Updated: Apr 26
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 complex identities behind it.
The escalating number of cotton bales and ships traveling in and out of Mobile is typically cited in measuring the accumulated wealth of the cotton trade. New construction, infrastructure and cultural development followed, Yet while census numbers show dramatic growth, the population remained highly transient in the 1830's, with a smaller number of committed leaders dedicated to the city's future. Benjamin Vincent became one of these leaders, who purchased large amounts of land, worked actively for new development and concerned himself with civic affairs.
Yet, Benjamin Vincent was also a slave-trader. One of those often perceived as outcasts to respectable society, 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" of the nineteenth century as individuals and recognize that many were community-minded, well-respected businessmen, at least at some point in their lives. They held a somewhat ambiguous role in a very uncertain economy.
Born in 1796 in Milton, Pennsylvania, Vincent came to Mobile just after Alabama received statehood in 1819, as did scores of others, seeking wealth in the emerging markets of the deep south. He 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.
Three of Benjamin Vincent's siblings, John, Mary and Sarah, followed the same route from Pennsylvania to the Gulf Coast. His sister Sarah married the prominent Col. John B. Hogan, 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, also from an ambitious Pennsylvania family. When she came with him to the still-developing port of Mobile, her siblings followed as well. Her brothers John and Michael Krafft gained contacts and recognition from Benjamin. Although their lives were spent in and around the Gulf Coast ports, John and Michael Krafft each kept an office in Mobile for a few years in the 1830s.
Michael, it seems, was particularly popular and gregarious. After inviting friends to join him in a New Year's Eve procession, he organized the group into a fraternal society which they humorously called the "Cowbellion de Rakin Society." Yet as their financial successes accumulated, their organization and annual procession grew in prestige, ultimately recognized nationwide as the first "mystic parading society," which established the forma and foundation for later "Mardi Gras" festivity.
Sketch of early Cowbellion procession, Mobile Register, December 26, 1987
Respected not only as a leader of his influential extended family, Benjamin Vincent was an active civic leader and family man. But as a slave-trader, he represented a typical reality in the early nineteenth century south.
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
Vincent was first listed as captain of the ship Thorn in 1824. 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. Increasingly however, slaves bought and sold between ports in the United States, were a consistent part of their cargo. (1)
Slave manifests of 1828, a document recording names and descriptions of each slave on board ships which came legally into and out of Antebellum ports.
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 as 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. (2)
The cotton trade was a tumultuous and unstable business, with profits based on uncertain predictions for the next year's crop. But some of Vincent's success was likely achieved through his abundant effort. He worked 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 and 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. At this time he also invested in a carriage business for overland transportation.
Vincent-Walsh House, 1664 Spring Hill Ave, c. 1827.
Photo by E. W. Russell, December 17, 1936, Historic American Building Survey,
Library of Congress
While Benjamin was frequently onboard ships, 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) 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.
Times Picayune, April 18, 1827,
Recognizes Vincent's delivery of news to the city from his ship, Emblem.
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.
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. (3)
Too often we hear or use words like "slave trader" and specific ideas come to mind, based primarily on their representations in popular culture. But 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.
(2) 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
(3) See Mobile Probate Property Records Index, 1813 - 1983.