1845: W. W. Mertens to Robert Leslie

A Slave Auction in Richmond, Virginia

This letter was written by W. W. Mertens (born about 1820 in New York) who had an office at 25 Commercial Place in New Orleans. From this letter we can conjecture that Mertens was an associate of Robert Leslie to whom he wrote the letter. Robert Leslie was a member of the Virginia mercantile firm of Leslie and Shepherd, a dealer of tobacco, and a slave owner. In this letter, Mertens reveals his efforts to hire out the labor of Leslie’s slave Robert in New Orleans. It’s clear that Leslie has just informed Mertens that he has sent his slave Randal to New Orleans to be sold thinking he could fetch a better price in Louisiana than Virginia.

Robert Sykes was the property of Robert Leslie. He was transported with 27 other slaves from Virginia to New Orleans by John Merten (probably a relative of W.W. Merten) on board the barque Bachelor captained by Hiram Horton, arriving in New Orleans on 6 January 1845. The Manifest of Slaves records his age as 31, his height at 5 foot, 7 1/2 inches, as his color as “Yellow.”

A year and a half later, Robert Sykes was returned to Virginia with 24 other slaves ranging in age from 14 to 59. They were transported on the Brig Peconic captained by W. C. Park, departing New Orleans on 6 July 1846. Robert was delivered to City Point near Petersburg. The Manifest of Slaves accompanying this transport shows that in the 1 1/2 years he was in New Orleans, Robert lost four years of age & gained 1 1/2 inches in height, though he still was recognizable by his distinctive “yellow” skin coloration. These attributes no doubt increased his value in the Richmond Slave market.

Nothing further could be found on Robert Sykes though there is a black man enumerated in the 1870 U. S. Census in Richmond, Virginia, by that name (though spelled Sikes) whose age was given as 50 (born @ 1820), a Mulatto, and whose occupation was a brick mason. He is enumerated with Eliza Sykes, presumably his wife, also a Mulatto, and born about 1825. This same Robert and Eliza appear in the 1880 U.S. Census living in Richmond, Virginia under the name of Sykes with reported ages of 63 and 60 years, respectively. This would place his birth date around 1817 which is consistent with the slave Robert. Neither Robert nor Eliza could read or write in 1870.

Stampless Cover



Addressed to Robert Leslie, Esq., Petersburg, Virginia

New Orleans, [Louisiana]
21 February 1845

Robert Leslie, Esq.

Dear Sir,

I wrote you on the 1st and have since your esteemed favor of 3d.

I have taken Robert Sykes from the man to whom I first hired him, & hired him from this to 1 July ’45 at thirty dollars a month, his board & lodging found which is equal to $36 – $38. I could not sell Bob if I was offered a high price for him, not having a power of attorney, nor bill of sale of him. However, at the present rate he hires at, he will yield more than any price you can possibly get for him.

I am sorry you are sending Randal here. He cannot be sold for as much as in Virginia. However, you know I will do my utmost to serve your interest.

I notice your remarks in regard to tobacco. I have lately received a number of samples from Lamottes of B____ with tables of prices with proceeds in New Orleans, & I find I can buy now — old Tobacco — last year’s inspection at 3 3/4 — such as last summer solf for 4 3/4 to $5. And according to Lamottes samples, prices &c. would suit for “saucing” yield nett in New Orleans 5 1/2.

If you feel disposed to buy a little adventureof 20 or 25 hogheads & will allow me to value on you for actual cert & charges, I’ll ship them for you on account & look to half profits for my commission. Old Lugs are selling for 1 1/2 — new 2 1/4.

I am, dear Sir, your most truly, — W. W. Mertens

I have reserved the right to annul the __ of ___ Sykes at any time by 10 days notice.

  • August 28, 1845: “The Richmond, Va., Enquirer of the 20th inst., mentions that the barque Bachelor, Capt. Horton, lying in that port, has been chartered by the United States Government to take troops to Texas. She was to leave in the course of a few days for Old Point Comfort, where the troops were to embark, and ammunition and stores to be taken on board.”

Slave Manifest Transporting Sykes to New Orleans

Slave Manifest Transporting Sykes Back to Virginia

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