Slave Catcher's Receipt
It is hard to imagine a time where not only were some people considered property, but there was an industry built around this concept. Our group explored this part of history by studying a receipt for the return of an escaped slave by a resident of Salem, North Carolina, named E.J. Buckwalter. The receipt itself details the financial transaction between a slave owner, Buckwalter and the slave catcher. It was written on what looks to be a worn down loose leaf sheet of paper in a formal script, but the writing has faded over time, rendering many of the contents difficult to interpret. However, after using a photo editing software, some of the writing was able to be read. The transaction was made in March of 1865, proving that slavery and the recapturing of fugitive slaves was still prominent in this time period. The receipt consists of various charges, including postage, jail fees, travel fees, and various others that were illegible. These different costs resulted in the total sum of the receipt between the slaveholder and the slave catcher to be $206.80.
This is just a part of researching historical objects and the history of this particular object is thus incomplete. After conducting multiple searches on different ancestry databases, it was impossible to determine which specific E.J. Buckwalter was relevant to this receipt and it was too tough to decipher the name of the slave catcher on the paper. To overcome this obstacle, it was attempted to focus less on the receipt and the contents themselves, but instead to try to expand on the culture and legislature that caused the transaction to happen in the first place. Additionally, since it was determined that the transaction took place in the state of North Carolina, information regarding slavery and prices for slave transactions in North Carolina were researched and used to understand the prevalence of this kind of deal and all of the different components that it takes to make it happen. Thus, there is very little history specifically related to this individual object, so it has been decided to use this object to focus on the greater ideas of slavery in the South at this time period and the timeline that followed including the concepts of slave catchers and laws the focused on enslaved people.
Slavery gripped America in the years leading up to the Civil War and was especially prevalent in the South, including North Carolina. North Carolina even today is a very agriculturally centered state and the same held true back in the days of slavery. When we think of slavery from a modern perspective, it is an often held belief that most people owned enslaved people, but this is not true because enslaved people were expensive. It is hard to justify this with contemporary thinking, but enslaved people were a luxury good and as such commanded a luxury price. Prices varied from state to state, and also fluctuated based on the gender of the enslaved person and their “quality.” In an 1863 article from the New York Times, it is said that “Twenty-five hundred dollars, then, may be taken as the standard price of first-class slaves in the Confederacy; but when it is remembered that this is in Confederate money, which is worth less than one-twelfth its face in gold, it will be seen that the real price, by this standard, is only about $200” (“Market Price of Slaves”). The article goes on to say that in Kentucky, where the prices of enslaved people were the highest, enslaved people ranged from seven to twelve hundred dollars a piece. These numbers do not seem extraordinarily high, but one must take into consideration that these prices were in the 1863 dollar and adjustments must be made. Using a currency calculator (in2013dollars.com), the standard price of an enslaved person was $200, which would be $4097.06 in 2020 money and an enslaved person in Kentucky would cost between fourteen and twenty four thousand dollars. These are clearly large investments for people to make and as such, only the wealthiest could afford having a lot of enslaved people and most people had none at all. When looking at the Buckwalter document, he was willing to pay $206 in 1865 for the return of his enslaved person, which would be $3262 today. Enslaved people were highly sought after and commanded luxurious prices all across the South.
By the year 1790, when the first Census of the United States was taken, enslaved people in North Carolina numbered 100,783. The numbers steadily increased for every census, going to 133,296 in 1800, 205,017 in 1820, 245,817 in 1840, and 331,059 in 1860. This was the final census in which enslaved people were accounted for due to the abolition of slavery in 1863. (US Census) Enslaved people in North Carolina amounted to about a third of the total population by 1860, although this percentage was on the lower end for Southern states. In a map that diagrammed the percentage of each county’s enslaved population, North Carolina remained on the lower end save for a few eastern counties. For example, Forsyth County, the site of Salem, had an enslaved population of 14.7% of the total. Neighboring counties such as Guilford and Davidson each had percentages of 18.7%. As one moved farther west in North Carolina, the percentages got lower, primarily due to the mountainous terrain. These settlers had less need of enslaved people because there were less large plantations. Eastern North Carolina had higher rates of slavery, but these rates were still low when compared to the neighboring states of Virginia and South Carolina. Both of these states had numerous counties in which enslaved people accounted for over 70% of the total population. States further west had higher rates of slavery as well, especially along the Mississippi River. In many counties in Louisiana, Mississippi, and Arkansas, enslaved people accounted for over 80% of the total population (Hergeishemer & Leonhardt).
