Slave Sales

Slave Auctions

During the summer of 2007, a National Park Service intern from Brown University in Rhode Island, Miel Wilson, examined the records of the St. Louis Probate Court to enumerate them. Miel's findings are included in a database, and also in a report regarding "The Last Slave Sale" of 1861. This database is limited to court-ordered slave sales, and does not cover private slave sales and auctions of the period. A separate list of Orders to Hire Slaves which details court-ordered slave hires, is also available.

The National Park Service would like to thank Patrick J. Connaghan, Commissioner and Clerk of the 22nd Judicial Court, Probate Division; Sandra Hoge Lombardo, manager of the Probate Court; and Greg Ingram, Records Clerk Supervisor of the St. Louis Probate Court for their support and untiring assistance with this project. We would also like to thank Miel Wilson for her long hours of dogged research.


There were constant reminders of the horrors of slavery in antebellum St. Louis. One of the worst involved the open sales of slaves at various places along the city's busiest streets, which was an accepted community practice. Regular slave auctions and sales were held in several places, most notably at the slave market run by Bernard M. Lynch on Locust Street between Fourth and Fifth. This market was moved in 1859 to Broadway and Clark Streets. Lynch's "slave pens" were former private residences with bars placed on all the windows to secure them like prisons. Slaves were herded off steamboats and up the street to the slave houses, then sold to persons, especially after 1840, from outside St. Louis, mostly from the western counties in Missouri or further down the river. Families were broken up, with children taken from mothers, fathers sold down the river, husbands and wives separated. And all of this was done in full view of crowds wishing to buy and passersby going about their daily business.

Even the city's "temple of justice," the Old Courthouse, was the scene of slave auctions. The Probate Court was located just inside the east door, and slaves were sold at auction along with other property, if their owners had died without a will or declared bankruptcy. In fact, courthouses across the country, including all the cities in Missouri, would have held similar auctions up to the time of the Civil War.

Within the criteria and despite the problems outlined below, Miel Wilson arrived at a count of 533 individuals who appear in the court documents as having been offered for sale on the St. Louis courthouse steps. A total of 724 slaves are mentioned in the Probate Court Records in connection with slave sales, nearly 200 of whom were auctioned in places other than the courthouse.

Methodology of the Project

There were many pitfalls involved with the research on this particular project. The results are not perfect, and there are gaps in the record. Although this is the definitive list of court-ordered St. Louis slave sales at present, it still cannot with any certainty be determined how many slaves were auctioned from the steps of St. Louis' Old Courthouse, because:

1. The individual names of every slave sold were not always recorded in court documents, and sometimes it is merely stated in the record books that "all the slaves" of a particular estate were sold, without giving the number of persons involved;

2. The places where slaves were sold by the court were not always recorded; sometimes sales were conducted at a private auction house or at the house of the deceased rather than on the courthouse steps;

3. Not all of the slave sales were court ordered, and a separate investigation is currently underway to identify, through newspaper advertisements, how many non-court ordered slave sales were held on the steps of the Old Courthouse and how many slaves were auctioned under these sales. Current findings indicate that non-court-ordered slave sales at the St. Louis Courthouse were very rare, and that few slaves were auctioned on this basis from this location.

4. The Probate Court records are incomplete. The St. Louis Probate Court Records began in 1804 and run to the present day. The books are designated by employing a lettering system, the first book bearing the letter A, the second B, etc. Books A and B, only recently rediscovered, are being conserved at present. This database, therefore, begins with Book C in the year 1828, a good place to begin because it was the year in which the St. Louis Courthouse first opened on the block where the Old Courthouse stands today. It is likely that the first auctions of slaves were held on the property in about 1828. Pre-1828 court-ordered slave auctions are not recorded here at present; a research project is currently underway to add the earlier slave sales to this online database. Books I & J, covering the period June 28, 1842 - December 1, 1844, are missing and presumed lost. To fill in for that missing two and a half year period, NPS Historian Bob Moore has been examining period newspapers, day by day, in order to find advertisements for slave sales (which all court-ordered slave sales were required to run). The results of this investigation, still ongoing, are included in the database, and as new discoveries are made they will be added to it. The remainder of the books, through Book Z and Book 25 (after the end of the alphabet the next book picked up with a numerical designation), which goes up to 1865 when the State of Missouri emancipated its remaining slaves, were all examined and the results are presented in the online database.

Due to these factors, we can only, with certainty, enumerate those slaves that are named or singled out in the original court documents, and those who, the records state, were specifically auctioned from one of the sets of steps of the Courthouse.

When slaves were auctioned, the sales were usually conducted on the east steps of the Courthouse. The 1828 Courthouse had only one entrance, on the east side, and the Probate Court was located just inside its doors. As the Courthouse was expanded in the 1850s and the 1828 building was torn down, the new east wing which replaced it also housed the Probate Court, so most sales continued to be conducted on the east steps. However, during construction, as one or another of the wings was being built or the 1828 building demolished, sales had to be conducted on either the south or the north steps of the building. The database specifies, when it is mentioned in the original record, which set of steps the sales were conducted from.

In addition to slave sales, the Probate Court also ordered slaves who belonged to an estate that was under the purview of the court to be hired out. Sometimes it took months or years to settle an estate, and if the estate included slaves, the heirs and administrators preferred that they not remain idle or languish in jail. For that reason, slaves were hired out by the court, usually for periods of a year at a time, and the money they earned was incorporated into the estate. A separate list of Orders to Hire Slaves is available here.

Last updated: April 10, 2015

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