The Dent Family and the Domestic Slave Trade

Legal paper with handwritten bill of sale transferring ownership of four enslaved people from Frederick Dent to Emily Casey.
This Bill of Sale transferring four enslaved people from Frederick F. Dent to Emma Dent Casey occurred in February 1862. This document is on display at the museum at Ulysses S. Grant National Historic Site.

National Park Service

One of the greatest wrongs of U.S. slavery is that enslaved people were often bought and sold as property without regard for their feelings, family relationships, or humanity. The domestic slave trade was a system that facilitated the transfer of enslaved people between slaveholders. For enslaved people, their life was uprooted the instant their enslaver decided it was time to make a change. This traumatic process broke up enslaved families and created enduring harm. Many Black Americans were never able to reunite with their families after the end of slavery in 1865.

Enslavers used the domestic slave trade for a variety of reasons. Sometimes they sold enslaved people who were in the prime of their life (18-35 years old) knowing that they could make a large profit from the sale. At other times enslavers sold their enslaved property because they needed the money. The death of an enslaver could also lead to enslaved people being sold to settle outstanding debts or to make money for the estate.

According to the 1850 U.S. Census, “Colonel” Frederick F. Dent, Ulysses S. Grant’s father-in-law, enslaved thirty African Americans. These enslaved people worked at White Haven, the Dent family planation in St. Louis, Missouri. It is not known how Col. Dent gained ownership of thirty enslaved people or if he used the domestic slave trade before the American Civil War. However, within the first year of the war in February 1862 he sold four enslaved people to his daughter, Emma Dent Casey. Col. Dent had run into financial problems around the start of the Civil War. He had lost ownership of White Haven, which was bought by his son John, and was still facing large debts.

This “Bill of Sale” was written to legalize the transfer between Col. Dent and his daughter. It remains in the park’s collection today. The bill of sale notes that four enslaved people named Jefferson, Louisa, Kitty, and Lucy were sold to Emma Dent Casey for two thousand dollars (about $56,000 today). Sadly, historians are not sure what happened to the enslaved after their transfer to Emma Dent Casey. Moreover, it is unknown what might have happened once they became free through the 13th Amendment, which abolished legal slavery three years later. Regardless, the experiences of being enslaved and sold in the domestic slave trade would have no doubt been traumatic and painful for Jefferson, Louisa, Kitty, and Lucy.

The full transcription of the Bill of Sale is below:

“Know all men by their presence that I, Frederick Dent of the County of Saint Louis State of Missouri[,] do this day convey and sell to my daughter Emily M. Casey for the sum of two thousand dollars the receipt of which is hereby acknowledged four slaves[.] Big Jefferson a black boy eighteen years old[,] Louisa a mulatto about seventeen years old and her child about one year old (Kitty) also a black girl about six years old (Lucy)[,] all of which I convey my full rights and title to the said Emily M. Casey as her property. Witness my hand and seal this tenth day of February 1862.

F. Dent”

General Ulysses S. Grant heard about the bill of sale several months later while fighting for the United States military during the Civil War. He wrote to his wife Julia several months after the transaction. He stated his wish that all enslaved people at White Haven be kept together so that no one would be “sold under the hammer” in a transaction that could break up the enslaved families at White Haven. He also announced that “I would not give anything for you to have any [slaves] as it is not probable we will ever live in a slave state again.” Less than a year later, General Grant embraced President Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation and supported the idea of adding the end of slavery as a war aim for the United States military.

Ulysses S Grant National Historic Site

Last updated: November 17, 2023