Bringing enslaved into North Carolina proved to be more difficult than the settlers who lived there would have liked, as North Carolina at the time had few ports because of the Outer Banks. Enslaved people were therefore imported to either Virginia or South Carolina. Slavery in the Carolina territory extended as far back as the mid 1600s, as referenced by the Fundamental Constitution of Carolina drafted in 1669. Article 10 of this Constitution states “Every freeman of Carolina shall have absolute power and authority over his negro slaves, of what opinion or religion soever” (Fundamental Constitution of Carolina). While this law came into effect over a century before the founding of the United States, it remained in effect essentially until slavery was outlawed. The population of enslaved people was small at first, with numbers under a thousand going into the 1700s, but the population steadily grew as the demand for enslaved people went up. More settlers were coming to the Carolina territory and with them came their enslaved people. In 1774, the North Carolina Provincial Congress banned the import of enslaved people from any other territory which preceded the national ban on imported enslaved people by over three decades.
Enslaved people that had been freed in North Carolina were guaranteed the right to vote by the Constitution of North Carolina in 1776, but this was not to last as that right was later stripped from them in 1835 (North Carolina Constitution). In 1816, the Manumission Society of North Carolina was formed. Manumission is when a slave owner frees their enslaved people, and many states across the North and the South had their own manumission groups. In North Carolina, the manumission society consisted of abolitionists, and interestingly enough, members of the Religious Society of Friends, more commonly known as the Quakers, whose beliefs stated that God was within everyone and were thus fundamentally opposed to slavery. (Sowle) In 1850, the United States passed the second Fugitive Slave Act, which guaranteed the right of the slave owner to pursue and capture an escaped enslaved person. EJ Buckwalter used this law to his advantage when he put a “bounty” on his escaped enslaved person and while it might seem archaic and barbaric to a modern audience, Buckwalter was perfectly within his legal right to do so in 1865. By 1860, North Carolina had a greater percentage of political leaders owning enslaved people than any other state in America, but this would soon change. The passing of the Emancipation Proclamation in 1863 effectively ended slavery in the Union, but it would take two more years until the ratification of the Thirteenth Amendment to fully outlaw slavery in the South. This ratification to the Constitution freed the remaining slaves in the country, including forty thousand enslaved people in North Carolina.
The passing of the second Fugitive Slave Act in 1850 was a result of many Southerners voicing their opinions on how there should be more effective laws put in place regarding fugitive slaves. This law was especially important in 1860 North Carolina, as the state had the highest percentage of political leaders owning enslaved people of any state in America. This law allowed for the recapture of these people who had broken free in the United States. It additionally did not permit the enslaved to “testify on their own behalf, nor were they permitted a trial by jury” (“Fugitive Slave Acts”). This was the second Fugitive Slave Law that had been put in place as the enactment of one previously had been made in 1793. The new law in 1850 however came with new provisions to help prevent runaways and much harsher punishments as anyone who was involved with the escape of the slave were faced with heavy penalties. Additionally, the implementation of this law resulted in a lot of sectional hostility and it led to an increase in abolitionists and laws in many of the northern states that regarded people and their personal freedom. This legislature remained intact for most of the Civil War, starting in April of 1861, because it aimed to prevent enslaved people from running away in the border states as these slaveholders held obligations with the Union government. However, this act was finally repealed on June 28, 1864, almost a whole year before the end of the American Civil War (“Fugitive Slave Acts”).
