Updated: Aug 20
Painting of the CSS Alabama, from the Naval Historical Center
captained by Admiral Raphael Semmes during the Civil War, Wikimedia Commons.
With the commissioning of the United States Navy ship, USS Mobile, it's a good time to consider the ship captains in Mobile's early history whose energy and industry made a small French outpost on the Gulf into an internationally-recognized port of commercial exchange. We are often reminded that Mobile's early economic development stemmed primarily from the cotton trade and that it was her strategic location, with access to domestic markets on inland rivers as well as international shipping from the Gulf of Mexico, that made the city into a center of commercial exchange. But we cannot overlook the necessity of free, enslaved labor in creating this prosperity, the real economic impact of the domestic slave trade and the individuals behind it.
So instead of counting the escalating number of cotton bales and ships traveling in and out of Mobile or remarking on how their wealth was used in developing the city's infrastructure and culture, we can also consider the impact of those we sometimes overlook, labeling them passively as "slave traders" and "pirates," men who played a somewhat ambiguous role in a very uncertain economy.
Often perceived as outcasts to respectable society, they are popularly represented with rough-hewn clothing and an aura of arrogance or defiance. Imagined as inconceivably monstrous or merely disingenuous, as criminally-minded or swashbuckling opportunists. It helps us see beyond the stereotypes when we consider some of the most prominent "slave traders" and "pirates" of the nineteenth century as individuals and recognize that many were community-minded, well-respected businessmen, at least at some point in their lives.
We can take the example in Mobile of Benjamin Vincent. Born in 1796 in Milton, Pennsylvania, he came to Mobile just after Alabama received statehood, as did scores of other ambitious young men at that time, seeking wealth in the emerging markets of the deep south. His three siblings, John, Mary and Sarah did the same. His sister Sarah married the prominent Col. John B. Hogan. He was an early investor and active leader in Mobile’s financial progress. His connections as State Senator and position as Customs Collector at the port afforded Benjamin with new opportunities for economic success.
Benjamin married Ann Church Krafft, who was also from an ambitious Pennsylvania family. After she came with him to the still-developing port of Mobile, her siblings followed, including Michael Krafft, who settled in Mobile for a few years in the 1830s and was ultimately recognized nationwide as the founder of the Cowbellion de Rakin organization, the first "mystic parading society," recognized as the foundation for later "Mardi Gras" societies.
Benjamin Vincent was a civic leader and a family man. But he was also a slave-trader, representing a typical reality in the early nineteenth century south.
Sketch of early Cowbellion procession, Mobile Register, December 26, 1987
After arriving in Mobile, it didn't take long for the young Benjamin Vincent to become fully immersed in the system whereby adventurous young men with the personal or financial resources to get a start, purchased goods in the more cosmopolitan northeast, transported and sold them at great profit in the south and returned again with cotton, timber and other supplies for northern factories. Increasingly however, slaves bought and sold between ports in the United States, were a consistent part of their cargo. (1)
Although the international slave trade had been outlawed officially in 1808, slaves were transported to the deep south from ports all along the east coast. They were typically sold directly to buyers or at auctions held regularly near the ports. Slaves might be sold to work on large plantations as we typically envision but were also employed in cities for manual labor on the docks or as domestic servants. Whatever their function, the acceleration of the cotton trade went hand-in-hand with an expanding slave trade in the United States, made possible by the ships and their captains that carried them, negotiated deals and orchestrated public sales, even developing complex systems of credit on which plantation owners could arrange to purchase slaves months ahead of their arrival based on predictions for the next year's crop. Anxiously seeking their share in the profits, the active promotions of bankers, merchants and ship captains fueled the industry.
.[i] Advertisement from the City of Mobile Directory, 1837
There were also loopholes in United States policy on what to do when ships were captured with international slaves entering American waters illegally, which allowed devious businessmen to continue covert activities for many years, particularly the well-known brothers, Jean and Pierre Lafitte. Yet access to the city of Mobile was difficult for large ocean-bound ships. The problematic depth of the Mobile River meant that larger ships docked at Dauphin Island or downriver and then transferred their cargo to smaller boats to reach the city. This limited some of Mobile's market potential but also meant that while piracy did affect some of the ships bound to and from the city, and some, rumored to have been occupied in these criminal gangs, later settled in Mobile, the city was never a hub for their gathering. (2)
By 1824, Benjamin Vincent became captain of the ship, Thorn. He then captained a succession of ships in the later 1820's including the Fair Star, Emblem, Orleans, and Isabella among others. These were schooners, large sail ships with two or three masts, sleeping quarters and dining area to transport passengers, as well as separate decks for cargo, including slaves.
