A 1739 depiction of the east end of Tradd Street in Charleston. The Court Room sits above the Exchange.
Friday, September 13, 2019 Dr. Nic Butler, CCPL Historian

Charleston was once the most active marketplace for enslaved people in North America. While incoming Africans were usually sold from the decks of the vessels that brought them here, enslaved people who already lived and worked in the South Carolina Lowcountry during the colonial era (1670–1775) were often sold at open-air auctions within the heart of the capital town. The surviving evidence related to the location of these sales forms a trail of clues leading to a long-forgotten site in Charleston once known as “the usual place.”

The English colonists who settled South Carolina in 1670 immediately began importing people of African descent to work as enslaved laborers. Their numbers were very small at first, but increased steadily in the ensuing decades until enslaved people formed a majority of the population by the year 1708. Once there was an established population of enslaved people laboring in the South Carolina Lowcountry, the selling and re-selling of these enslaved residents was not far behind. The death and indebtedness of property owners surely triggered the earliest local sales of enslaved people in the 1670s. From the owner’s point of view, the simplest mode of sale was by private contract, in which two or more individuals privately agreed on the price and terms of conveyance. This process often takes time, however, and the financial circumstances associated with estate liquidation and debt relief are not necessarily conducive to the relatively intimate, sometimes open-ended negotiations of a private sale.

The most expeditious mode of liquidating chattel (moveable) property was by public outcry or auction, also known in early South Carolina as vendue. This ancient term, which came to the English lexicon by way of Latin and French, simply denotes the practice of bringing together the goods belonging to a motivated seller (the “vendor”) and an interested public audience with the expectation that the goods on offer would be sold and immediately discharged to the highest bidder. The seller might set a minimum price or “reserve” in an auction, but the financial pressures that motivated the sale often press him or her to accept the highest bid, whatever the price might be.

Sales by public outcry also required the assistance of a third party to act as an auctioneer. It was his duty to inform the audience of the terms of the sales, to verbally conduct the sale of individual lots, and to act as a sort of master-of-ceremonies for the event. In return, the auctioneer earned a small commission from the sale price of each item he sold. At the end of a good day’s work, especially one featuring the sale of numerous enslaved people, the auctioneer’s commission could be quite substantial. Depending on the nature of the sale in question, the auctioneer in colonial-era South Carolina might have been an agent hired by the seller, a licensed and bonded “vendue master,” or a government agent (such as the provost marshal, admiralty marshal, sheriff, or master-in-chancery) who conducted the sale in accordance with a judgement handed down by a court of law.[1]

From the beginning of the colony through the end of the practice of slavery in South Carolina, the most common location for the public sale of enslaved people was the plantation where they resided and worked. It was the cheapest, most efficient, and perhaps safest method of conducting the sale, especially when dealing with large groups of people held in bondage against their will. Property owners would communicate information about the date of the sale to their neighbors by word of mouth, or written notices posted at local landmarks, or in published newspaper advertisements. Interested buyers would travel to the plantation in question on the appointed day, view and inspect the people on offer, and bid on the property that attracted their interest. The highest bidders settled a method of payment with the owner—either cash, credit, or barter—and then departed with the their newly-acquired chattel in tow.

The next best alternative for rural auction sales was to transport enslaved people from their home plantations to a nearby landmark that was well-known within the community. By transporting enslaved people “off the farm,” so to speak, to a nearby crossroads, property owners hoped to attract larger audiences that might engage in more competitive bidding and drive sale prices higher. In the Charleston area, sales of this nature took place at important neighborhood sites like ferry landings and villages. Think of places like Ashley Ferry, Stono Ferry, Codner’s Ferry on the Wando River, Hibben’s Ferry on the Cooper River, Rantowle’s Bridge, Strawberry Ferry, and once-vibrant rural villages like Wiltown, Radnor, Dorchester, and Cainhoy.

