Forrest and the Slave Trade

From his beginnings as a young farmer at the age of 13, Bedford Forrest continued to clear land around his widowed mother’s farm. It was “a life of poverty, toil and responsibility,” but with the help of his siblings, the farm grew and returned increased profits, permitting Bedford to purchase additional land for more crops. As Forrest matured into his early 20’s, he was tutored in the business world by an uncle and other relatives and sharpened his business acumen on his crop and land deals.

North Mississippi was still the frontier in the 1840’s but its proximity to the growing city of Memphis provided a ready market for Forrest’s produce and increased his land business. Forrest soon expanded his vocation by joining in his uncle Jonathan’s livery stable and horse-trading business, and he and his brothers became accomplished horsemen as well. In 1845, at the age of 24, Bedford married Mary Ann Montgomery and settled in Hernando, MS, a mere 20 miles south of Memphis.

In 1851, as the Forrest farm holdings increased, as did his income, Bedford could afford to employ slave labor to work the expanding farmland. The scope of his business, too, now having outgrown Hernando, Forrest moved to the bustling, booming river port of Memphis. There he dealt in cotton, in plantations, in livestock and, as an offshoot to his other business, he now found it economically expedient to get into another accepted commerce: the slave-trade business.

“It is said Forrest was kind to his negroes; that he never separated members of a family, and that he always told his slaves to go out in the city and choose their own masters. There is no instance of any slave taking advantage of the permission to run away. Forrest taught them that it was to their own interest not to abuse the privilege; and, as he also taught them to fear him exceedingly, I can believe the story. There were some men in the town to whom he would never sell a slave, because they had the reputation of being cruel masters.”

One of his regular customers was a Negro slave-trader from Kentucky, who routinely bought and sold over 1200 slaves in a year.

Testimony is unanimous that besides the ordinary good business practice of looking after the physical well-being of the slaves he bought and sold, he went to lengths to keep families together, and even to reunite them, so as to avoid the painful separations that were too common in the days of the rapid expansion of cotton planting in the lower Mississippi River region; and that frequently he was besought by slaves to purchase them, because of his reputation for kindness and fair treatment.

In 1858, Bedford Forrest was elected an alderman (city councilman) for the city of Memphis and re-elected in 1859. Early in 1859, Forrest had had enough of the demands of his business trades and thus the real-estate, livestock, and slave business was closed out in Memphis, and Alderman Forrest resigned to settle on his plantation in Mississippi. Before the end of the year, however, he returned to make his residence in Memphis, where he was promptly re-elected as Alderman, to serve his unexpired term until 1860. He never reentered the slave-trade business.

Facts & quotes taken from “First With the Most”, Robert Henry, pg. 23-27.

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