Between 1824 and 1834 the Vincents had four children, but for at least part of this time, from 1826 to 1830, records from the port of New Orleans show Benjamin’s residence as “on board” his ship, the Emblem. Clearly, he spent most of his time sailing on the rivers, bays, and channels of the Gulf Coast.
Benjamin Vincent achieved some of his success by working continually, when others wouldn’t; sailing into and out of the Gulf Coast ports even during the summer months when periodic Yellow Fever outbreaks kept many away. In the 1820s, the trip from north to south took about two weeks if everything went smoothly. But there were many hazards including the dangers of general navigation as well as the frequency of fires, explosions, and of course, piracy. So although Vincent made Mobile his home, he was seldom in port for very long until the later 1830s, when he established an office on Dauphin Street. Yet his sister Sarah and her husband lived on an estate in the Spring Hill area just outside the city limits which they called "Baywood" and the Vincents built a home there as well in 1827, providing an accommodating refuge for his wife and children. (3)
Vincent-Walsh House, 1664 Spring Hill Ave, c. 1827.
Photo by E. W. Russell, December 17, 1936, Historic American Building Survey,
Library of Congress
The Vincent home at 1664 Spring Hill Avenue is now the location of the Mobile Medical Museum, one of the oldest fully extant structures in Mobile. Benjamin Vincent however, was one of the most active slave traders in the City of Mobile, buying slaves locally or along the east coast to be sold in the ports of New Orleans, Biloxi, Bay St. Louis, Mobile or Montgomery. Over 200 slaves were registered as the property of Benjamin Vincent when arriving or departing New Orleans. (3)
Slave manifest of 1828, a document recording names and descriptions of each slave on board ships which came legally into and out of Antebellum ports.
Vincent was well known in New Orleans society but was even more involved and invested in the City of Mobile. He was thanked in the New Orleans press for example, for his regular delivery of national newspapers to their port in the late 1820s and his business ventures in Mobile were still being recognized in New Orleans ten years later. Yet during these years, he invested heavily in land around Mobile, including over 1000 acres in 1839 alone, just before his death. (4)
On October 30, 1839, Benjamin and his sister died on the same day, in their homes in Spring Hill, victims of the great Yellow Fever outbreak of that year which had already taken the life of his brother-in-law, Michael Krafft, who died in Pascagoula. All three were interred in Mobile's Magnolia Cemetery.
Too often we hear or use words like "slave trader" or "pirate" and specific ideas come to mind, based primarily on their representations in popular culture. But as we see so often, our collective memory doesn't always match the data and our attempts to impart our own sense of justice and morality on people whose experiences and perspectives were quite different from ours can lead to unrealistic interpretations. The lives of men like Benjamin Vincent represent the uncertainties and ambiguities of the era itself and defy our attempts to label them as good or bad. We would like to hold certain people responsible for the injustice and human atrocities of slavery and separate them from those who built the nation's prosperity but the reality is much more complex.
(1) Cities all across the country reported the details of a fire in 1820 that destroyed many warehouses on the river including that of Benjamin Vincent. Boston Gazette, September 12, 1820.
On April 4, 1823, the New York Evening Post reported that 205 bales of cotton and 1000 bushels of corn were destroyed by fire in a warehouse Vincent co-owned with Hogan. Total damage was estimated at $9,000.
"Look Out for Pirates," Times Picayune, August 12, 1837.
"Confessions of A Pirate," Hampshire Gazette, June 17, 1835, cites the death of a Mobile resident who claims to have been a pirate of Lafitte and responsible for the death of Aaron Burr's daughter, although others made similar claims at the time. This interesting article provides a brief summary of her life and the mystery of her death. https://www.atlasobscura.com/articles/the-dramatic-life-and-mysterious-death-of-theodosia-burr
wtblock.com/wtblockjr/lafitte.htm, Cites John Lambert rumored to have been a pirate under Lafitte who settled in Mobile in 1850
(3) Times Picayune, July 21, 1838
The National Archives in Washington, DC; Washington, DC; Slave Manifests of Coastwise Vessels Filed at New Orleans, Louisiana, 1807-1860; Microfilm Serial: M1895; Microfilm Roll: 2
(4) Times Picayune, April 18, 1827, Recognizes Vincent's delivery of news to the city from his ship, Emblem.
See Mobile Probate Property Records Index, 1813 - 1983.