Southerners were very anxious for this law to be passed and they believed there was a major problem of fugitive slaves due in large part to the abolitionists that were working in the North. However, as time passed, many Southerners did not believe that this law was being enforced that heavily and it convinced a lot of Southerners that their institution of slavery was in danger. There were different criteria that were used to evaluate whether this law was being enforced. For example, the annual number of fugitive slaves were compared from year to year and from when the law was passed, this number remained pretty constant before the Civil War (Campbell 92-93). Partly due to the new Fugitive Slave Law, in the 1850s and early 1860s, sectional tensions continued to increase as slave catchers, or people who were paid to go retrieve fugitive slaves for the slaveholders, became really prominent. According to The Wilmington Herald that was published in Wilmington, North Carolina on the 15th of February, 1866, the colored delegation sent a reply to the president, Andrew Johnson. In this reply they stated that slave catchers were men who were called upon by the slaveholders of runaway slaves. These men were sent to do anything in their power to retrieve the enslaved persons and they would be benefitted for doing this. The delegation also included the fact that these acts caused a lot of the African Americans and other abolitionists to “hate and dread” these white people (The Colored Delegation 1).
Most men who were tasked with retrieving the enslaved people were extremely brutal and ruthless. They did not have anything else on their minds when attempting to capture the slaves. For example, one very well known slave catcher from Maryland who went by the name of Thomas McCreary, was never afraid to use his "double brace of six-shooters, and his Arkansas tooth-pick" (Maxson). On the other hand, many times these slave catchers and slaveholders would experience and undergo violent attacks and resistance when trying to recover the fugitives which demonstrated a popular northern belief that slave catching was a very threatening act. In some northern towns, fugitive slaves were particularly encouraged to keep themselves armed to protect against slave catchers. In many of the northern communities, African Americans and abolitionists would come together to help protect the fugitive slaves and to attempt to thwart the efforts of the slave catchers to recapture these fugitive slaves. There were a number of different incidents that “evoked a contest of unspoken values, norms, and styles of violence that left participants on all sides shocked, enraged, and embittered” (Churchill).
When slave catchers had to travel north to attempt to recapture the runaways slaves, there were three distinct regions that they most likely were traveling through. First, there was the Lower North region that was known as crossing over the border from the North to the South. This territory extended approximately “up to forty miles north of the Mason-Dixon Line and the Ohio River and east of the Mississippi River” (Churchill). This region continued to have a lot of southern influence on it as the territory is where a lot of the recovering of the fugitive slaves occured. A lot of these capturing of fugitive slaves would occur in this territory due to the catchers having easy access to the region. There additionally was a great amount of residents in this territory who were for slavery and considered proslavery violence to be a normal performance (Churchill).
A bit to the North of the first region was the second territory that included most of the middle and top parts of the states above the Mason-Dixon Line like Illinois, Indiana, Ohio, Pennsylvania, and New Jersey. This region proved to have a completely different view on the catching of slaves than the first region. Many towns and communities would attempt to do whatever they could to prevent the recovery of the fugitive slaves. This region was known for accepting and supporting the concepts of law, justice, and all of the values that a human being should possess. However, if the slaveholders did not use violence against the communities in this region to try to re enslave escapees, then they rarely faced resistance as they were using legal processes to recapture the slaves (Churchill).
Lastly, the third distinct region that slave catchers may have had to travel through was the most contested region to the North. This territory included most parts of the New England states and the northeastern parts of Ohio, Michigan, and Wisconsin. Slave catchers and slaveholders that would travel to these areas were met with a lot of hostile behavior by mainly abolitionists and free blacks. Even if these attempts to recapture the slaves were done in a peaceful way, they did not go well as the communities argued “that attempts, by any means, to re-enslave a resident of ‘free soil’ constituted an assault on the entire community” (Churchill). The worst reactions from the communities would occur if the slave catchers attempted to use violence as crowds would form and they would publically induce violence due to their views on antislavery (Churchill). These different distinct regions were really prominent in the 1850s, but then towards the end of the 1850s, slave catchers more and more entered into the first and second regions and they became more assertive. This led to many different shameless events occurring from the slave catchers and the attitude in these distinct regions about the idea of recapturing slaves became much more similar to that of the third region. Ultimately, by the end of the 1850s and the start of the 1860s, almost all of Northern soil had a similar view on slave catchers as they became opposed to slave catching in all of its different structures (Churchill).
