The brick townhouse on the north side of Duke Street was a handsome one. Three stories tall with a gable roof, twin chimneys, and blinds on the windows painted a pretty shade of green, it fronted directly onto the crude pavement near the western edge of Alexandria, Va., three-quarters of a mile from the crowded wharves and bustling warehouses clustered along the Potomac River. Duke Street was a busy thoroughfare. To the east, it ended at the river, and to the west it became the Little River Turnpike, a recently completed toll road that connected northern Virginia’s grain and tobacco farms to the port of Alexandria and, by extension, to the Atlantic economy.
In May 1828, John Armfield signed a multi-year lease, then placed an ad in the Alexandria Phenix Gazette: He had taken up residence in the house, he could be found there “at all times,” and he wanted to buy slaves. Looking “to purchase one hundred and fifty likely young negroes of both sexes between the ages of 8 and 25 years,” Armfield promised to pay higher prices, in cash, “than any other purchasers that are in the market, or that may hereafter come into market.” He signed the ad with the name of the company he and Isaac Franklin had created a few months earlier: “FRANKLIN & ARMFIELD.”
The slave trade was almost never simply a matter of a slaveholder selling enslaved people to a slave trader who took them somewhere else, sold them to another slaveholder, and pocketed the difference between the purchase price and the sales price. Every transaction entailed the interests and involvement of a world of actors, and the world became more far-reaching and elaborate as Armfield, Isaac Franklin and Rice Ballard, another trader who would soon join the company, forged a partnership and built their business together. In the late 1820s and early 1830s, the embryonic national exchange in Black bodies built by the first generation of professional traders grew sturdier and more intricate, and so did the array of individuals, institutions, governments, and infrastructures that supported it.
Between the 1820s and the 1830s, the number of slaves transported across state lines increased by 85%, reaching the point where white people forced the migration of nearly thirty thousand enslaved people, on average, from one state to another every year. Trafficking on such a scale was unprecedented in the United States, and it would never be matched again in American history. By the 1830s, the slave trade had metastasized into a series of overlapping and intersecting markets spread over hundreds of thousands of square miles. It was ubiquitous throughout the slaveholding portions of the country: along rivers and the coastline, in city streets and on country roads, in taverns and hotels, at county jails and on courthouse steps, in newspapers and on broadsheets posted to buildings and trees, in private offices and public auction houses, on docks and at ports and harbors. In truth, the incessant chatter among white people about prices, the endless reports of Black people once there and now gone, and the disquiet that the enslaved could never quite shake reminded them that wherever they were, the trade was there too.