Sunday, February 8, 2004

Slave pen now holds history

From a Northern Kentucky field to the Freedom Center, 1830s log house tells its story to generations

By Marilyn Bauer
The Cincinnati Enquirer

Carl Westmoreland
Freedom Center curator Carl Westmoreland visits the slave pen before it was moved from Mason County. It is being reconstructed on the second floor of the the National Underground Railroad Freedom Center (below).
(Patrick Reddy photo)

Carl Westmoreland
Westmoreland strides across the farm where the 1830s slave pen once stood. (Tony Jones photos)

In a fallow field in Northern Kentucky, where shadowy clouds streak over hills of seared alfalfa, Carl Westmoreland paces off an area where a barn once stood. The chilling wind slaps his leather jacket, his wool pants flutter with the inrush of air. He stops - an elegant man in a charcoal fedora - lifts his arms and says, "It was here."

Westmoreland, curator and senior adviser to the National Underground Railroad Freedom Center, indicates where an 1830s slave pen stood in a Mason County barn.

"The pen is powerful," says Westmoreland. "It has the feeling of hallowed ground. When people stand inside, they speak in whispers. It is a sacred place. I believe it is here to tell a story - the story of the internal slave trade to future generations."

Carefully dismantled in Kentucky over a period of two years, and under reconstruction now on the see-through second floor of the Freedom Center, the pen will be the center's principal artifact when it opens in August.

The slave pen was a two-story, hewn-log house with eight small windows, a 10-foot fireplace, and, along the central joist, a heavy chain measured out in iron rings. Twenty-one feet by 30 feet and 26 feet high, the pen was built in 1830, but it didn't get the made-to-order bars for the windows until 1832, when its owner, Capt. John W. Anderson, a slave trader and farmer, was at the zenith of his career.

Anderson was an ambitious man bent on learning the finer points of peddling flesh.

A Virginian by birth and a Kentucky farmer by industry, he came to the Ohio River Valley in 1825, purchased a hundred-acre plot near the Bracken County line and built a home for his wife and daughters.

He had already begun to master the abduction and transport of Southern slaves, mixing with the major traffickers - something he hoped to be within a few years. He rode downriver on a flatbed boat filled with slaves owned by the notorious Edward Stone, known for keeping human cargo manacled in the basement of his Harrison County, Ky., home. The following year, 1826, Stone was murdered in a slave revolt on the Ohio River and Anderson would begin his annual trips to the slave auctions in Natchez, Miss., and New Orleans.

"John had a contentious personality," says Westmoreland. "From Alexandria, Va., he tackled the biggest slave trader in America and tried to take over the man's franchise in Natchez."

Anderson caught on quickly. He would make the rounds of local farms once or twice a year buying "able-bodied" men and women ages 12 to early 20s, often raised specifically to be sold into slavery. He never paid more than $400 for a slave and sold them for triple that amount.

While he waited for favorable market conditions (slaves were a commodity and prices could fluctuate), the slaves were stored in existing buildings on the farm. Slaves could be imprisoned for a few days or several months, depending on the timing of the market.

"He was learning the business, setting himself up," says archaeologist Jeannine Kreinbrink, principal investigator on the slave pen project. "It wasn't until 1830, when his operation amped up, that he built the slave pen. From 1832 to 1834, he made close to $1 million in today's money, about $50,000 then.

"The slave pen is a product of the success of his business," says Kreinbrink. "People were escaping, so he felt he needed a more secure, permanent structure. From 1832 to 1834, when Anderson died, the structure was in its present form."

The Freedom Center is using the term "slave pen" for the structure called a "slave jail" in Mason and Bracken county public records from the period because "jail" connotes imprisonment following a crime, while pen implies a holding area used during transit.

Dark, damp and rank with odors created by the holding of human cattle, the pen was discribed by an ex-slave as "worse than a hog hole." Men were chained to the straw-covered floor of the second story, while the women, charged with taking care of the men and cooking, were free to move about the house. Human waste and garbage would fall to the kitchen from cracks in the upper floor, and the close quarters led to outbreaks of cholera.

"Turn it upside down," says Westmoreland, "and you have a slave ship."

Like on a slave ship, the men were tethered two-by-two to the central chain by shorter shackles that allowed them only to sit or lie down. The smothering sense of confinement, barely breathable air and lack of privacy drove some mad. The large fireplace provided some heat in the winter, but the pen was suffocating in summer.

"There is evidence of pegs that would have been used for internal partitions, which meant men and women could be kept on the second floor," says Kreinbrink. "It also means it is possible that each slave was chained individually in their cell."

To market

When Anderson had gathered anywhere from 15 to 30 slaves, he would walk them eight miles down Walton Pike to the river at Dover, where his uncle, Stokes Anderson, owned the ferry and adjacent land. The forced march, a way of toughening up slaves before auction, started early in the morning and took the better part of the day. At Dover, the slaves were transferred to flatboats for the 1,150-mile trip to the Forks of the Road auction block in Natchez.