Another piece of legislature relating to the slave trade industry was the Emancipation Proclamation. The Emancipation Proclamation went into effect on January 1st, 1863. This receipt is dated March, 1865, meaning during this time “all persons held as slaves” in confederate states “are, and henceforward shall be free” (Emancipation Proclamation). Then why do we have evidence of not only slavery, but an industry surrounding slavery two years after it was supposed to cease from existing? This is because the South viewed this law as ludicrous and unconstitutional, and “Lincoln had no power to announce even a constitutional act in the Confederacy, because it [owed] him no allegiance” (Moser, 57). Many North Carolinian newspapers publicly bashed Lincoln for the Emancipation Proclamation, claiming that he had gone too far, that it was a “clear confession of the inability of the whites of the North to crush out a rebellion'' (Daily Journal Wilmington 1862). Many editors also predicted that not only would this act further unify the South, it would also bring foreign aid to the Confederacy.
The Emancipation Proclamation did neither of those things in North Carolina. In fact, the editors could not have been more wrong. Instead of unifying the South and strengthening their fight against the Union, North Carolianian armies saw a significant increase in disaffection. To understand why this happened, we have to look at years leading up to the Civil War. In 1845 the Governor of North Carolina, William Graham, said “the line of partition between State and Federal powers, should be kept distinctly marked; and while those yielded by the States should be liberally exercised for the general good, those retained should be carefully watched over and preserved” (Weekly Raleigh Register 1845). Many believe the Civil War was mainly just fought over the existence of slavery, but that is not how it began. Increasing national programs and nationalization from the North conflicted with the South’s loyalty to States’ power, resulting in the Confederacy. This culture of State pride in the South was so strong that “according to legend, all the white population and even most of the slaves living in the seceded states accepted wholeheartedly the principles of the Confederacy and fought courageously for its existence” during the beginning of the war (Moser, 53). It was the change in people’s perception of the war that led to the drastic disaffection.
Days after the Emancipation Proclamation was announced, the Confederate Congress discussed possible retaliation legislature. Ideas ranged in extremity from arresting anyone caught trying to enforce the Proclamation, to executing anyone caught trying to incite slave rebellion (Moser, 59). Although no legislature was passed, just this discussion by the Confederate Congress set the stage for the newspapers to voice opinions on the matter. Ironically, it was the newspaper editors, the same people that claimed the Emancipation Proclamation would further unify the South, that played a key role in changing the public’s perception. In their rants against the Emancipation Proclamation, many North Carolinian newspapers emphasized “that the chief design of [Lincoln’s] party in the persecution of this war, is the destruction of slavery” (North Carolina Standard 1862). This all came in October of 1862, right after the Confederate Congress passed an amendment to the Conscription Act “which established a system of class exemptions from military service” (Moser, 55).
The combination of these events made the public lose faith in the Confederacy. What started as a fight for state’s rights and liberty appeared to have become the poor fighting a war for the rich, as “seven-tenths of [North Carolina’s] people owned no slaves, and, to say the least of it felt no great and enduring enthusiasm for its preservations” (Moser, 55). At the start of the Civil War “in its initial call for volunteers, the Davis administration received more state militia than it could arm and equip” and by the end it had over 100,000 men desert (Moser, 53). Although the increasing lack of supplies played a role in this, this drastic change in dedication towards the Confederacy was due to the change in perception of what the South was fighting for. This transaction between the slave catcher and the slave holder took place when the Confederacy was already declining. However, slavery was still very much at large in the South.
This object has an incomplete story behind it. However, despite not knowing all of the facts surrounding this document, a complex story was still able to be told. It is important to tell these stories so we may better understand the importance of slavery in North Carolina. Instead of ignoring some of history’s grim details, it is crucial to address the culture and economics that led to transactions of actual human beings. From looking at the history of slavery as an institution dating back to the founding of North Carolina, to the prices of slaves across the South, up to specific pieces of legislature surrounding slavery, it can be seen how the slave industry affected all aspects of life; economics, government, social, religion, and more. And although this essay attempts to completely cover the conditions surrounding this receipt and tell the complete story, this essay does not even scratch the surface.
Object biography by Andrew Beecher, Casey Scoggin, and Mac Vivona, Fall 2020.
