Hidden History

The Forgotten Supervillain of Antebellum Tennessee

In a brutal business defined by cruelty, Isaac Franklin was perhaps the worst slave trader in all of cotton country. Yet today his heinous crimes are long forgotten.

The Forgotten Supervillain of Antebellum Tennessee

The people of Nashville hear slave trader Isaac Franklin’s great annual parade of misery long before they see it. The rhythmic thud of 400 trudging feet carries quite a way. Then comes the sound of men singing, “Cut him down, cut him down, catch him if you can.”

There’s a river and a field and a few scattered houses between Nashville and Franklin’s coffle coming down Gallatin Pike, but once it crests the hill at what will one day be known as Eastland Avenue, everyone up on the bluff can see it. A great centipede of 200 men chained together at the waist, their hands locked behind their backs, marching toward Nashville. A hundred women and children follow behind in wagons, destined for sale. A man with a fiddle walks alongside the chained men, playing to keep them moving at the same speed.

The time is late August 1833. Nashville is a village of 5,500 people living near the crumbling remains of Fort Nashborough. Log cabins are finally giving way to wood-framed buildings and, for the rich, brick. For the past seven years, it has been the state capitol, but it still has the feel of a frontier village. Most people are related or married into each other’s families. Gossip, drinking and duels provide most of the town’s entertainment.

The only bridge into town is the old stone-pillared toll bridge. In five years, when the Cherokee are forced across this bridge, sick, starving, afraid, Nashvillians will claim they were so moved by the suffering that they tried to help the refugees, but were rebuked by the soldiers escorting them. Yet the people in Franklin’s coffle are also sick and afraid. They’ve been walking clear from Alexandria, D.C., and they’ll keep walking all the way to Natchez, Mississippi.

From historical accounts of such marches, notably George William Featherstonhaugh’s “Excursion Through the Slave States” and Edward Baptist’s “The Half Has Never Been Told: Slavery and the Making of American Capitalism,” the picture comes into focus. The men’s bare feet are blistered and bloody. The haunted-looking women try to keep the spirits of the children up, but every night brings new horror. People are beaten and whipped. Franklin and the three other white men traveling with him take women off into the brush. Not far enough off. Everyone hears the women pleading. Later, they hear the women crying.

Almost everyone in Nashville has known Isaac Franklin since he was born. They all know about the women he keeps trapped on his farm outside of town. And they all know that, when Franklin’s captives get to Natchez, whatever hell they’ve faced on the road — the beatings, the rapes, the forced marches — will seem like the good old days. King Cotton will grind most of these people to a bloody pulp. The ones not destined for the plantation are likely destined for the brothel.

No one rescues them. A couple of local traders come out to talk to Franklin. He doesn’t even bother to get off his horse. He’s not as imposing as you might expect such a man to be. In portraits from the period, his black hair is fine and perpetually messy. He frowns instead of smiles and his eyes are dark with some secret disappointment.

One of the traders gestures to the middle of the coffle. The dark corners of history leave us to imagine their conversation. “I’ll give you $350 for the tall one over there,” he says.

“Gentlemen,” Franklin snorts, “that’s a buying price, not a selling price.” The man will bring eight to nine hundred dollars in Mississippi.

Franklin’s victims pass briefly among the villagers and then disappear down the Natchez Trace.

Some things in Nashville get saved. Nashville cherishes the stories of complicated men like Judge John Overton and Andrew Jackson, and protects them the same as it does the Victorian Ryman Auditorium or the mid-century modern Cordell Hull Building — now, anyway. By contrast, Isaac Franklin’s story, inconvenient for boosters and thus better forgotten, is buried. The richest man in the South, if not the whole United States, was born here, grew up here, lived here, married a local girl, and was laid to rest in one of the city’s finest cemeteries.

Yet it would be hard to find a less-discussed historical figure.

Isaac Franklin was born in Sumner County, just north of Nashville, in 1789. His parents had survived Indian attacks on Mansker’s Station north of town in 1781 — a station was a privately owned fort — and fought at the Battle of the Bluffs when American Indians attacked Nashville in April of that same year. Their home still stands at the corner of Saundersville Road and Lower Station Camp Road, about halfway between Gallatin and Hendersonville — now suburbs linked to Nashville by sprawl and interstates, then villages quite a way from town.

Isaac, his four brothers, and five sisters were born in that house. Though it’s among the oldest in the county, there’s no historical marker. A long time ago, someone planted a wall of trees — a row of evergreens, a row of hedges, a row of deciduous trees, and another row of evergreens — along the edge of the property, making the house virtually impossible to see from the road. Even if you know its exact location, it’s easier to drive past than to find.

