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Constance Alexander: Image of slaves being herded in chains haunted Lincoln for decades

There are bad words that should not be used in public, and some obscenities that have no place in private either. And then there are words that mean bad things that everyone should know. “Coffle” is one of them.

I first came across the word through delanceyplace.com. This site delivers a brief daily email to subscribers for free. No particular theme is covered, but most of the posts are excerpts from recent non-fiction books with an historical focus.

On Dec. 30, 2015, the selection referenced “slave coffles.” The explanation, from “The American Slave Coast” by Ned Sublette and Constance Sublette, said that coffles were “the common way slaves were transported from slave breeding states on the Atlantic coast, such as Virginia, to the slave markets and plantations of the deeper South.”

“Southern children grew up seeing coffles approach in a cloud of dust,” the excerpt continued.

According to the Oxford English Dictionary, a coffle is defined as a train of men or beasts fastened together. In short, it means marching in a herd. The origin leads to an Arabic word meaning caravan, hearkening back to overland slave trade that trekked across the desert from sub-Saharan Africa to the Middle East.

The word “coffle” made the journey across the Atlantic with the slave trade, referring to African Americans who were marched at a pace of 20 or 25 miles a day, sometimes for weeks and in all weather, to a point of sale. According to “The American Slave Coast,” some of them died along the way, dropping dead in their tracks or drowning when crossing un-bridged rivers.

“About a quarter of those trafficked southward were children between eight and fifteen, purchased away from their families,” the account goes on.

An account by Charles Ball, who was forcibly taken from Maryland to South Carolina in 1805, stated that, “The women were tied together with a rope…which was tied like a halter round the neck of each.” Men were collared in chains and “fitted by means of a padlock round each of our necks.”

“Women with babies in hand were in a particularly cruel situation,” according to the recollections of Charles Ball. “Babies weren’t worth much money, and they slowed down the coffles,” he said. “William Wells Brown hired out to a slave trader named Walker, recalled seeing a baby given away on the road.”

In 1841, Abraham Lincoln witnessed a dozen slaves chained together, and though he does not mention the word coffle, he remarked, “The sight was a continued torment to me and I see something like it every time I touch the Ohio or any other slave border.”

This quote and other information about President Lincoln is showcased in a mini-exhibit at the Wrather Museum on the Murray State University campus. On loan from the Kentucky Historical Society, the five-panel display begins with information on the president’s frontier childhood, continues with his rise to the presidency, followed by the Civil War, and then finishing with a section entitled “Ending Slavery.”

Each panel presents a main question that is answered through words and images, including a relevant quote.

Presented in collaboration with Fort Donelson National Battlefield, Discovering Kentucky’s Abraham Lincoln is on view until March 1. The exhibition can be found in the museum balcony along with the Nelson Bogie gun collection, the very first donation to the Wrather Museum. It includes Kentucky long rifles, flint locks, powder horns, and bayonets, some from the early 19th century.

A full schedule of exhibitions related to the region’s history will be on display at the Wrather Museum from now until mid-May. Art for the People: WPA and the New Deal Programs in Kentucky and Beyond is featured at the museum until April 12. Another exhibit, The War Between the States, opens on March 10 and will be available until May 14.

Additional information about slave coffles is available at Delanceyplace.com. For more information about the Wrather Museum or to schedule a tour, contact Sarah Hopley at shopley@murraystate.edu or call 270-809-4295.


Constance Alexander is a columnist, award-winning poet and playwright, and President of INTEXCommuications in Murray, Ky. She can be reached at constancealexander@twc.com. Or visit her website.

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