The least convenient, but potentially most lucrative alternative for selling chattel goods and enslaved people was to transport them—by boat or over land—to urban Charleston. While its population waxed and waned according to the seasons of the year, as planters moved between their townhouses and plantations, the capital of colonial-era South Carolina hosted the densest and most affluent concentration of white customers in the province. The density of potential customers led, in theory at least, to increased bidding at pubic auctions of all kinds, which usually resulted in higher sale prices than might be achieved at a rural sale. This potential for increased profits created an incentive for sellers to bring their goods to town, and Charleston developed into a significant regional hub for vendue sales. Rural planters in need of laborers might travel to Charleston to purchase new hands, or they might simply send instructions to a “factor”—a commission agent—in town who would purchase people at auction on their behalf and then deliver them to the customer’s rural address.

So, where in urban Charleston were enslaved residents of South Carolina sold at public auction? The answer to that simple question varies according to the time frame in question, and it becomes an increasingly complicated matter in the years after the American Revolution. With that fact in mind, let’s confine our present query to the colonial era, from the earliest days of Charleston to the 1770s, and save the more complicated parts of this discussion for later episodes.

To my knowledge, there are no surviving documents that describe the specific locations of vendue or auction sales of human beings within urban Charleston prior to the publication of the town’s first newspapers in 1732. There are certainly extant documents that confirm that enslaved people were being sold in Charleston prior to 1732, but none mention specific geographic locations. From the early months of 1732 until the commencement of the American Revolution, however, the extant newspapers contain many hundreds of notices for auction sales of real estate and chattel property, including enslaved men, women, and children. While newly-arrived African captives were generally sold on board the ships that brought them to Charleston, as we discussed in last week’s episode, the auction sales of resident enslaved people were conducted in a different manner at a different location. According to my personal survey of colonial-era newspaper advertisements, the most commonly mentioned location of such sales was a site described simply as “the usual place.”[2] In the absence of a functioning time-traveling device to transport us back to colonial-era Charleston so we can ask directions to “the usual place,” we have to think creatively and search for clues among surviving documents that can help us to decipher the meaning of that mysterious phrase.

Let’s imagine that we wanted to sell a few items or people at public outcry or vendue in colonial-era Charleston. “The Bay,” now called East Bay Street, facing the Cooper River, is the focus of the early town’s bustling commerce. The west side of the Bay is divided into a number of lots generally occupied by buildings that housed retail shops on the ground floor with residences above. If we were to set up an auction in front of one of these shops, the proprietor might rightly claim that we were blocking the path of his customers and chase us away. So we cross to the east side of the street and try again. Two problems immediately appear. First, there’s a brick wall called the “wharf wall” or “curtain line” along the east side of East Bay Street, nearly half a mile in length, that stood above the surface of the ground from the 1690s to the mid-1780s. That brick structure severely restricts the amount of space on east side of the street, and we can’t hold an auction in the middle of a busy commercial thoroughfare. Second, the only openings in that brick wall function as the entrances to privately-owned wharves. You’re not welcome to stage an auction on one of those wharves unless you’re going to pay a hefty fee to its owner or manager. In search of a free and accessible site for our auction, we move again to the only public sites along the east side of East Bay Street—the eastern ends of the town’s principal east-west streets.

At the turn of the eighteenth century, the South Carolina legislature reserved the eastern end of Cooper or Broad Street for public use, as well as the eastern ends of the “north street” (which became Dock Street, later Queen Street) and the “south street” (which acquired the name Tradd Street). Because the east end of the “north street” was a watery inlet until the mid-1700s (hence the name Dock Street), we can eliminate that location as a possible auction site until the early years of the nineteenth century (see Episode No. 19 on the origins of Vendue Range). In 1701, however, the east end of Broad Street became the site of a large half-moon-shaped brick fortification and a masonry “Watch House” or police station. At the same time, the provincial government also built a broad brick redan, or v-shaped fortification, at the east end of Tradd Street. For the purposes of staging an open-air sale by public outcry or vendue in early eighteenth century Charleston, therefore, these were the only two locations available for such sales.

