TODAY in HISTORY: The Weeping Time

Today, 158-years ago, the largest slave sale took place in the United States, and for two days it rained. –

by William “Doc” Halliday

Everyone should know the following: if you don’t pay your debts you may be sued.  If you have substantial assets and own a business of any type it may become more complicated.  The business that you own and all of your assets may be placed in the hands of a receiver or trustee.  The object of this action is to have your creditors paid.  Assets can be sold.  In some cases a business may be operated by a trustee in order to ensure that creditors are paid.  Every state has their own list of exemptions; assets that will not be taken from you.  You will not literally lose the shirt off your back, but you will likely lose luxury items and anything related to a business. 

Now let me turn to Pierce Butler, one of the founding fathers of this country.  He represented South Carolina, first in the Continental Congress, and then at the Constitutional Convention and later in the United States Senate.  Mr. Butler was one of the largest slaveholders in the United States.  He sponsored the Fugitive Slave Clause of the United States Constitution, and supported many other measures on behalf of slaveholders. 

Mr. Butler’s grandson was Pierce Mease Butler.  He was the heir to cotton, tobacco, and rice plantations on the Sea Islands in Georgia.  He also inherited hundreds of slaves who worked on those plantations.  In 1834, this grandson married a British actress, Frances Anne Kemble.  Fanny as she was known was an abolitionist.  Once Kemble found out about Butler’s Georgia plantations, she begged him to take her there to witness firsthand what she had previously only heard and read about in her native England.

Today in history, 158 years ago, the two-day Great Slave Auction began. It was largest such event in U.S. history. The sale became known as the Weeping Time because of the heartaches and torrential rains that fell during the two day period.  

The couple spent the winter of 1838-39 on the Sea Island plantations.  Fanny was shocked at the treatment of the slaves which she witnessed first-hand.  Fanny was appalled at both the living and working conditions for the slaves and complained bitterly to Butler.  She also voiced complaints about the plantation manager who had several mixed-race children by slave mothers.  All of this reinforced Fanny’s abolitionist feelings.  Kemble cataloged her stay in her diaries, which were eventually published some years later as Journal of a Residence on a Georgia Plantation (1838-1839).  Butler threatened to deny Fanny access to their daughters if she published anything of her observations about the plantation conditions in any form.  The couple did divorce in 1849, with Butler retaining custody of both daughters. 

By the middle of the nineteenth century, Butler was one of the richest men in the United States.  Unfortunately he was a profligate spender of his personal resources, and a very imprudent investor in his business dealings.  His inheritance was being frittered away.  Pierce Butler led the life of a wealthy gentleman of leisure and incurred large gambling debts. It was these two factors that necessitated the appointment of a group of trustees who, in 1856, seized control of his financial assets in an effort to return him to solvency. Over the next few years the trustees proceeded to sell off several Butler properties. 

By 1859 the trustees were still incapable of extricating Pierce Butler from his debts.  The trustees decided that the “movable property” on the Georgia plantations would be split between Pierce and his brother John.  Pierce’s half of the slaves would be sold at auction to discharge his remaining financial obligations.  Today in history, 158 years ago, on March 2, 1859, the two-day Great Slave Auction began.  It was the largest such auction in the history of the United States. 

The slave auction took place at the Ten Broeck Racetrack three miles outside Savannah, GA. Four hundred thirty-six slaves were to be put on the auction block including men, women, children and infants. Word of the sale had spread through the South for weeks, drawing potential buyers from North and South Carolina, Virginia, Georgia, Alabama, and Louisiana. 

Four hundred and thirty-six persons were advertised in the sale catalog, but only four hundred and twenty-nine were sold. Those not sold were either ill or disabled.  The sale split families apart from their homes and other family members.  The sale became known as the Weeping Time both because of the heartaches and torrential rains that came down during the two-day sale. 

Historian and writer William “Doc” Halliday can be reached at .


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