"The first day out you know everybody is dragging their feet and they're all within 10, 20, 40 miles from where they lived all their lives," says Westmoreland. "They've left behind their mothers, husbands and grandparents."

Sometimes Anderson would stay in Natchez for several months, ordering overseers and business partners (who he often reneged on, records show) to send slaves to him for a split of the profits. Court records from 1832 show he stopped paying his bills, and numerous lawsuits indicate he was cheating partners out of their split. But still, he was an up-and-comer making as much money as slave traders in Lexington.

Profits went to finance Anderson's other passions: thoroughbreds and property. His 100-acre spread grew to 1,000 acres. He put horses out to stud and bred the horses he would race from New York to New Orleans. Along the way, he won the silver-trimmed saddle he always rode. At his death at 42, he owned 42 thoroughbred horses and 37 slaves, both chained by horse hobbles in their respective lockups.

The trader dies, not the trade

Local lore claims Anderson died chasing a slave, falling off a horse and hitting his head. Since no published obituary could be found, it is impossible to know the truth. He died too suddenly to leave a will, and most of his estate was sold off to pay debts.

Anderson's six daughters were not interested in continuing their family's business, putting an end to their father's legacy. The daughters sold the farm with the slave pen to another slave trader and Anderson's "territory" was taken over by border guard and reputed kidnapper James McMillen. The next family to buy the Mason County farm did not traffic in slaves.

"There's a stigma to that farm," says Caroline R. Miller, president of the Bracken County Historical Society. "Maybe it's because it's so removed and they didn't have to be social. That had a lot to do with it."

For years after Anderson's death, the slave pen was used as a kitchen by the families who owned what is now Pinecrest Farm.

"It was used as a kitchen until the early 1850s," says Kreinbrink. "We found fragments of dishes, glasses and other cooking implements. That the pen continued to be used says something about the attitude toward slavery."

Today, Anderson's grave, with its broken headstone and layer of rotting leaves, sits in a small vale near the place where his slave pen once stood. His family is buried with him; their graves similarly neglected.

The pen today

"If the (pen) building hadn't existed, we could have forgotten," says Westmoreland, a great-grandson of slaves. "Most people feel a disconnect when we talk about the slave trade."

Sometime in the early 20th century, a barn was built in stages around the slave pen. It shielded the pen from the elements for decades before Ray Evers, 72, a retired Cincinnati contractor, bought the farm in 1976.

"There are hundreds of log (slave) pens in tobacco barns all over the country and dozens in Mason County," says Kreinbrink. "The log buildings become a room inside the bigger barn. If they knock out the chinking, they have ventilation and by removing the second floor it's a good place to hang tobacco."

When Evers bought the farm, the barn was dilapidated. The roof was almost half gone and it was, literally, falling down around the slave pen.

"I found it when I bought the farm," says Evers. "I didn't think anything about it. We kept it there because it supported the barn. There was room along side it to store equipment."

Evers wanted to rebuild the barn and in 1998 decided to ask the Freedom Center if it wanted the pen.

"When I went in there and looked up, it blew me away," says Westmoreland. "It sat in the middle of this great big barn. It hadn't been maintained. They estimate that if we had left it alone at the rate it was deteriorating it would have been gone in 10 years."

Controversy arose in 1999, before the 24-month excavation at the site. Some Mason County residents wanted the slave pen to stay.

"... By moving this building to Cincinnati, our ability to teach our students and other Kentuckians about the evils of slavery will be significantly hampered," Richard Jett from the Kentucky Heritage Council said at the time. "... This is an important story to tell. We just question the appropriateness of what they are doing."

Some wanted Evers to open his farm as a historical museum, while others felt the pen should not be preserved at all.

"They wanted it. They got it. At least it has a purpose," Evers says. "It didn't have a purpose sitting in that barn."

"Part of our racism, all of our racism, manages to grow in the fertile field of denial," Westmoreland told the Enquirer. "If the world does not see things like this slave pen, we have a harder time admitting things that happened. And the purpose of the Freedom Center is to help people learn what is rooted in truth, not myth."

Miller, of the Bracken historical society, was initially against moving the pen, but says, "We could not keep our history in a barn. It was time to come out and reconcile with our history."

While working at the site, Westmoreland had his life threatened. He also became concerned that the pen, insured for $1 million, would be vandalized.

"I was threatened. The building was threatened. But the person who did the threatening, we were able to outfox," he says. "He was looking for a grand confrontation. He threatened to destroy the pen while we were moving it."

The pen, one of a few on display, is now in the museum, visible from the street and a reminder even now.

"You can't deny it," says Westmoreland. "It's not a pile of logs. It's a story that is forever with us."


Return to the main page
Slave pen now holds history
Slave pen's journey
History of slavery in America starts in 15th century Europe

Online exclusives:
360-degree virtual tour
Photo gallery