So, which of these two locations became known as “the usual place” for auction sales in colonial-era Charleston—the east end of Broad Street, or the east end of Tradd Street? When I first encountered this question several years ago, my initial response was to assume the obvious answer was Broad Street, for several reasons. First, because Broad Street was the town’s principal and most central thoroughfare, the focus of community attention. Before the commencement of Charleston’s first newspaper in 1732, the most common method of advertising or giving public notice of events or decrees was to post a written message at the Watch House at the east end of Broad Street. Second, because Broad Street was and is approximately twice as wide as Tradd Street (66 vs. 33 feet, more or less), its east end afforded much more physical room for movement. Third, the public space at the east end of Broad Street was the earliest designated site for market activity in Charleston. By a law ratified in 1710, which was almost certainly based on common use, the sole authorized place for the town’s daily food market, selling meat, vegetables, fruit, and fish, was “at or near the Watch House in Charles Town at the end of the Broad als [meaning “also known as”] Cooper Street.”[3] Finally, we know for certain that slave auctions were commonly held on the north side of the present “Old Exchange Building,” located on the site of the earlier Watch House at the east end of Broad Street, from the time that building opened in 1772 to the early 1850s.

Considering all these reasons, it seems logical to conclude that the public space around the Watch House and food market at the east end of Broad Street was “the usual place” for the auction sales of resident enslaved people in colonial-era Charleston. To be fair, however, we have to consider the alternative. What did the east end of Tradd Street have to offer?

Prior to the construction of a brick redan at the turn of the eighteenth century, the east end of Tradd Street was mostly underwater at high tide and at low tide a vacant mudflat. Once built, the redan created a triangular patch of useful public land, adjacent to the open square formed by the intersection of East Bay and Tradd Streets. Unencumbered by buildings, this public space might have attracted vendue sales in the early years of the eighteenth century, but I know of no documentary sources that describe any sort of activity at this site prior to the year 1723. From that time onward, however, the east end of Tradd Street became one of the most important but least remembered commercial spots in colonial-era Charleston.

In January of 1723, representatives of the short-lived municipal government of “Charles City and Port,” chartered in 1722, obtained permission from the South Carolina legislature to erect a new public market at the east end of Tradd Street. That building, a two story masonry structure of unknown dimensions, was designed as the first public market building in the colony, and it was finished and ready for business by early October 1723. At that same moment, however, South Carolinians learned that the British government had voided the charter of “Charles City and Port,” so that corporate entity dissolved and reverted back to unincorporated “Charles Town.” In January 1724, a prominent local merchant named Andrew Allen (1667–1735) then petitioned the provincial legislature for permission to claim exclusive use of the “house” that he had built in 1723 “for a market place” for the now-defunct municipality. The legislature granted his request, but only for a period of twelve years, on the condition that Mr. Allen would “leave open the lower part of the said building,” like an arcade, which was appointed for use as a public market.[4]

Eight years later, in the spring of 1732, many of Charleston’s earliest surviving newspapers contain advertisements for auction sales at the east end of Tradd Street, “at the new Market House,” or “under the new Market House.” Confirming that the open-air ground floor of this building was being used for auction purposes, not just for the sale of foodstuffs, a number of colonial-era advertisements identified this structure as “the Vendue House” in Charleston.[5] In short, this building was Charleston’s original Exchange building—a public venue used for a variety of commercial transactions. So, was this site at the east end of Tradd Street the popular auction location once known “as the usual place”? Yes, I believe it was, but let’s review the evidence to confirm this hypothesis.

The relatively-spacious public site at the east end of Broad Street seems like a logical candidate for being “the usual place” of vendue sales in colonial-era Charleston, but the extant newspapers don’t contain much supporting evidence. By comparison, however, the colonial-era newspapers contain many more—perhaps hundreds of notices—for auctions sales of goods and people, at or under the Market or Vendue House at the east of Tradd Street. Based on the preponderance of this evidence, therefore, I’m convinced that “the usual place” for the auction sale of resident enslaved people within the urban confines of colonial-era Charleston was under or adjacent to the two-story masonry structure that once stood at the east end of Tradd Street.