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Isaac’s older brothers had a business shipping goods down the river to New Orleans, then bringing the money back up the Natchez Trace. They hired Isaac to travel with the goods, through all those uncivilized places — the woods, the river, Indian territory. Franklin passed vast fertile lands on his trips, lands with easy access to the port of New Orleans. If white men had some way to change these forests into fields, this land could make them wealthy.

But this was not land you just set loose a hog or two on the year before you came down to build your cabin. This was land that would need hundreds of men to clear. Hundreds of men to work. Franklin realized he could make a fortune selling black men to the white men who wanted to put cotton in Mississippi, and black women to the white men who would leave their wives back in civilization. He and his nephew, John Armfield, headquartered their operation in Alexandria, Virginia, and they began to trade.

In 1833, the slave-trading firm of Franklin and Armfield was buying at least 1,000 people a year out of the Mid-Atlantic states and selling them in New Orleans and Natchez, where Isaac Franklin spent most of his time. Drawing on Armfield’s experience in stagecoaches, according to historian Steven Deyle, they devised a great innovation in the shipping of slaves. They chartered, and later owned, boats that went to New Orleans on a regular schedule, whether or not the boats were full.

This meant that people who ran the Deep South slave markets could predict when shipments would arrive. They could also count on those boats to be making return trips back to the Eastern markets full of goods for sale. Someone from the firm, usually Franklin, made at least one overland trip a year.

Their slave jail in Alexandria, a narrow three-story white brick building, was pristine and well tended. Armfield’s offices were on the ground floor, and the slaves, when they weren’t in the yard, were kept in the basement. Slaves were fed and kept in clean clothes. Outsiders who stopped by could assure themselves that all was well. When the writer Ethan Andrews visited, Armfield insisted that the slavers did all they could to keep families together. Either this is a lie or Franklin & Armfield was capable of very, very little. The men and women in the jail were kept segregated.

“The women, in general, looked contended and happy,” Andrews noted in his book, “Slavery and the Domestic Slave-trade” in the United States, “but I observed a few who seemed to have been weeping.”

The inmates in Franklin and Armfield’s jail were being sent to cotton country. It goes without saying that no form of slavery is morally acceptable. But the terror in being sold “down South” came from the contrast between Mid-Atlantic slavery — where people had last names, got married, formed imperfect ways of keeping families together, and were parts of their communities — and slavery in the Deep South, a hell designed to torture and break people.

That breaking process started in the slave traders’ jail, when families were divided, and continued on the journey south. The overland trip was especially brutal: eight weeks on foot. Franklin took them in their coffle down the Great Valley Road in Virginia and then into Tennessee, where they eventually intersected the Avery Trace near Knoxville. The town of Gallatin stands at the far western end of the Trace. Once they made it that far, the coffle passed right by Isaac’s enormous home, Fairvue, near the Cumberland River just outside of town.

Even now, Fairvue is impressive. A subdivision full of enormous million-dollar homes has grown up around it, but the red brick home with its massive colonial chimneys seems to dwarf all the others. The back of the house is the same as the front: Two pairs of tall windows flank a column-framed two-story porch. Fairvue’s purpose was to be the grand center of a great farm, a place where a man could keep an eye on things. The house imposes upon the landscape in a way its neighbors don’t.

Perhaps the coffle camped there, with Isaac swapping out new slaves he wanted for old slaves he’d grown tired of. When the slaves arrived in Natchez in 1833, many of them were sick. That spring, Franklin had lost quite a few of his prisoners to the measles. By summer, the city was reeling from the cholera epidemic.

The trader found a way to cut his losses. Franklin wrote to his partners that he had started sneaking the dead bodies of his captives out of Natchez in the middle of the night and tossing them in the surrounding swamps. Except the people of Natchez noticed. They circulated a petition that stated that the city was filled with “obnoxious exhalations” and that someone had been “throwing the bodies of their Dead Negroes” into the waterways.

Now that Franklin was back in town, he could make apologies. He wasn’t quite charming enough to get away scot-free, but his punishment was just that he could no longer sell slaves within the city limits.