The standard price of an enslaved person was sold for $200, which would be $4097.06 today.
Buckwalter was willing to pay $206 in 1865 for the return of his enslaved person, which would be $3262 today.
“By 1860, North Carolina had a greater percentage of political leaders owning enslaved people than any other state.”
“The Thirteenth Amendment ... freed the remaining slaves in the country, including forty thousand enslaved people in North Carolina.”
The Fugitive Slave Act of 1850
"The Fugitive Slave Acts were a pair of federal laws that allowed for the capture and return of runaway enslaved people within the territory of the United States. Enacted by Congress in 1793, the first Fugitive Slave Act authorized local governments to seize and return escapees to their owners and imposed penalties on anyone who aided in their flight. Widespread resistance to the 1793 law led to the passage of the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850, which added more provisions regarding runaways and levied even harsher punishments for interfering in their capture."
The revised Fugitive Slave act of 1850 was the centerpiece of the Compromise of 1850. It forcibly compelled citizens to assist in the capture of runaways, increasing the penalty for interfering with the rendition process to $1,000 and six months in jail."
You can read more about this at history.com.
Slave Catchers and Violence
To learn more about these regions and the variety of Northern responses to slave catchers see Churchill's "When the Slave Catchers Came to Town: Cultures of Violence along the Underground Railroad," which explains that "prior to the Civil War, slaveholders and slave catchers experienced violent resistance in over 150 incidents when they tried to recover fugitives from enslavement in the North.
An analysis of these cases illustrates that the cultural collision at the heart of the incident in Salem was a common feature in fugitive slave rescues. These cases evoked a contest of unspoken values, norms, and styles of violence that left participants on all sides shocked, enraged, and embittered. These confrontations suggest that many residents of the North found the assumptions, norms, and style of violence embedded in slave catching to be culturally alien and threatening. Furthermore, patterns in the specific behaviors that triggered a violent reaction from Northern residents, and in the style of the resulting antislavery violence, suggest that slave catchers encountered distinct cultures of violence in different regions of the North."
Campbell, Stanley W. Slave Catchers : Enforcement of the Fugitive Slave Law, 1850-1860, The
University of North Carolina Press, 1970.
Churchill, Robert H. “When the Slave Catchers Came to Town: Cultures of Violence along the
Underground Railroad.” Journal of American History, vol. 105, no. 3, Dec. 2018, pp. 514–37. academic.oup.com, doi:10.1093/jahist/jay277.
“Constitution of North Carolina.” The Avalon Project : Constitution of North Carolina : December 18,
Daily Journal, Wilmington, 30 Sept. 1862.
"Fugitive Slave Acts." Britannica Academic, Encyclopædia Britannica, 1 Aug. 2019.
“Fundamental Constitutions of Carolina.” The Avalon Project : The Fundamental Constitutions of
Carolina : March 1, 1669, avalon.law.yale.edu/17th_century/nc05.asp.
Hergesheimer, E.; Leonhardt, Th. “Map Showing the Distribution of the Slave Population of the Southern
States of the United States Compiled from the Census of 1860.”
“Inflation Rate between 1635-2020: Inflation Calculator.” U.S. Inflation Calculator: 1635→2020,
Department of Labor Data, www.in2013dollars.com/.
“MARKET PRICE OF SLAVES.” The New York Times, The New York Times, 22 Aug. 1863,
Maxson, Stanley D. Review of Stealing Freedom along the Mason-Dixon Line: Thomas McCreary, the
Notorious Slave Catcher from Maryland, by Milt Diggins. Civil War History, vol. 63 no. 2, 2017, p. 210-212. Project MUSE, doi:10.1353/cwh.2017.0030.
Moser, Harold. “Reaction In North Carolina to the Emancipation Proclamation.” JSTOR, Jan. 1967.
North Carolina Standard, Raleigh, 1 Oct. 1862.
The Colored Delegation, “Reply of the Colored Delegation to the President.” The Wilmington Herald, 15 Feb. 1866, p. 1.
Weekly Raleigh Register, Raleigh, 3 Jan. 1845.
US Census Bureau. “Census.gov.” Census.gov, www.census.gov/.