Lesson Plans

Early National

The Internal Slave Trade in the 19th Century
Author: Eric Luedtke
School: Loiederman Middle School
Grade Level: 8th
Time Estimated: 1-2 days (90 minute periods)

Enduring Understanding

After the constitutionally mandated end of slave imports to the United States in 1808, expansion of slavery required the development of an internal, migratory slave trade. This trade involved the forced migration of slaves from older self-reproducing slave societies on the eastern seaboard to newly developing regions in the old southwest. This new form of trading required the development of a trade network that included transportation via slave coffle and coastal shipping and an infrastructure for slave sales. It also did profound damage to the community and familial structures that had been established by slaves in the east.

The slaves moved from plantation cultures centered around the cultivation of tobacco, rice, and indigo to cultures centered around the cultivation of cotton and sugar. As such, this internal slave trade was largely a product of economic trends, most notably the explosion of cotton cultivation following the invention of the cotton gin. But while the details of a slave’s daily life may have changed, the basic structure of slavery did not.


Students will be able to describe the internal slave trade by writing a response to a specific prompt concerning the internal slave trade while using information from primary source material.


Unit 8.3 "Geographic and Economic Change Shape the Nation, 1815-1850"
Lesson Sequence 4.2 "Slavery Impacts the Nation's Economy"



Activating Prior Knowledge:

Using a projector, display the Warm-up image, “Cotton Culture – Covering in the Seed,” which shows a slave work gang and overseer planting cotton seed.

The warm-up prompt is a technique called "See, Think, Wonder," which serves both to activate student's prior knowledge about slavery and get them into the mode of interpreting sources. It is meant to be taken a step at a time:

  • first, students write down and discuss literally what they see with no interpretation whatsoever;
  • second, they write down and discuss their interpretation of what they think is happening;
  • third, they write down and discuss things in the image that they do not understand.

The method works better with practice, so regular use will see better results. This particular image is rich with possible interpretations that can be made. Conclusions can be reached about slave living conditions based on the subject of the picture and the condition of the slave clothing, about how farming was done based on the implements and the presence of the scarecrow (the thing hanging from it is a bag of rocks and a pan, which are meant to bang together in the wind to scare away the birds), and about what is actually happening in the image – e.g. whether the man in the lower right hand corner is going to use the gun in front of him to try to kill the overseer and whether the other slaves are actively helping him to do so.

An audio recording of a work song with probable roots in slave work songs called "It’s a long John," which can be played while students work. The song was recorded by John and Alan Lomax at Texas' Darrington State Prison Farm in 1934. It can be accessed at http://historymatters.gmu.edu/d/5758/

Group Work on Interpreting Primary Sources:

Distribute to students the Worksheet (titled, “Migratory Slave Trade Handout”) and explain the task, which requires them to go through a series of steps to interpret primary sources.

    For students who need more support, it may help to go through the parts of the task one at a time just before students do them, rather than going through everything at once at the beginning of the task.

Divide students into groups, distribute the Primary Source Worksheets, and set them to work. I give my AP Prep students one minute for step 1, 20-30 minutes for step 2, 5 minutes for step 3, and ten minutes for step 4.

Presentation of Interpretations:

Groups will stand one by one to present what they’ve learned to the class. My AP Prep students take notes in a journal, and during this portion of the lesson would be writing down main idea from other group’s presentations and the ensuing. It might be helpful for other classes to create a graphic organizer designed specifically for the note-taking.

During the presentations, add in any important interpretation or factual information students have missed.


Either before this lesson or after, students can read and take structured notes on related text, including Chapter 11, Part 2 of Creating America: A History of the United States.

More advanced students could be asked to combine their interpretive statements and notes on the interpretive statements of other groups into a written response similar to an AP-style Document Based Question response.


There are a number of ways to differentiate aside from the differentiation ideas mentioned in the procedures section. Before splitting students into groups, you could do an example with the entire class based on the warm up image. Reducing the number of primary sources each group does would cut down on time needed for interpretation. Having one recorder per group would allow students to verbalize rather than write responses if they have difficulty writing or are slow at it.


You could use the Assessment for the lesson as either a stand-alone exit card or as an item in a larger quiz. The rubric is included in the document.

References: Web

The African American Migratory Experience

    This is without doubt the best and most accessible compilation of primary sources on the slave trade that exists on the web. It has a large compendium of categorized images and text sources.

Excerpts from Slave Narratives compiled by Steven Mintz, University of Houston

    This site lists a number of slave narratives on various subjects. While many of them use complex or outdated language, they are largely still accessible to students. I’ve found Solomon Northup's sources to be especially useful for my students.

Documenting the American South, UNC Library

    A massive collection of resources related to the history of the south. Many of these documents apply to slavery, though the site has a much broader focus. I’ve found their search tool difficult to use, although extra time spent there has resulted in some great primary source finds.

The Atlantic Slave Trade and Slave Life in the Americas: Slavery Image Search

    An excellent resource for finding images about the slave trade. It’s especially useful since the search tool allows you to actually see images when you browse them, rather than seeing short descriptors or titles.

History Matters, George Mason University

    A very useful starting place for any search, this site lists both primary sources and links to external websites with primary sources. I find that their collection of primary sources on the first half of American history is a little slim, but the links are excellent.