Andrew Allen, who in 1724 gained a twelve-year lease on the upper story of the building at the east end of Tradd Street, probably used that space as his business office. After Mr. Allen’s death in September 1735 and the expiration of Allen’s lease in the spring of 1736, the provincial government of South Carolina paid carpenters in 1737 to outfit the upper story of the Market or Vendue House as the colony’s sole courtroom.[6] This transformation of the second floor space did not affect the auction sales conducted in the open-air arcade below or adjacent to the building, however. The map of urban Charleston published in June 1739 under the title “Ichnography of Charles Town” identifies the building at the east end of Tradd Street (letter "I") with the phrase “Court House above and Exchange below.” Similarly, the 1739 illustration of Charleston’s eastern waterfront, published under the title “Exact Prospect of Charles Town,” identifies the two-story structure at the east end of Tradd Street (letter “B”) simply as “ye Court House.”

Circumstantial evidence suggests that this important public building was damaged by the major fire that consumed most of Charleston’s southern waterfront on November 18th, 1740. The degree to which this conflagration disrupted the tradition of auction sales at the east end of Tradd Street is unclear, but it certainly had a protracted effect on activity at this site. In March of 1741, just a few months after the fire, for example, South Carolina’s various courts of justice moved from the foot of Tradd Street back to their previous venue, located within an upper story of the public tavern located at the northeast corner of Broad and Church Streets.[7] At the same time, the phrases “usual place,” “Market House,” and “Vendue House” disappeared from the local newspapers after the fire of 1740 and did not reappear until the end of 1747 and early 1748. Coincidently, the extant Charleston newspapers contain dozens of advertisements for the auction sales of small groups of enslaved people “at the Watch House” at the east end of Broad Street during the finite period of March 1741 through February 1748.[8] The vendue house at the east end of Tradd Street must have been repaired or rebuilt during the 1740s, but I haven’t yet found any government records to document this work. Nevertheless, the extant newspapers provide ample evidence that auction sales of enslaved residents of South Carolina returned to the east end of Tradd Street in the late months of 1747 or the early months of 1748, and continued at that site without interruption until the early days of 1772.

What happened in early 1772 to change this traditional pattern? Sometime around the beginning of that year, the residents of Charleston witnessed the opening of an expensive and architecturally impressive new building at the east end of Broad Street, initially called the “new Vendue House” or the “new Exchange.” Constructed on the site of the old Watch House (which was demolished in late 1768), this new building began hosting vendue sales of property and people in early 1772 and immediately became the new and improved “usual place” for such sales.[9] The “old Vendue House” or “old Exchange” was removed from the east end of Tradd Street sometime in 1772, but I haven’t yet found any specific details related to its demolition. I think it’s significant, however, that a newspaper notice published in mid-January 1773 mentioned the recovery of some missing articles of clothing “near the old Vendue-place”—a phrase that suggests the old building at that site was now gone.[10]

The “new Exchange” that began hosting auction sales in early 1772 is, of course, that famous historic building now called the “Old Exchange and Provost Dungeon.” Through the final years of the colony of South Carolina and into the subsequent years of Revolution and statehood, that Exchange building served as a focal point for the sales of human beings who lived and died in South Carolina under the oppressive yoke of slavery. Newspaper advertisements published in the later years of the eighteenth century and the first half of the nineteenth century often mention that such sales were conducted on the north side of the Exchange, perhaps to make use of the shade created by the building’s broad walls. Based on this well-documented custom, we might imagine that colonial-era auctioneers also preferred to hold their vendue sales in the shade of the earlier Market or Vendue House at the east end of Tradd Street, on the north side of that long-forgotten building that stood for nearly half a century.

Now that we’ve covered the historical evidence spread across the length of Charleston’s colonial century, let’s review the what we’ve learned in a quick summary conclusion. In the earliest days of “new Charles Town” at its present location, from 1680 to around 1701, auction sales of goods and resident enslaved people probably took place at the eastern end of Broad Street, at its intersection with “the Bay” street, a site that formed the center of commerce in the early town. Following the construction of the brick Watch House at that site in 1701, and the nearly-simultaneous construction of a brick redan at the eastern end of Tradd Street, auctions sales of property and people probably migrated to the less-crowded latter location in the early years of the eighteenth century. The construction of a Market or Vendue House or Exchange at the intersection of Tradd and East Bay Streets in 1723 cemented that site’s reputation as “the usual place” for public auction within urban Charleston. Sales were held either “under” the open arcade of that building’s ground floor or in the shade of its north façade. Following a damaging neighborhood fire in November 1740, auction sales moved temporarily to the east end of Broad Street, on the north side of the Watch House, until late 1747. By the early months of 1748, sales by public outcry returned to the repaired Vendue House at the east end of Tradd Street, which continued to serve as “the usual place” for such sales through the end of 1771. By February of 1772, the “new Vendue House” or “new Exchange” constructed at the eastern end of Broad Street became the new site for Charleston’s auction sales, which continued to be held at that site until the early 1850s.

