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Woodson Research Center - Fondren Library -  Rice University

Slavery's Frontier

Advertisement for Slaves for Sale in Houston

This advertisement for the sale of slaves was placed in Texas newspapers by Edward Riordan, another Irish American Houstonia, on the eve of the Civil War. Documentary evidence shows that Dowling and Riordan knew each other well.

By the time of the Civil War, slavery was a growing institution in Texas, and Confederate Texans, like secessionists in other states, were determined to make sure that slavery survived the conflict. The labor of enslaved men and women was crucial to the economy of the Confederate states, and slaves themselves were valuable property. By 1860, there were around 4 million enslaved people in the United States, accounting for about one third of the total population of the slaveholding South. As cotton cultivation expanded in states like Alabama, Louisiana, and Texas in the decades before the war, slavery expanded with it.

At the beginning of the war, the size of Texas's total slave population ranked ninth among the states that comprised the Confederacy. But the number of slaveowners, the number of slaves, and the average price of slaves had all climbed rapidly in the decades since 1835. Enslaved persons made up approximately 30 percent of the state's total population according to the 1860 federal census. In several counties near Houston, including Brazoria, Fort Bend, and Montgomery counties, the majority of the county's population was enslaved. Even in northern prairie counties around Dallas, where there were fewer slaves in 1860, white residents testified that this was due to high prices for slaves rather than a lack of demand (Item 756).

Thus, in the words of historian Randolph B. Campbell, "Texas was slavery's frontier during the late antebellum period; it held the promise of growth and vitality for years to come." (See further reading for Campbell's works.) By 1860, leading white Texans believed that the state's fertile soil made it well-suited for the expansion of cotton production. Some even advocated the reopening of the African slave trade, which had been banned by the United States Congress since 1808. Average slave prices in Texas doubled between 1850 and 1860, but the state's slave population still grew by 200 percent.

Census Pages from the 1860 Slave Schedule

This is a clip from one of two census pages in this exhibit that indicate Dick Dowling was an "employer" of slave labor in 1860. This means Dowling paid the legal owners of the slaves listed in order to "rent" their labor.

Slavery's growth and vitality was evident on the streets of antebellum Houston, as well. More than 1,000 enslaved persons lived in Harris County. One of the state's wealthy slave traders, Edward H. Riordan, served as a city alderman on the eve of the War and kept his offices and warehouses in Houston near the site of a bar owned by Dick Dowling, the Bank of Bacchus (Item 609). But even Houstonians who did not, like Riordan, buy or sell enslaved people also benefited from the system of slavery. Houston's financial and mercantile community depended on business from the cotton and sugar plantations in surrounding counties where enslaved laborers were numerous. Moreover, white Houstonians who did not legally own slaves could still "hire out" enslaved laborers for a set period of time by paying money to their legal owners. This practice of the renting of slaves by slaveholders to non-slaveholders increased the number of white Texans who had a vested interest in the institution of slavery.

The prewar history of slavery in Texas helps explain why leading secessionists trumpeted their commitment to the institution early and often. When secessionists gathered in Austin in February 1861 to adopt an ordinance of secession from the Union, secession leaders also issued a declaration of causes that defended racial slavery and proclaimed that it would be a permanent institution in the state. (Click here for the secessionists' declaration.) The following month, secessionists adopted a revised state constitution that explicitly prohibited private citizens or the legislature from emancipating slaves. (Click here for the state constitution of Confederate Texas.) For the remainder of the war, those fighting in Texas for the success of the Confederacy would be fighting for a state that was firmly committed to the institution of slavery.

Dick Dowling's early support for the secession movement in Texas suggests that he, too, accepted its stated commitment to slavery, although there is little documentation of Dowling's prewar political views. While there is no evidence that Dowling owned slaves, census records show that he participated in the "hiring" the labor of slaves who were legally owned by others. At least three slaves owned by hotel proprietor H. H. Milby, including a twelve-year-old boy, are listed as being in Dowling's temporary employ in the slave schedule of the 1860 census (Item 819). The work performed by these unnamed men is unknown, but Dowling's use of their labor is strong evidence that he, like other white Texans at the time, did not object to slavery and benefited from it.

Revised April 3, 2012

Runaway Slave Advertisement in an 1860 Houston Newspaper

In 1860, H. H. Milby, the slaveholder who rented the labor of several slaves to Dowling, was the proprietor of the Old Capitol Hotel, located a few blocks away from Dowling's saloon, the Bank of Bacchus. Milby's name appears here next to a runaway slave advertisement.