Slave-trading site yields tantalizing finds
February 10, 1994
ByPamela J. Cressey
Alexandria slaves in the 1700s and early 1800s were predominately owned by local people. Slave and owner resided together in the same urban lot. The buying and selling of slaves occurred through advertisements and auctions for individuals or small groups. But after 1808, slave traders changed the demographics of Alexandria's slave population. In that year, Congress outlawed the importation of African slaves. Thus, interstate slave trade increased to meet demand. About that same time local farmers were faced with declining productivity of their overworked soils and a depressed economy. They sold their slaves to Alexandria's slave traders for ready cash. The City`s black inhabitants now included thousands of transient men, women and children awaiting shipment and resale.
The traders acquired many slaves from the surrounding agricultural area and amassed them in slave "pens" or "jails" for later shipment farther south. One such establishment was located at 1315 Duke Street, now a site on the National Register of Historic Places. In 1828, Isaac Franklin and John Armfield opened their slave trading business at this location. In May 1828 they advertized in the Alexandria Gazette:
"...we wish to purchase one hundred and fifty likely young negroes of both sexes between the ages of 8 and 25 years. Persons who wish to sell will do well to give us a call, as we are determined to give more than any other purchasers...."
By 1835, Franklin and Armfield controlled nearly half of the slave trade by sea between New Orleans and the Virginia/Maryland area. Eventually the business was sold to Washington, D. C. dealers Charles Price and John Cook after the district outlawed the importation of slaves for resale. In the several Civil War photographs of the building, the sign "Price, Birch & Co. Dealers in Slaves" is prominently displayed, although it was used during that period as an Union jail.
Engineering Science, Inc. conducted archaeological excavations at the site in 1884 for the owners, J. Peter and Betty Dunston. Many of the artifacts found in the excavations dated to periods after the slave trading business. However, about a foot below the basement floor some artifacts were discovered which may date to its use as a slave pen. They include ceramics, ginger beer bottle fragments, an unglazed clay marble, an orange clay pipestem, and a 1857 copper one cent piece.
Perhaps one of the most intriguing finds is much older than the site itself. Embedded in soil under the basement floor was a copper coin from the Ch'ing Dynasty. It can be associated with the Chinese Emperor Ch'ien-lung, 1736-1795. We do not know the owner of the coin or the story of its migration from China to an Alexandria slave pen. Could one of the slaves waiting for shipment have worn this as a talisman? Did a merchant or ship captain lose it while doing business with the slave traders?
The coin and the hundreds of other artifacts excavated at this site have been donated to the City of Alexandria. It can be viewed in the current exhibition at the Alexandria Archaeology Museum.
Pamela Cressey is the Alexandria City Archaeologist.
The Alexandria Archaeology Museum in the Torpedo Factory Art Center, 105 N. Union St., Studio 327, is open Tuesday through Sunday. Call 703-838-4399 for times and more information.
Two sides of a Chinese coin discovered during archaeological investigation of one of Alexandria's slave trading businesses, 1315 Duke Street.