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Aug 07, 2017

Sold With the Courthouse as a Backdrop

Equity court sale Jan 24 1825

In Sold on the Courthouse Steps, we discussed three types of sales of enslaved people through the local court system. We suggested that you search through newspapers to discover sheriff sales, equity court sales, and chancery court sales.  Here are a few more sales notices along with what we can glean from each one.

Runaway Sold

For decades, enslaved people confined to the Charleston Work House were also employed by them. It was situated in the same square as the Old Charleston County Jail. Rosena, a runaway, spent a year in the Work House. Afterwards, she was offered up for sale in the courthouse yard on October 14, 1857 in accordance with the Ordinance of the City of Charleston to pay for the expenses for keeping her confined to the Work House. To document the sale of Rosena, you could consult the sheriff sales book, deeds, and bills of sale.


Rosena_Sheriff sale Charleston 1857
Charleston Courier, October 14, 1857: accessed April 11, 2016, Headline?p=EANX-NB.


Family Sold in 1842

Jas. C. Richbourg was sued in 1842. To pay his debt, this advertisement gives notice about Wallis and Leah who were to be sold along with their two children at the northeast corner of the courthouse on November 8, 1842.  The sheriff sales book should provide the name of the purchaser.  Also check deeds and bills of sales that mention the person who made the purchase of Wallis and Leah. 


Wallis and Leah sheriff sale 1842
Charleston Courier, October 29, 1842: accessed April 11, 2016, Headline?p=EANX-NB.

Found in Property Records

It is quite disheartening to see ancestors advertised to be sold along with houses as forms of property, however, you come to comprehend the possibilities that exist for finding them in historical records as you would land or a house. They appear on deeds and mortgages.  You should consult these resources for the possibility that your ancestors who were enslaved may be mentioned.

In the advertisement below on January 3, 1843 at noon at the Charleston County Courthouse, the enslaved people below were sold to pay defendant’s debts. Avenues of research include records to document the enslaved people, the defendants, and the plaintiffs.

For example, Joshua Neville, owner of Somersett, and indebted to the Bank of the State lost all rights to Somersett according to the ad below.  To uncover more, you would research records to document:

  • previous transactions between Neville and the bank (perhaps a mortgage)
  • Neville’s ownership of Somersett (estate inventory, bill of sale, will)
  • the whereabouts or new owner of Somersett (deeds, bill of sales)

It is also important to keep in mind that when researching online newspaper databases, enslaved people were referred to in ways we would not use today.  You will find success using the following terms:

  • slave
  • servant
  • Negro
  • wench
Sheriff Brown sale Jan 2 1843
Charleston Courier, January 02, 1843: accessed April 12, 2016, Headline?p=EANX-NB.

Equity Court Sales

In cases where the decedent left property and had financial obligations that were not satisfied, that property was sold in the court of equity and applied to the remaining debts. Another reason for selling property was to divide the inheritance equally between the heirs.

Twenty-five “Negroes” were sold from the estate of Wm. Clement, owner of Island River Swamp Plantation. Searching records documenting this sale in equity court could tell you who made purchases and the names of the individuals sold.  Knowing the names of people who purchased the enslaved people (and their names) will hopefully help you to discover their future whereabouts.

Equity court sale Jan 24 1825
Charleston Mercury, January 24, 1825: 3, accessed April 12, 2016,

Sharpen the Saw

Identify online historical newspapers that are searchable prior to 1865.  Locate a notice or advertisement for a sheriff sale or equity court sale (not a private sale). Try to discern what courthouse records you would access to learn more about the enslaved people advertised to be sold. Look for confirmation that the sale actually took place. Let us know how about your success by commenting on the Facebook post for this article.

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