Apart from that minor setback, 1833 was a great year to be a slave trader. On November 1, Franklin wrote his business associate, R.C. Ballard, to recap:

We have sold all of our negros for good amounts & good profits accept [sic] some old negros say 18 in number all of which are the negros you sent accept [sic] of this those are yours to Richmond. Lillian Busson Sam cost $530 and Eyed Henry cost $282 could not be sold for $50 and Soloman and some others that might keep house until next Spring if they do not die before that time could have sold as many more of males as of had of the right kind were from $8 to 900 dollars field woman large and likely from 6 to 650 dollars we have no young girl on hand but your girl Minerva and she is a caution I sold your fancy girl Allice for $800 These are Great demand for fancy maid I believe that a likely girl and a good seamstress could be sold for $1000 I was disappointed in not finding your Charlottesville maid that you promised me you must ship all the first rate house servants by the first shipment after you receive this

Isaac’s lack of a formal education is well displayed here, but that’s not what registers most. First, there is the dismissive reference to a few slaves’ impending deaths (“… if they do not die before that time …”) There is the casual discussion of shipping, swapping and selling human beings — as if they were livestock to be assigned a price, but no worth.

Perhaps most chilling, though, is the idle chit-chat about the young women they raped and sold for sex, the “maids” and “fancy girls” — code words for light-skinned slave women. Every “your” in that phrasing — “your girl Minerva,” “your fancy girl Allice,” “your Charlottesville maid” — indicates that Isaac is teasing Ballard about his fondness for “fancy maids.” Not that Franklin saw anything wrong with that. Indeed, his disappointment at not finding the Charlottesville maid in the most recent shipment of slaves seems an admission he was hoping to get his turn.

Later letters between the two men and another nephew, James Franklin, make clear that the Charlottesville maid, a woman named Martha, was eventually raped by all three of them. This practice — not just of raping one’s slaves, but of openly bragging and joking about raping them — was so widespread that in his essay “‘Cuffy,’ ‘Fancy Maids,’ and ‘One-Eyed Men’: Rape Commodification, and the Domestic Slave Trade in the United States,” Edward E. Baptist maintains that “coerced sex was the secret meaning of the commerce in human beings.” In other words, this wasn’t some moral failing of a few rotten men. This was an important privilege of slave ownership.

Franklin and Armfield were making a lot of money specifically from selling women to men so that the men could rape them. White men were especially eager to pay for young, light-skinned women. Ethan Andrews wrote of the practice, “[M]ulattoes are not so much valued for field-hands, they are purchased for domestics, and the females to be sold for prostitutes…no objection seems to be felt to keeping in one’s house female slaves, who have been guilty of crimes for which a white female would forfeit her life.”

As Franklin noted in his letter, he was getting $800 to $900 for the kind of slave usually considered the most expensive — a strong male field hand — and the same for unskilled “fancy maids.” He thought a “fancy maid” who could also sew would bring more than that: $1,000. The letters the traders sent each other are peppered with references to “the fancy white maid” and “the fair maid” and “our white Caroline.” But Isaac’s letter hints at the cost of this abuse to the women. He couldn’t sell Minerva because she had become “a caution,” an old term for a woman who is too difficult to deal with.

What became of Minerva isn’t clear from the letter. A slave suitable for sex work must be somewhat compliant. If Isaac couldn’t break her will, likely she would have been be sold as a field hand. That Minerva hadn’t already been sold as such is surprising, unless Franklin was keeping her for his own pleasure. The traders had their favorite fancies, which they alternately shared with each other and held back for their own use.

One of them, a woman Franklin kept at Fairvue, Lucinda, bore him a son. According to the letter that accompanied the woman and child to Louisville trader William Cotton, Franklin wanted them gone from Fairvue before his wedding to Adelicia Hayes, a woman from one of Nashville’s most prominent families. Franklin’s vast wealth made his long career as a slave trader ignorable, his trail of victims all but invisible. He was a good marriage match for a respectable lady.

All things must come to an end, however. According to his biographer, Wendall Holmes Stephenson, Franklin retired from slave trading in 1835. Actually, “retired” is rather a strong word for it: Franklin ceased personally overseeing the large-scale buying and selling of people. But people were still being bought and sold on his behalf.

“Hertofore he had been known as Isaac Franklin, slave trader,” writes Stephenson, “but henceforward he was to be Isaac Franklin, planter.”

The facts paint a more complicated picture. Franklin and Armfield existed as a business entity, under one name or another, at least until Franklin’s death. Franklin spent a lot of time in the last decade of his life chasing down all the money others owed him. He seemed to relish collecting on old debts and, in fact, according to Stephenson, acquired a huge stretch of land along the Mississippi — five plantations’ worth — by making sure a business associate was impossibly indebted to him.

It’s also clear that Franklin didn’t care for the life of a planter. Almost as soon as he married Adelicia Hayes in 1839, he turned over much of the duties of running the day-to-day operations at Fairvue to his father-in-law. He came close at one point to selling his Louisiana property. Shortly before his death, he even threatened to sell Fairvue in a fit of exasperation. Seems his slaves killed an overseer.

