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Time kind of mellows you out. The older I get, the more tolerant I become. It was like that. He did it, but it is what it is. If you carry hatred or strong dislike for people, all you are doing is hurting yourself. She laughs, surprisingly. Oh, no. Now I have five adult children, eight grandchildren and four great-grandchildren.


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I am married to a man with four children. Put them all together, we are like a big sports team. On holidays it is something, we have to rent a community center. As autumn gathered in , the caravan that John Armfield handed over left Tennessee, bound for Natchez. Records of that part of the journey do not survive, nor do records about the individual slaves in the coffle. Like other Franklin gangs, the probably got on flatboats in the Cumberland River and floated three days down to the Ohio River, and then drifted down another day to reach the Mississippi.

A flatboat could float down the Mississippi to Natchez in two weeks. There—and this is conjecture, based on what happened to other gangs—half of the big gang might have been sold. As for the other half, they were probably herded onto steamboats and churned miles south to New Orleans, where Isaac Franklin or one of his agents sold them, one or three or five at a time.

And then they were gone—out to plantations in northern Louisiana, or central Mississippi, or southern Alabama.

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In Knoxville, in October , Waller readied his gang of 20 or more for the second half of their journey. He expected another month on the road. It would turn out to be four. On Tuesday, October 19, the troop headed southwest, Waller leading from his horse and his friend James Taliaferro bringing up the rear, both men armed. No steamboats for this group.

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Waller was pinching pennies. In Virginia, the coffles marched from town to town. But here, they were marching through wilderness. But during the 50 years coffles were sent on the Slave Trail, the road most taken was the Natchez Trace.

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The Natchez people first carved the footpath some years before and used it until about , when they were massacred and dispersed, at which point white travelers took possession of their highway. The Natchez Trace Parkway, with asphalt flat like silk, now follows the old route. Remnants of the original Trace remain out in the woods, yards from the breakdown lane, mostly untouched. Starting in Nashville I drive down the parkway. Overland coffles would have used the road that molders off in the trees. These were stores and taverns with places to sleep in the back.

Gangs of slaves were welcome if they slept in the field, far from business. Their drivers paid good money for food. Waller reached Mississippi by that November. At the village of Benton a week before Christmas , Waller huddled with his gang in a ferocious storm. Although today is Sunday my hands are engaged in repairing the road to enable us to pass on.

I put the car on the shoulder and walk into the woods to find the real Natchez Trace. It is easily stumbled into. And it really is a trace, the faint line of what used to be a wagon road. The cut is about 12 feet wide, with shallow ditches on each side. Spindly pine and oaks away off the roadbed, a third-growth woods. Cobwebs to the face, bugs buzzing, overhanging branches to duck.

On the ground, a carpet of mud, and leaves beneath it, and dirt under the leaves. The path the slaves took is beautiful. Nearly enclosed by green curtains of limbs, it feels like a tunnel. I squish through the mud, sweating, pulling off spiders, slapping mosquitoes and horseflies. The fireflies come out in the dwindling dusk. And as night closes, the crickets start their scraping in the trees. A sudden, loud drone from every direction, the natural music of Mississippi. It was typical on the Slave Trail: People like Waller marched a coffle and sold one or two people along the way to pay the travel bills.

Sarah and Indian, the mother and daughter, wanted to be sold together. The three sisters, Sarah Ann, Louisa and Lucy, also wanted to be sold together, which was not likely to happen, and they knew it. When cotton retailed high in New York, slaveholders in Mississippi bought people. When cotton went low, they did not. In winter , cotton was down. Buyers by the hundreds crammed the viewing rooms of dealers in Natchez and the auction halls of brokers in New Orleans.

There was one place en route, however, with a small slave market—Aberdeen, Mississippi. Waller decided to try to sell one or two people there. Waller dragged his gang northwest, four days and 80 miles, to Oxford, but found no buyers. Thomas Dabney was an acquaintance from Virginia who had moved to Raymond, on the Natchez Trace, 12 years earlier and doubled his already thick riches as a cotton planter.

Today as then, Raymond, Mississippi, is a crossroads, population 2, A magnificent Greek Revival courthouse stands next to a one-room barbershop with a corrugated metal front.

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Pretense and bluster rub shoulders with the plain and dejected. The old railroad station, a wooden building with deep eaves, is a used-record store. Near a school playground in the middle of Raymond, I find the Dabney family graveyard, surrounded by an iron fence. Dabney has taken Henry and is security for the balance—the three sisters to one man.

Waller himself was a little defensive about this people-selling business. As far as I am concerned I have had pain enough on the subject without being censured in this quarter. Natchez, pearl of the state, stands on a bluff above the Mississippi. Beautiful houses, an antique village, a large tourist trade.

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But the tourist money is fairly recent. Just outside town, the Trace comes to an end at a shabby intersection. This is Forks of the Road, the Y-shaped junction formed by St.

Franklin once ran the biggest operation at Forks of the Road, moving hundreds of people every month. But by the time Waller arrived, Franklin was gone. After he died, in , his body was shipped from Louisiana to Fairvue in a whiskey barrel. Today at the Forks there is a muffler shop and, next to it, a gutter-and-awn-ing business.


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  • Across the street, five historical markers stand on a naked lawn. No buildings on that half-acre. In Raymond, thanks to Thomas Dabney, Waller had gotten in touch with a slave seller named James Ware, a year-old with Virginia roots. Waller knew his family. At the Forks, Waller found a poke salad of low wooden buildings, long and narrow, each housing a dealer, each with a porch and a dirt yard in front.

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    The yards were parade grounds that worked like showrooms. Slaves for sale wore a uniform of sorts. The display was weirdly silent. They were sorted by sex and size and made to stand in sequence. Men on one side, in order of height and weight, women on the other. This sorting arrangement meant that it was more likely children would be sold from their parents. At the Forks, there were no auctions, only haggling. Buyers looked at the people, took them inside, made them undress, studied their teeth, told them to dance, asked them about their work, and, most important, looked at their backs.

    The inspection of the back made or broke the deal. Many people had scars from whipping. After examining the people on display, a buyer would talk to a seller and negotiate. It was like buying a car today. The man in the South who has done the most to call attention to the Slave Trail was born in Natchez in His parents named him Clifton M. During the black power years of the s he renamed himself Ser Seshsh Ab Heter. Machines did not replace human hands until the s.