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Sale of Slave to Help Clear the Cape Fear River in North Carolina
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Planter Isaac Holt sells a 22-year-old African American slave named Wester for $600 to the Cape Fear Navigation Company, and State Senator Archibald Murphey, a champion of internal improvements, witnesses the bill of sale.

[SLAVERY]. ISAAC HOLT. Manuscript Document Signed, Bill of Sale for “Wester” to Cape Fear Navigation Company, June 23, 1817. 2 pp., 8 x 14 in.

Inventory #24408       ON HOLD

In 1815, the North Carolina legislature amended the charter of the Deep and Haw River Navigation Company to change the corporation’s name to the Cape Fear Navigation Company. Its purpose was to “work Cape Fear River from Wilmington to Fayetteville” and “clear the river of logs and shoals” so that steamboats could navigate the 100 miles between Fayetteville in south-central North Carolina and Wilmington on the coast. Using slave labor, the company began construction of canals to bypass Smiley’s Falls and Buckhorn Falls in Harnett County, north of Fayetteville. In 1818, the president of the company reported that 45 miles of the river had been cleared of snags.

The Company regularly employed slave laborers both to dig canals and to make improvements in river navigation. Many tasks, including removing cypress stumps by underwater diving or building and repairing locks, required considerable skill. The company maintained a flotilla of barges, steamers, and a shanty boat for slave quarters and a workshop, which moved among worksites along the river. The Company also recruited free laborers, mainly Irish and Slavic immigrants from northern cities. Free labor, however, never really met the Company’s need for labor. The Company’s workforce often reached 200, of whom approximately 40 were slaves owned by the Company and 15 were slaves hired from their masters.

Eventually, the company created a 27-mile canal that, along with continual maintenance to ensure the river’s navigability, allowed an increase in traffic during the 1840s and 1850s. The Cape Fear Navigation Company was the first internal improvement project funded by the state that returned a dividend. However, the Company went bankrupt in 1860, and most of its slaves were sold at auction in Fayetteville.

Complete Transcript

Know all men by these Presents that I Isaac Holt of Orange County in North Carolina for and in Consideration of the sum of six hundred Dollars to him in hand paid by the Cape-Fear Navigation Company, the receipt whereof is hereby acknowledged, hath bargained and sold and by these Presents do bargain & sell to the said Cape-Fear Navigation Company a certain Negro Fellow named Wester aged about twenty two years: To Have and To Hold the said Negro Fellow, Wester, to the said Cape-Fear Navigation Company for ever, and I will warrant and defend the Title to the said Negro Fellow Wester to the said Cape-Fear Navigation Company for ever. In witness whereof I have hereunto set my Hand and affixed my seal this 23d June A.D. 1817

                                                                                    Ic Holt {seal}


A. D. Murphey.


Isaac Holt / To / The Cape-Fear Navigation Company / Bill of Sale for Negro Wester. / $600.

Isaac Lockhart Holt (1773-1823) was born in Orange County, North Carolina, to Michael Holt II (1723-1799), who inherited much property from his father. During the Revolutionary War, Michael Holt II initially joined the loyalists but then remained at home and supplied the Americans though he fought for neither side. He and his second wife, Jean Catherine Lockhart, had seven children, including Isaac Lockhart Holt, to whom they gave both land and slaves. The younger Holt married Letitia Wale Scott in the 1795, and they had eight children. In 1800, he owned 5 slaves, and by 1810, he increased that number to 13 slaves. After his first wife died in 1812, he married Mary Blair in 1813. In 1820, he owned 24 slaves. His household also included six white persons, two of whom were children, and one free black male aged 26-44. In Holt’s household, eight people were engaged in agriculture, one in commerce, and two in manufactures.

Archibald D. Murphey (ca. 1777-1832) was born in North Carolina to a Revolutionary War officer and graduated from the University of North Carolina in 1799. He studied law and purchased a plantation from his father-in-law. Murphey represented Orange County in the North Carolina Senate from 1812 to 1818. While in the Senate, he made several proposals for internal improvements, public schools, and constitutional reform. His 1817 legislative report recommending a publicly financed system of education, earning him the title of “Father of Education” in North Carolina. In 1819, he drafted a proposal for a system of roads and canals throughout the state. From 1818 to 1820, he served as a superior court judge and sometimes substituted for one of the three judges on the North Carolina Supreme Court when they could not serve. The historical documents he gathered for a planned history of the state were useful to later historians, though he never wrote the history.

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