Yet the vast wealth and power Franklin had amassed by that time skewed everything around him — so much so that the slaves who killed the white overseer were not put to death, just sent to Franklin’s Louisiana holdings. Even though Franklin insisted he would be fine with whatever judgment the slaves might receive, no one in Nashville dared find out if he was telling the truth.

What little information we have of his marriage indicates it was a happy union. Even though he had no formal education, Adelicia was well educated. Franklin’s letters portray a man who loved outsmarting people who’d underestimated him. It seems plausible that he took great delight in having a very smart wife who also would have been constantly underestimated because of her gender. Their daughters attended the finest schools in the South. He planned to leave each of them set for life with a lavish plantation for each of them on the land he owned in Louisiana.

None of his children with Adelicia lived to adulthood. The fate of his enslaved son is unknown.

Isaac Franklin died in 1846 in Louisiana. Adelicia shipped him to Nashville in a barrel full of whiskey, so that he’d be preserved for burial at his home. His estate at his death was worth at least $750,000 — something like $24 billion in today’s money. In 1849 Adelicia married Joseph Acklen, and even though she went on to marry a third time, that’s how we remember her today: as Adelicia Acklen, the Mistress of Belmont, the woman who saved her cotton from the Confederates and ran a Union blockade; the iron-willed matriarch who used prenuptial agreements to keep control of her vast fortune; the tragic mother who outlived six of her 10 children. Franklin and her marriage to him barely exist in the Nashville imagination.

Yet the city has a lot of things because of Franklin and his money. There is Gallatin Pike, which he helped pay for when it was a literal turnpike. There is the low-lying neighborhood of MetroCenter, which would never have been worth putting a levee around, if not for the race track Franklin partly owned. There is Belmont University, on the grounds of the mansion Adelicia built for herself after Franklin’s death with his money.

Franklin and Armfield money also made possible the resort community of Beersheba Springs, Tenn., and the University of the South at Sewanee. Nationally, we have the Ackland Art Museum in North Carolina and Angola Penitentiary in Louisiana because of Isaac’s money. And that’s not even counting his biggest impact on United States history. For a decade, he annually moved a village worth of people from one side of the country to another.

The silence around Franklin is odd because Nashville loves Adelicia Acklen. People pay money to tour her hilltop Italianate home, which now has Belmont University draped around it like a stylish shawl. If you have a couple of million dollars, you can live in a condo in the towering glass Adelicia building near Vanderbilt. People still leave red roses at her mausoleum in Mount Olivet cemetery. Franklin is in there too — but it’s the Acklen name on the front. Her name still means something.

So why doesn’t Isaac Franklin’s?

There’s one telling absence in his biography. He grew up in the Nashville area during a time when Andrew Jackson was shooting everyone who looked at him crosswise and other men were throwing down over every slight, real or imagined. There’s no record of Franklin ever having fought in a duel.

What’s more, Franklin lived just around the bend from Eliza Allen’s family. When she fled her husband Sam Houston, the village of Gallatin took to the streets with pitchforks and a burning effigy of Houston to drive him out of his position as Tennessee’s governor. There’s nothing to suggest that Franklin participated or had any opinion one way or another. His biographer, Wendall Stephenson frames this as Franklin being mostly unconcerned with politics, which sounds plausible — except that he goes on to describe the ways Franklin supported Jackson.

So it’s not that he didn’t care about politics. He just didn’t care about honor. He didn’t have any. And as long as Nashville came out to watch him parade his victims through the streets — as long as men who knew what he did to fair-skinned young women of color sold him the fair-skinned babies that magically arrived on their farms, looking so similar to their own children — Franklin knew the white people of Nashville had no honor, either.

Franklin knew you can’t be honorable and enslave people. Enslavers were cheaters, thieves, and rapists who sold their own children. He, Armfield, and Ballard regularly joked about being “land pirates.” Franklin wouldn’t pretend otherwise. He made no effort to allow the people who dealt with him to pretend they were on any higher moral footing.

The descendants of people who were or could have been his victims have apparently chosen to forget him, rather than to visit his grave once a week just to spit on it. But what of the rest of the city’s discomfort with Franklin, and our silence about him? Does it come from a recognition that his actions were evil, and subsequent shame? Or is it harder to promote Nashville as a shining city founded upon honorable deeds and values with Isaac Franklin as one of us?

Whatever the correct answer — or some mix of both — we’ve made of him a strange silence where a bad man used to be. What sort of people does that make us?

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This story was produced in collaboration with Nashville Scene. For more stories from Nashville, visit NashvilleScene.com.