His Head upon a Pole in a Public Place

In the journal that I found at Yale’s Sterling Memorial Library, Benjamin Labaree also wrote a good deal about aspects of slavery that he witnessed when he was the lone schoolteacher in Trenton, N.C. in 1821-22.

The 19 year old encountered slaves everywhere. Many worked in Trenton, but far larger numbers lived and toiled in the surrounding countryside, and especially on the plantations along the Trent River.

By 1860 more than half of Jones County’s population were slaves.

Labaree encountered slaves at his boardinghouse, as well as at the village’s one store, a general mercantile. He observed enslaved African Americans in the streets. He frequently saw them at the homes of his pupils, most of whom were the sons of slaveholding merchants or planters.

Brought up from their Infancy

In his journal, Labaree recalled several especially memorable scenes of slave life.

He remembered a day, for instance, when his boardinghouse keeper’s son—“a rough lad 16 years old,” he wrote—took a horsewhip and broke up a prayer meeting in an African American family’s cabin. The boy’s father had ordered him to do it.

As a teacher, Labarre always showed keen interest in how adults shaped young people’s characters. After the incident at the prayer meeting, he commented: Boys are thus brought up from their infancy to trample upon the rights of others, civil, mental & religious.

At least in his old age, when he wrote his journal, Labaree had an unequivocal view of slavery. He called it “that wicked system.”

The Second Middle Passage

The slave traders in Trenton also made a deep impression on him. During his tenure at the town’s new school, slave traders scoured the countryside in search of planters willing to part with their enslaved laborers.

They frequently stayed in his boardinghouse, so he grew acquainted with them and learned about their ways of doing business.

According to Labaree, the slave traders purchased enslaved people from local planters and carried them to Georgia, Alabama and Mississippi, where they sold them for higher prices.

That was the trend at the time: between 1810 and 1860, planters in North Carolina and other states in the Upper South exported at least 950,000 slaves to the Deep South.  From Georgia to Texas, demand for labor in the cotton, rice and sugar cane fields was exploding.

To emphasize its hardships and the damage it did to African American families, historian Ira Berlin refers to this forced internal migration as the “Second Middle Passage.” (The voyage from Africa to the U.S. being the original “Middle Passage.”)

Berlin also notes that an enslaved child in the Upper South in 1820 had a 30% chance of being sold into the Deep South by 1860.

Chained Together Two and Two

While slave traders handled most of the human trafficking business in Jones County, our young schoolteacher observed that local planters periodically also brought slaves to Trenton to sell them at public auctions.

Broadside for a slave auction in Virginia, 1812.

Broadside for a slave auction in Virginia, 1812. Courtesy, the Library of Virginia

In his journal, he explained that local planters sold their enslaved laborers when they faced debt or bankruptcy, and so needed cash, or when they wished to punish a rebellious slave.

At those auctions in Trenton, Labarre noticed that the slave traders often proved willing to pay more than local planters.

But in the slaves’ eyes, he said, purchase by a slave trader was far worse than being sold to a local planter: it usually meant that they would never see their families again.

At one slave auction, Labarre witnessed a father, an enslaved man, who was in attendance when his son went on the block. The father pleaded with local planters at the auction to buy his young son so that an itinerant slave trader could not.

None of the local men stepped forward, and Labarre watched while father and son wept and said their goodbyes. The slave trader then led away the man’s son.

The drove (for like cattle they call a number of travelling negroes driven away from sale, a drove) at length started on; the men generally chained together two and two, the women and larger children walking but not confined.

 Labarre makes clear that it was a not an unusual scene in Trenton in the 1820s.


Set the Prisoners Free and Burn the Town

On one occasion, the young schoolteacher also witnessed the white townspeople grow panicked over fear of a slave uprising.

That incident revealed deep undercurrents of fear and violence in the sleepy little village.

In 1821 or 1822—Labarre did not say which of the two calendar years that he lived in Trenton this happened—a local miller, the father of one of his pupils, was murdered.

An 1831 newspaper ad offering a reward for the return of an enslaved boy or young man named Anthony in Randolph County, N.C. His owner, Joshua Craven, may well have been right about Anthony's path to freedom: in much of N.C., the Underground Railroad headed not north, but down rivers to the sea.

An 1831 newspaper ad offering a reward for the return of an enslaved man named Anthony who had escaped from his owner in Randolph County, N.C. His owner, Joshua Craven, may well have been correct about Anthony’s path to freedom: in much of N.C., the Underground Railroad headed not north, but down rivers to the sea. Carolina Observer (Fayetteville, N.C.), 7 June 1831. Found in the database of UNC-G’s N.C. Runaway Slave Project, which provides online access to all known runaway slave advertisements published in N.C. newspapers from 1751 to 1840.

According to Labarre, suspicion for the murder fell on a local slave who had run away from his owner and was living off the land– probably, at most times, with the help of plantation slaves that secretly helped him, and at other times on his own or in a small band of other runaways. The miller had apparently caught him as he attempted to raid the mill’s storehouse in search of grain.

Soon after the miller’s death, a posse of white men took off after the runaway slave. Panic spread in Trenton.

In his journal, Labarre wrote:

Rumors were flying around that while the men of the village were away hunting the runaways at a distance, other runaways—for it was supposed there were many about, would come to the village, break open the jail, set the prisoners free and burn the town!

The posse’s leaders recruited Labarre and another man or two to guard the village while the rest of the white men joined the posse.

So with firelock on shoulder I marched from bridge to mill-dam, and from mill-dam to bridge…

Eventually the posse returned. Labarre then learned more about the town where he was teaching:

The hunting party caught the negro who killed the miller, and suspended his head upon a pole in a public place, that other negroes might take warning.

At the time, Labarre wondered how the posse’s leaders could be confidant that they had captured the murderer, since they had held no trial or taken any evidence. He seems to have feared that, right man or not, they needed to make a show of blood, so that, as he said, other slaves might take warning.

Next time– the slave conspiracy of 1821

2 thoughts on “His Head upon a Pole in a Public Place

  1. My great grandparents were born in or around 1892 whom I had the pleasure of meeting.. I did not get to talk to them about their parents.. Trenton is twenty minutes away from me.. Thank you for writing these articles .. They are heartbreaking however the truth needs to be told..


  2. Pingback: A Local History of Human Trafficking | David Cecelski

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