Slavery in Texas : Use of Portal content in researching slavery

The Portal to Texas history contains a number of different kinds of resources that are useful when doing research on the subject of slavery. The materials found in the Portal are almost entirely written documents, and are all told from an Anglo perspective. This is mainly due to the fact that many slaves did not have the opportunity to learn how to read or write, and therefore left very few records on their lives. Nonetheless, the materials found in the Portal, especially newspapers, provide an excellent glimpse into how Texans felt about slavery in the 19th century. This section of the exhibit will discuss the three main resources on slavery in the Portal, what they are, what they can tell us, and how they can be used in one’s own research.

Bills of Sale

Bills of sale are receipts written from the seller to the buyer as a proof of purchase. There are approximately thirty-fou Texas bills of sale, recipts, and sale agreements for slaves in the Portal. These items typically do not contain much information beyond the names of the buyer and seller, the name and age of the slave, or slaves, being sold, the amount spent for said slaves, and the date of the purchase. Some bills include details of the slave being sold, such as their skin color. These primary sources tell us how much some Texans were willing to pay for a slave, and demonstrate how expensive an asset a slave could be. The documents also provide the name of the slave, or slaves, being sold, and provide a paper trail for where these individuals ended up. Bills of sale put on full display what one man was willing to pay for another, and when used in conjunction with other materials, provide hard factual evidence in any scholarly work on slavery.


Within the Portal are a number of letters written by Texas slaveholders in the antebellum period. There are approximately 154 letters in the Portal that discuss slavery in Texas. Some of the letters are transcribed, while others are direct images of the original letter. In their letters, these Texans discussed their lives with family and friends, and in many cases brought up their slaves in relation to their lives. Typically when a slave holder brought up their slaves in letters, it was in regards to their plantation and their work. Some masters may have had slaves close to their immediate family, and may have also discussed them to some degree. Slaveholders frequently in letters mentioned slave sales and purchases they had been involved in. Even non-slaveholders discussed slavery in their letters, usually noting its importance in their counties economy. In letters written in the years leading up to the Civil War, many slaveholders discussed slavery in terms of national politics, and slavery’s overall importance to the South. These materials are useful in providing context to how average slaveholders viewed slaves and the use of slaves in their everyday lives. When used in conjunction with quantitative data, letters can be a useful tool in building a historical narrative in one’s research.


Newspapers are the most abundant resource in the Portal that covers slavery in Texas. There are approximately 5,860 Texas newspapers ranging from 1829-1869 that mention slavery in their full text within the Portal. Newspapers from the antebellum period are fantastic for determining how Texans felt about the institution of slavery, and how slavery affected their local communities. The papers on the Portal are county newspapers, and many papers circulated the same news as the other surrounding counties. Papers of the time typically consisted of four pages. The first page, and sometimes the second page, consisted of national news or major state news. The second page typically consists of local editorials. The third page would be a continuation of editorials and begin local advertisements all the way through page four. Discussion of slavery in Texas newspapers was common in both the national news and the local editorials. The length of the articles usually reflected the severity of the threat to slavery’s existence, and by the 1850s the topic of slavery consistently reigned on many newspaper cover pages.

Advertisements in the latter half of Texas newspapers contain a plethora of material on slaves, particularly runaways. In the advertisement section, slave owners posted runaway ads to the local community, offering rewards to anyone who apprehended the owners escaped property. These advertisements usually included the slaves name, a description of the escaped slave’s appearance, and where they were last seen. These ads provide excellent mental images of what common slaves looked like and what they wore. Runaway ads also show how much money owners were willing to pay in order to get their slave back. The advertisement pages included “want” ads for those who did not own slaves to “rent out” someone else’s slaves, and likewise owners put out ads to loan out their slaves to anyone who was interested.

Overall, newspapers are the best resource to utilize in the Portal when researching slavery in Texas. Newspapers allow users to grasp the importance of slavery in the words of those who participated in and advocated for the institution, and begin to fully understand how deeply rooted slavery was in antebellum Texas society, economics, and politics.

Other Resources

There are other types of resources in the Portal related to slavery that could be used in researching the subject. Most of the other resources include important documents from the antebellum period, such as letters from state senators and Congressional bills that mention slavery. There is also some literature concerning slavery in Texas that has been digitized, and in some cases transcribed, in the Portal. These documents put Texas in the overall context of the debate over slavery in the United States, and demonstrate that Texas was a bona fide slaveholding state, leaving no doubt as to what the majority of Texans thought in regards to the continued existence of slavery within or without the Union.

Bill of sale for three slaves to William Murrell, September 20, 1849

This is a bill of sale for the slaves Anderson, Henry, and Maloina to William Murrell by Samuell Murrell, from September 20, 1849 for $1500. These three slaves, when calculating the purchase with 2015 US currency inflation compared to 1849, would have cost approximatley $46,875.

Bill of Sale of a Slave Named Adam (or Tircis), December 15, 1859

This is a blll of sale for a slave of the deceased  Pierre Riviere of New Orleans, Louisiana. The slave, named either Adam or Tircis, was sold at an estate auction to Lucretia Van Woert of Sapine Pass, Texas for $1,225, or $33,413 by 2015 US currency standards. Texans frequently purchased slaves from New Orleans due to the ports proximity to Texas, and also because New Orleans acted as one of the largest slave auction circuits in the Mississippi River Valley during the antebellum period.

Letter from John Patterson Osterhout to Sarah Osterhout, March 8, 1852

In a letter to his mother, John Patterson Osterhout, describes his new environs in Texas. Originally from Pennsylvania, Osterhout describes how in Bellville, Texas wealth was not measured in how much land someone owned, but rather how many slaves they owned.

Two slaves caught near Austin, Texas

This image comes from the advertisement section of an 1850 issue of the Texas State Gazette, a newspaper based out of Austin, Texas. This advertisement is calling for the owner of two captured slaves, Aleck and Elias, to come to the Travis county jail to pick up their slaves and pay the catchers, lest they become subject tot the law wherein they would be sold at a county auction.

Black Codes in Texas Regarding Runaway Slaves 1857

From the front page of the Houston, Texas based paper, The Weekly Telegraph,  this image displays a section of the Texas Black Codes regarding runaway slaves and those who assist slaves in running away. According to Chapter Five Section THirteen, if a person advocates for a slave running away, or assists them in the process, then that person could face between one and seven years in a state penitentiary.

The War in Texas by Benjamin Lundy

The War in Texas by Benjamin Lundy, a man who once tried to start a free black colony in Mexican Texas, is a work that examines the causes and results of the Texas Revolution. Published a year after the war, Lundy's work convinced many prominant American government officials, including John Quincy Adams, that Texas seperated from Mexico to protect slavery and the dangers of annexing another slaveholding state into the Union.

Runaway slave ad for Joe, William B. Travis's slave

This is a runaway slave ad from 1837 for Joe, the former slave of the late William B. Travis, the famous commander of the Alamo defenders. Joe was one of the few to escape the Alamo with his life, and spread the word about what happened at that famous siege. Joe, despite the runaway ad, made his way to Travis's original home in Alabama successfully, and lived out the rest of his life there.