Louisville, KY

The Arterburn Genealogy: A Family Tree With Rotten Roots

Tom R Arterburn

Thinking about examining your family tree? Be prepared for the worst.

My trip down ancestry lane began with a wrinkled snapshot my cousin showed me one day with a snicker. It was a photo of a Kentucky historical marker skirting a parking lot in downtown Louisville, Ky. which read:

Kentucky State MonumentPhoto byLouisville Courier-Journal

For me, it was like finding out Adolph Hitler was my great great grandfather or Saddam Hussein was a not-too-distant cousin. I immediately thought someone in the family has to stand up and make a public apology on behalf of the entire clan. Before that could happen a thorough understanding of the Arterburn brothers and what they did is necessary. The monument pictured above is a good starting point, but I needed to know more.

My research produced a newspaper clipping and some book excerpts that suggested The Arterburn Brothers Slave Pens were visited by Harriet Beecher Stowe.

In the May 3, 1876 issue of the Louisville Courier-Journal, Tarleton Arterburn reminisced about him and his brother Jordan's slave pens at the corner of First and Main streets, and about meeting Stowe.

"Ah, yes, I remember her," said Arterburn to a reporter. "She and a gentleman once called at our place. The pen was enclosed with high walls. We always had between ten and a hundred negroes in the pens."

"What did Mrs. Stowe have to say?" asked the reporter.

"She said," resumed Mr. Arterburn, "that she wanted to purchase a likely young woman to take east. I suspected her real purpose was to examine the inside of a slave pen, but kept quiet and called a bright mulatto girl, to whom I gave the wink and said: This lady wishes to take you to New York where you will be free and have a good time. Show that pretty foot of yours and tell her whether you wish to go or not. The mulatto put out her foot, which was a very pretty one, and remarked: 'I guess de lady has a good home for me in the East, but I sorter 'spects Cinda 'drather stay in Kentuck.'"

Being asked to sing, she delighted those present with--

'The sun shines bright in our old Kentucky home, in our old Kentucky home, far away. The corn top's ripe, the meadow in bloom. And the birds make music all the day.'

"Mrs. Stowe remained in the pen only a short time, but closely examined its bearings, and asked a good many questions if I remember right," said Arterburn.

"Have you read Uncle Tom's Cabin?" asked the reporter.

"Not all of it," answered Mr. Arterburn. "I was reading it once just after it came out, when told of the escape of seven of our negroes. I dashed the book against the wall, and never looked it up again, as the leaves went wide apart."

"Are there any old Kentucky slave dealers alive except you, sir," the reporter asked.

"Our pen was probably the largest. Garrison had one on Second, near Market, Clark one on Market, between Fifth and Sixth, and Powell one where Tompkins' Sixth-street dry goods house now stands. Garrison, Powell, and my brother and former partner, Jordan Arterburn, are all dead.

"Did you find the slave business profitable?" inquired the examiner.

"Yes, we made something out of it; thirty or forty percent a head. We fed our negroes well and soon sold them. My brother [Jordan] bought in Louisville and I sold in Natchez. I once bought a negro for $1,700 and sold him for $2,800. He was a blacksmith, and an excellent one at that."

"Have you any bills of sale or old slave advertisements?" asked the examiner.

"Only a few, sir. Here is one of our old advertisements."

Mr. Arterburn handed the reporter an envelope on which was printed the following: "T. & J. Arterburn, General Agents and Dealers in Negroes, No. 12 First Street between Market and Jefferson, Louisville, Ky."

"Here," said Mr. Arterburn, "is the bill of sale of a woman who is still with me. She is the best cook in Louisville."

The bill of sale was as follows:

Received of J. & T. Arterburn six hundred and seventy-five dollars in full payment for a negro girl named Lucinda, of black complexion, about nineteen years of age, which negro I warrant to be sound in body and mind and a slave for life, and will, therefore, defend the title against the claims of all persons lawfully claiming the same. Given from under my hand June 6, 1853.

