From Pirates to Presidents: The Long Reach of America’s Illegal Slave Trade

Man Auction at the CapitolMan Auction at the Capitol. (Photo: The American Anti-Slavery Almanac, Internet Archive Book Images flickr)

On January 1, 1808, a new United States law prohibiting the international slave trade went into effect. The same law also strengthened punishments for Americans caught participating or financing the international trade. Over the next decade American newspapers reported some instances of illegal importation of slaves, but consistently presented this as done only by degraded and piratical men. Gregor MacGregor clearly fit that role.

In June of 1817, Gregor MacGregor, a mercenary, opportunist, and charlatan, sailed from Charleston, South Carolina, with a small fleet of privateers and a company of fighting men. On June 29, they invaded Amelia Island, the northernmost part of Spanish East Florida. The Spanish soldiers at Fort San Carlos in Fernandina overestimated MacGregor’s strength, panicked, and fled. MacGregor captured the town without firing a shot, and soon proclaimed the establishment of the “Republic of the Floridas.” His purposes soon became clear.

MacGregor’s first act as leader of the new “Republic” was to create a court of admiralty in the port of Fernandina. Soon, privateers with commissions from various Latin American revolutionary regimes arrived with captured vessels and cargoes called “prizes.” The “Admiralty Court of the Floridas” obligingly condemned these ships and cargoes for a fee. The most valuable captured cargoes proved to be slaves, and soon reports told of large numbers of them coming into Amelia. When MacGregor departed to take up other schemes, another corsair with a dubious reputation, Luis Aury, took his place. Under Aury, Fernandina was “annexed” to the Republic of Mexico, and the support for privateers continued.

Meanwhile, during the 1810s the rapid westward expansion of cotton production into Alabama and Mississippi created a powerful demand for slaves. According to some reports, after MacGregor captured Fernandina thousands of slaves were brought into the port, which lay just across the Saint Marys River from Georgia. Soon after arrival these slaves disappeared, presumably smuggled into Georgia, or Alabama, or Mississippi. Hezekiah Niles, the publisher and editor of Niles’ Weekly Register, wrote that, “this trade in human flesh is so profitable” that it could not be stopped unless American forces occupied Amelia Island. And so they did, just before Christmas of 1817. A United States Navy squadron and a battalion of soldiers took control of Amelia, putting an end to the corsair republic.

During this operation, the U.S.S. Saranac captured three ships carrying slaves. These ships, bearing 261 captive slaves, were sent into Savannah as “prizes” to be condemned by the Federal court there. Archibald S. Bulloch, the collector of customs at Savannah, wrote Secretary of the Treasury William Crawford about the cases, and explained that the African captives had suffered greatly. “Under…the influence of humanity,” he wrote, “it appears to be my duty to interest myself for the sufferers, and having an estate near the city…I have taken possession of forty in number.” Reflecting the paternalistic rhetoric of his day justifying slavery, Bulloch put forty captives to work on his plantation for no pay.

Four months later, in March 1818, William McIntosh wrote to Treasury Secretary Crawford expressing his frustration over what was happening in Georgia. “It is a painful duty,” he wrote, “[to report] that African and West Indian negroes are almost daily illicitly introduced into Georgia.” The problem was worse than permeable borders; Africans “recently captured by our vessels of war and ordered to Savannah, were illegally bartered by hundreds in that city.” When captured slave ships arrived in Savannah, McIntosh explained, the U.S. Marshal, John Eppinger, refused to take charge of the captives because “there was no provision made by law for support and maintenance of the slaves.”

Thomas U. P. Charlton, soon to be Savannah’s mayor, and James S. Bulloch, the Clerk of the Federal District Court, then offered to take the captives under bond. In one case, that of the Tentativa, Charlton and Bulloch took 102 captives, and gave a $20,000 bond. This was less than $200 per captive. The captives were then auctioned on Wright Square in front of the courthouse. Winning bidders gave second bonds for each captive, though all involved understood that those giving bonds had no intention of returning the captives. The bond payment was in essence a purchase price to Charlton and Bulloch, while Charlton and Bulloch’s bond for the whole was essentially a payment to the court. The difference between the two was the profit made by Charlton and Bulloch. Everyone – except the captives – was happy: the “purchaser” with his new African slave, Bulloch and Charlton with their profits, the court with bond money to pay claimants, costs, and attorneys. As the captives were initially valued at more than $300 each, this was a very profitable deal for Charlton and Bulloch.

Secretary of State John Quincy Adams was outraged by this and other involvement in the illegal slave trade by the Bulloch family of Savannah. The Bullochs, however, were extremely wealthy and well connected. Adams wanted more evidence before he risked public accusations. He ordered the United States Attorney for the District of Georgia, Richard Wylly Habersham, to investigate. From February through August of 1820, Habersham gathered evidence, but he was stonewalled. Ultimately he wrote John Quincy Adams: “[t]hat negroes have been introduced into the state, in violation of the law, that such negroes have been sold, and that there has been illegal trafficking…are facts of which there can be but little doubt.” Some captives were on a plantation 100 miles up the Savannah River, he reported, but there was no chance of rescuing them.

John Quincy Adams failed to get the goods on the Bulloch family, and he blamed Richard W. Habersham. He later wrote, “[t]he District Attorney had shown…that he was not the man to grapple with deep and deadly villainy supported by wealth and standing in society.” Adams would try in later cases to get clear evidence of the Bulloch family’s villainy, but never felt sure of the results. In one case, a letter from Archibald S. Bulloch to a convicted pirate discussing their business relationship disappeared from the files of the Federal Court in Savannah. James S. Bulloch was in charge of those records. Had Adams uncovered enough evidence to prosecute the Bullochs, he may have dealt a serious blow to the illegal slave trade. In a fascinating twist of history, James S. Bulloch was also the grandfather of President Theodore Roosevelt. Had Adams successfully prosecuted the Bullochs, he might have transformed the story of the Roosevelt family.

About the Author

Jonathan Bryant

Jonathan M. Bryant writes about the nineteenth-century American South and American legal history. He is the author of How Curious a Land: Conflict and Change in Greene County Georgia, 1850-1885 and Dark Places of the Earth: The Voyage of the Slave Ship Antelope. He teaches at Georgia Southern University.

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  1. Brian, clearly the occupation of NE Florida and later NW Florida made it clear that the U.S. intended to have Florida by hook or by crook. Yes, the Lafitte’s were long engaged in the solve trade, and Luis Aury had connections to them.

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