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To Be Sold: An Auction - Wilton House Museum

To Be Sold: An Auction

            This advertisement, published on March 11, 1775, puts a good deal of William Randolph III’s belongings up for auction. Mr. Gunn’s was a tavern in Richmond, located on the north side of Main Street in Shockoe Bottom. Auctions, lotteries, and announcements were common outside taverns in the colonial period.  The advertisement doesn’t make it clear if this auction consists of goods, horses and enslaved men solely from Wilton, or from the entirety of his plantations and land-holdings. William III’s death left his widow Anne Randolph in debt to four different merchants for a total of £8,517.6.8, for which she and his eventual heirs would be responsible. A global financial crisis in 1772 caused British lenders to demand urgently a quicker repayment of debts from the 13 colonies, leading to an economic panic and lack of hard currency in Virginia. This auction may have helped Peyton, Lucy, and Anne stave off the debtors- until the Revolution distracted most planters from their merchant debts.

Auctions were not just ways for planters to try and fix poor financial decisions; often the slave auction block served as a space in the city where planters could indirectly punish slaves for unwanted behavior, as was recorded from a later owner of Wilton in 1816. These markets were not in the fashionable centers of town; one description of Richmond stated, “on a steep hill-side…occupied by livery stables and slave dealers…extending down to Shockoe Creek” (Mordecai 48).  This description illustrates that Richmond slave markets were found with fish markets, places to buy and sell cattle, mills, and similar businesses outside of the center of town.  In fact, Gunn’s Tavern was approximately two blocks from Libby Prison, and a few blocks from Lumpkin’s Jail, the largest slave-trading center in Virginia.  While the Randolph family may have perceived this place as a venue through which they could stave off collection notices, it cannot be ignored that an auction block served as the pulsating heart-beat of an unjust, oppressive system which sought to deny humans of basic liberties centered in a part of town that many wished to ignore.

Want to learn more? Check out these sources!

Virginia, especially Richmond, in by-gone days: with a glance at the future by Samuel Mordecai

Rearing Wolves to Our Own Destruction: Slavery in Richmond, Virginia, 1782-1865 by Midori Takagi

Archived Virginia Gazettes from 1730 – 1780