The Arterburn's made the papers again when a group of slaves successfully escaped the pens.

In an article penned by Opinion Contributor to the Louisville Courier-Journal Deborah Laporte, the Arterburn brothers can be credited with the popular term "sold down the river."

"From many accounts, the term we often use for betrayal, “sold down the river,” was invented here [in Louisville], on those same Ohio River banks where enslaved people once looked longingly across to Indiana and freedom. They were held in chains, many were even kept in pens. Yes, you read that right. Pens. For human beings. Those pens held people who’d been sold and were awaiting boats that would wrench them away from home, from loved ones whom they’d never see again, to work on plantations in the deep south, where the conditions were known to be much harsher and treatment of slaves much more brutal. It was deeply dreaded: the greatest betrayal. And thus, the phrase came to be: “He (she) was sold down the river,” she wrote.

If that wasn't enough, the Arterburns made a name for themselves. In July 1845, the Arterburn brothers began a series of advertisements that ran for several years. “We wish to purchase 100 negroes for the Southern market, for which we will pay the highest prices in cash.” They began the publicity in 1848 with these words: “The subscriber wishes to purchase 100 negroes, for which, they will pay the highest cash - prices. Can always be found at the Louisville Hotel.” Two years later they were still advertising but had ceased placing any limit on the number to be bought and had moved their quarters to the Hotel O’Kain. One of the brothers also traveled to St. Louis where he ran advertising offering cash for "farm hands and others".

On the other hand: "The history of America’s enslaved people is not an easy one to document," writes Dawn Gee for WAVE 3 News in Louisville. "Oral traditions are some of the oldest and only ways information was passed down through the years."

“Vital statistics for the time for enslaved people only give numbers and ages. They don’t list names,” Jennifer Cole, Director of Collections Access at The Filson Historical Society explained. “It’s gender, age, and value.”

Information for Dinnie Thompson, an enslaved woman born in Kentucky, can almost be followed from her birth, however.

Slave records for Dinnie’s mother, father, grandmother, and some of her brothers and sisters can be found in the records of Judge John Speed, one of the oldest and most prominent families in Louisville, Kentucky.

Dinnie’s mother had 11 or 12 children.

“All of them but Dinnie and her brother Henry had been taken away and sold,” says Cole.

By the end of her mother’s life, only Dinnie was still by her side.

“I think it’s just heartbreaking to think that this woman had eleven or twelve children, but she only knew where one of them was by the time she was nearing her death,” says Cole.

Eventually, with the Emancipation Proclamation, the family was freed. When Dinnie got her freedom, she also found her voice.

“Dinnie tells her own story,” explained Cole. “Dinnie tells the story of them being whipped. She talks about her mother trying to flee several times, being captured and put on the block at the Arterburn slave pens.”

Francis Ingram, a social worker in Louisville and the Head Resident of the Neighborhood House settlement from 1905 to 1939 painstakingly took down the history of Dinnie Thompson.

Thompson lived to tell her story in a time when the lives of so many African-Americans were treated like dogs. “She’s a woman who has grown up, lived and grown up in bondage and become free but is still living under the burden of a lack of equality and recognizes and is willing to say things out loud about that,” Cole shared of Dinnie’s life.

As for the Arterburns, much of the clan remained in Kentucky. A Google search of the name produces information about a wealthy family of land developers. Beyond the state, there’s Stephen Arterburn, the wealthy Christian author, and televangelist.

There’s also C. Norben Arterburn and Janet D. Arterburn authors of the book The Arterburn Cousins. Attempts to reach them were unsuccessful. But their website states that all Arterburns and their descendants are related by DNA.

As one of them, I want to sincerely apologize for the atrocities committed by my cousins Tarleton and Jordan.  There are no words to express how terrible I feel about the barbarities these two monsters perpetrated. 

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Tom R Arterburn is an award-winning journalist

St. Louis, MO

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