A historical marker recently erected near the north side of what is now called the “Old Exchange” commemorates the long history—approximately eighty years—of slave sales conducted at that important site. In the years after the American Revolution, however, Charlestonians witnessed a number of changes in the practices and venues associated with the auction sales of enslaved men, women, and children. Auction sites and auctioneers proliferated, and the story of this awful business became more complex in the early years of the nineteenth century. In late 1855, the City of Charleston ratified an ordinance that forced the auction sales of human beings out of public view and into private enclosures. This final phase of the domestic slave trade is now interpreted at the Old Slave Mart Museum, which is housed within the last remaining vestige of an actual “slave mart” on Chalmers Street.

Today’s discussion of the sites of slave auctions focused on identifying “the usual place” for such sales specifically during Charleston’s colonial era. In the interest of time, I’ve omitted a few geographic exceptions to the “usual” practices of that era, and I’ve also neglected to mention the location of slave sales in the colonial-era suburbs of Charleston that now form part of the city’s modern urban landscape. I’ll return to those topics in a future program, but now I think it’s time for a change of scenery. I hope you’ll join me next week, when I’ll introduce you to the dramatic story of Eliza McQueen, a homeless, teenage, unwed mother on death row in Charleston in 1747.


[1] The office of “Vendue Master” was created by the South Carolina General Assembly in a law titled “An Act for appointing a Publick [sic] Vendue Master, for the selling [of] such goods and merchandizes [sic] as shall be exposed to sale by publick [sic] out-cry,” ratified on 8 April 1710, the text of which is reproduced in Thomas Cooper, ed., The Statutes at Large of South Carolina, volume 2 (Columbia, S.C.: A. S. Johnston, 1837), 348–49. Note that the parameters of this colonial-era office differed from those of post-Revolutionary and Antebellum auctioneers.

[2] The earliest reference I’ve found to “the usual place” of vendue sales in Charleston is in the South Carolina Gazette, 26 January–2 February 1733/4: “To be sold for ready money by publick vendue on Wednesday the thirteenth of February 1733-4 at the usual place in Charlestown, a plantation being an island near Port-Royal, containing seventeen hundred acres, known by the name of St. Michael’s Head, or Gittens Island.”

[3] Act No. 294, “An Act to appoint and erect a Market in Charles Town, for the Publick [sic] sale of Provisions, and against Regrators [sic], Forestallers and Ingrossers [sic],” ratified on 8 April 1710. The full text of this law can be found at the South Carolina Department of Archives and History, in Nicholas Trott’s manuscript collection, “New Collection” of the Laws of South Carolina, pages 31–38.

[4] Information related to the origin of the “market house” at the east end of Tradd Street is found at the South Carolina Department of Archives and History, in the manuscript journal of the South Carolina Commons House of Assembly, 1722–24 (Green’s copy), between pages 149–445.

[5] The earliest use of the phrase “Market House” I found in South Carolina Gazette, 13–20 May 1732: “On Tuesday next, being the 23d instant, near the New Market, will be sold at publick [sic] Vendue for ready money, sundry medicines, also the Physical books and manuscripts of a physician lately deceased; several hogsheads of claret wine, taffatys [sic] and Persians; 3 quarter, 7 eighths, and yard wide garlix [sic], oznaburgh [sic] jackets and trowsers [sic], check shirts, felt hats, and sundry other goods, by Jacob Woolford.” The earliest notice for a slave sale at this location I found in South Carolina Gazette, 6–13 January 1732/3: “To be sold on Monday next, the 15th inst. at public vendue, under the New Market House, a parcel of choice house and plantation slaves, lately belonging to Col. Alexander Trench, deceased, by Richard Wigg, D[eputy]. V[endue]. M[aster].” For one of many examples of the use of the phrase “Vendue House,” see South Carolina Gazette, 27 October–1 November 1759: “To be sold by public outcry, at the vendue house in Charles Town, on Tuesday the 15th day of November next for ready money, two valuable young NEGROES, this country born, one of which is a wench, an exceeding good washer and ironer, and has been bro’t up to house-work, and attending on children; the other is a fellow, an exceeding good cook, and handy at any work about the house, and attending and looking after horses, &c.”

