This printed bill of sale, which was filled in on January 25, 1854, documents that Joseph Reid Anderson, of Richmond, director of the Tredegar Iron Works and one of the most important industrialists in nineteenth-century Virginia, purchased an enslaved woman named Martha and her son named Edward for $650. The bill of sale, like a deed for land, legally transferred ownership of the woman and her son to Anderson. This bill of sale is unusual, however, because it lists the signatures of three sellers. John George and Miles George and their younger half-brother William Oliver George, jointly owned Martha and her son and numerous other enslaved people whom they inherited from their father, Byrd George, after the death of his widow in 1838.
As very fine print at the lower right corner of the bill of sale indicates, this form was “Sold by James B. Gibbs, Bookseller, Richmond.” The Anderson family and business records contain numerous bills of sale that vary in size and style but not in wording, evidence that buying and selling of slaves in Richmond was such a commonplace event that several printers produced and sold blank forms like this. A separate bill in the George family papers records that a slave trader, or broker, named Sidnum Grady negotiated the sale of Martha and Edward and charged the Georges a commission of $7.50.
The cities of Alexandria, Norfolk, and Richmond each had several large slave trading firms that bought and sold slaves locally and for export from Virginia. Most smaller Virginia towns had brokers or agents who bought and sold slaves or negotiated leases by which people rented the work of enslaved people. Lease agreements usually, but not always, operated for twelve months and itemized the renter’s responsibilities to house and feed and perhaps clothe and provide medical care for the rented slaves. The records of the George family indicate that they often leased slaves to people in and around Richmond, including one woman named Martha who did domestic work and was a washerwoman.
The deaths of people who owned slaves as well as family financial difficulties often resulted in enslaved people being sold and members of enslaved families being separated, sometimes forever. In some cases enslaved people were sold to new owners in or near the city or county where they were living, but sometimes to dealers who transported them to other states, usually in the South or Southwest, for resale there. In this instance, Martha and her son Edward were sold together, although this individual document and the surviving records of the George and Anderson families do not indicate whether Martha had other children or whether Edward’s father lived with or near them or belonged to any members of the George or Anderson families. Records of sales, such as this, and of estate settlements, like the records generated following the death of Byrd George contain valuable information that enables researchers to trace family relationships among enslaved people.
This bill of sale is also unusual in that the portion of the printed text containing the required warranty that the slaves were in good health was amended to specify that Martha suffered from asthma and was therefore “not warranted either sound or healthy.” Sellers of slaves were required to provide a guarantee of sound health when they sold slaves in order that buyers not unknowingly purchase laborers with health problems, that were difficult to detect and which might detract from the laborers’ ability to work, thereby reducing their value. This amended bill of sale, therefore, provided the Georges with legal protection if Anderson was later disappointed in Martha’s physical limitations caused by her asthma.