Being Sold Down the River Was a Real Thing

St. Peters Church. This is also the home church of Martha Custis and site of her wedding to George Washington.
visitnewkent.com

A really nice thing about genealogy is that I can call my obsessive behavior research.

Fun Fact: When a baby was born in St. Peter’s Parish, where the Cloptons had their Virginia foothold, it was recorded in the church registry with the name of it’s parents. Congratulations! When an enslaved baby was born or baptized it was also documented in the church register but with the name of it’s owner, not it’s parents. For example, entries for my eighth great grandfather, one of the Roberts: “Margaret, daughter of Rob. Clopton born ye 8th day of April 1717,” is recorded right next to “Hannah, a negro girl of Robert Clopton Born Febry ye 5th, 1717.” A ways farther on is “Robt son of Robt & Mary Clopton born July 28 bapd 7ber 1st 1728.” I’d also like to point out that I saw the names “Xtopher” and “Epaphroditus” while flipping through this church register. Thought you ought to know.

Short Lecture: By 1760 40% of the population in the Tidewater area was made up of enslaved Africans who worked while the planters honed their aristocratic lifestyles. If I’m understanding correctly (thanks to reading some fine books*), within a couple decades the tobacco fields wore out and at the same time migration moved into the Deep South where the big money was in cotton. Growing cotton was extremely profitable if you scaled up to big-ass plantations with free labor. This cotton boom created a corresponding demand for enslaved people who provided the free labor. Tidewater folks were looking to get out of tobacco anyway and it made financial sense to sell huge numbers of people to be literally herded south and west; literally “sold down the river.”

Working Hypothesis: This supports the idea that my fine Clopton tobacco barons faltered financially, sold the people they enslaved, and went west to invest in something new. Through the 1700’s my direct grandfathers were paying personal property taxes on their enslaved people, their horses, cattle, mules, land and buildings. (Seriously. Usually the enslaved people were listed by sex and age group, pretty much like the livestock. Sometimes they had their first names listed. In 1784 John Clopton, probably one of mine, owned Landon, Harry, Dolstra and Dick.) By the 1800s it seems like my string of Williams, Roberts and Johns had decamped to Kentucky.

*American Nations: A History of the Eleven Rival Regional Cultures of North America, by Colin Woodard, and The Half Has Never Been Told, by Edward E. Baptist

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