[6] For information related to the temporary use of the upper floor of the 1723 “Market House” as a courtroom, see the manuscript Journals of the South Carolina Commons House of Assembly, Nos. 9 and 10 (February–June 1736), at the South Carolina Department of Archives and History, and J. H. Easterby, ed., The Journal of the Commons House of Assembly, November 10, 1736–June 7, 1739 (Columbia: State Commercial Printing Company for the Historical Commission of South Carolina, 1951), 446, 486, 492.

[7] On 27 February 1741/2, the Commons House approved Charles Shepheard’s bill for £131 “for rent of and fitting up the Court Room,” in his tavern at the northeast corner of Broad and Church Streets, which account was added to the government’s budget of expenses for the period of 25 March 1741 to 25 March 1742. See J. H. Easterby, ed., The Journal of the Commons House of Assembly, May 18, 1741–July 10, 1742 (Columbia: State Commercial Printing Company for the Historical Commission of South Carolina, 1953), 443. The topic of court venues in colonial-era Charleston is amply discussed in the surviving journals of the South Carolina provincial assembly, but I will postpone delving into that topic until a later date.

[8] The following text represents three examples of advertised auction sales at the east end of Broad Street during the 1740s: South Carolina Gazette, 7–14 November 1741: “On Friday the 20th Instant will be sold at the Watch House, at publick [sic] Vendue for ready money, the Slaves of the late Mr. William Lassere, viz. three likely young Negro men, one woman and sucking child, one girl, and one boy about four years old, together with the household goods, &c., by [Deputy Vendue Master] Adam Beauchamp.” South Carolina Gazette, 29 March 1746: “To be sold at publick Vendue, at the Watch House, on Wednesday the 9th of April next, for twelve months credit, paying interest and giving security, several valuable plantation slaves, viz. three men, three women, and two boys, by Rawlins Lowndes, Provost Marshal. March 26, 1746.” South Carolina Gazette, 26 January 1747: “On Wednesday the 11th of February next, to be dispos’d of at publick [sic] sale under the Watch House, a parcel of slaves belonging to the estate of Mr. James Dalton deceased, by order of the executrix Mrs. Catherine Dalton.”

[9] The wording of several newspaper notices suggest that the old Vendue House at the east end of Tradd Street was still being used for auctions as late as January 1772, and was still considered “the usual place” for such sales. See, for example, South Carolina and American General Gazette, 24 December 1771: “For sale by publick [sic] outcry, at the Vendue House in Charlestown, on Thursday, January 9th, 1772, twelve valuable plantation Slaves. Credit for one year or longer will be given, if desired paying interest, with approved security. Edward Lightwood, John Scott”; South Carolina Gazette and Country Journal, 24 December 1771 (supplement): “On Tuesday the 24th Instant, December, will be sold at public vendue, at the usual place in Charles-Town . . . . Jacob Ham, constable.” The earliest instance I’ve seen of a change to this traditional pattern appeared in South Carolina and American General Gazette, 29 January 1772: “On Tuesday the 25th of February next, will be sold at public vendue, at the new Vendue-house in Charlestown. . . . Roger Pinckney, P[rovost]. M[arshal].” Numerous subsequent newspaper notices confirm that this site, at the east end of Broad Street, served for many years as the “usual site” for auction sales in urban Charleston.

[10] South Carolina Gazette, 14 January 1773 (Thursday): “Found last Saturday night, by one of Mr. Prue’s Negroes, near the Old Vendue-Place, the forebodies of a worked jacket.”


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