Mississippi or Louisiana. These scenes depict the back-breaking life of picking and processing hundreds of pounds of cotton a day.
Publications like the Anti-Slavery Record showed the deplorable conditions some enslaved persons faced in plantation life, such as floggings and assignment of identification tags like that below from a Louisiana cotton plantation.
Freedom was rarely obtainable, but some nonetheless took great risks to escape the life of slavery. This illustration shows an escape attempt in the swamps surrounding Wilmington, North Carolina. Communities of escapees were also formed in inaccessible areas like these swamps, rather than risking the long journey north to Canada or south to Mexico or Native American territory.
Freedom for those enslaved in the Confederate states arrived in the form of the Emancipation Proclamation, and for all enslaved persons at the end of the Civil War. Rights were granted to formerly enslaved males with the Thirteenth, Fourteenth, and Fifteenth Amendments to the Constitution, though almost a century would pass before all African Americans were granted full participation in American society.
Credits: Story

Photographers — Roy Davis & Audrey Ann
Artifacts — From the Collection of the National Underground Railroad Freedom Center
Historians — Richard C. Cooper, Carl B. Westmoreland, Caroline R. Miller, and Jeannine O. Kreinbrink
Curators — Cori Silbernagel and Gina K. Armstrong
Grant Support — Generous support provided through a grant from the U.S. Department of Education

Credits: All media
The story featured may in some cases have been created by an independent third party and may not always represent the views of the institutions, listed below, who have supplied the content.
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