Buying Freedom

Dr. William Bassett paid $600 for Alvin Coffey in 1846 and then sold him for $1000 in 1851. How much money would that be today?

I was asked that question last Saturday when I gave a talk about my books at the Mary Aaron Museum in Marysville (the museum is, by the way, a charming place and well worth visiting). I ended the presentation with a quick look at my forthcoming book Alvin Coffey: The True Story of an African American Forty-Niner.

I mentioned that Alvin paid $1000 to get his Deed of Emancipation. One of the folks in attendance asked me “How much is that in today’s dollars?” Time to check!

Whenever I want to know the value in today’s money of a quantity from earlier times, I turn to Measuring Worth, a reliable economic website. Measuring Worth will not give you a simple answer, but you can count on getting a thorough and dependable one.

Using 1850 as a base year, $600 would be at least $20,500 today, and $1000 would be $24,800. I have to say “at least” because MW will give several different answers, depending on whether you are comparing the cost or value of a commodity, income or wealth, or a project.

They actually have an entire article on Measuring Slavery in 2020 Dollars, which recommends three measures for discussing the value of a slave. “They are: labor or income value, relative earnings and real price.” It’s a lengthy article, but worth reading if you want to understand the economics of slavery in the antebellum South.

Using those three measures, $1000 is either $24,800 (real price of commodities), $285,000 (relative earnings — the ability to purchase goods), or $570,000 (income value — “net value of the future labor services a slave would provide”). However you measure it, buying a slave was a big investment and selling a slave netted the seller a considerable amount of money, comparable to the price of a house.

Alvin Coffey says in his memoir:

Going home in 1851 we went by way of New Orleans. He said, “Let us go to the mint and have our gold coined.” He kept my money ($616) and when we got up into Missouri, he sold me for a thousand more. My labor on his farm amounted to $360, I made $5500 for him in California, he kept my $616 I had saved and sold me for $1000, in this way clearing $6,876 clear profit.

(Alvin also earned money making hay in California.)

The Doctor got 1/5 of that money; 137 tons at $80 a ton amounts to $10,960, and 1/5th of that is $2,196. Now adding this $2,196 to that $6.876 profit he had off of me before and it amounts to $9,072 clear profit. Some say slavery is not profitable!

Coffey, Alvin Aaron. 1901. “Autobiography and Reminiscence of Alvin Aaron Coffey”

$9072 comes out to $310,000 (real price), $2,580,000 (relative earnings), or $5,170,000 (income value). Slavery was profitable indeed!

About nancyleek

Nancy is a retired librarian who lives in Chico, California. She is the author of John Bidwell: The Adventurous Life of a California Pioneer.
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