St. Louis Hotel & Exchange: Auctioning off Lives

The St. Louis Hotel’s slave auction block has been written about by numerous travelers who frequented New Orleans for business and pleasure. Sensationalism aside, visitors seem to have been surprised by the grandeur and spectacle of the Hotel’s exchange area, which functioned as a sort of theater compared to the clandestine, modest showrooms of most other Southern slave markets. Today the Omni Royal Orleans Hotel stands on the site of the former exchange where so many families were separated and lives changed.

Built around 1841, the St. Louis Hotel & Exchange was revered for its beautiful architecture that featured a large rotunda lined with exquisite designs, decorative walls and columns which weaved throughout the entire building. Many prominent people such as politicians, planters, and businessmen from around the country came to stay at the St. Louis Hotel and attend its extravagant balls. The hotel had been built on a site that had previously been occupied by several different exchange “coffee shops,” which sold coffee in the morning, alcohol at night, and enslaved people six days a week. Seven auctioneers took turns auctioning human lives in French, Spanish, and English, while free visitors bid, sipped drinks, played billiards, and admired the institution’s ostentatious, decorative elements.

Later, the St. Louis Hotel‘s lobby was used as a space for many gatherings such as speeches, business meetings, and auctions. The auctions were held in the hotel’s lobby and oversaw the sale of such possessions as paintings, goods, and even human beings. While the majority of sales of enslaved people place in private homes, on the street, the levee, and in aforementioned privately-owned slave pens, auctions attracted attention and boasted large newspaper advertisements.

Most live auctions organized for larger sales, generally enslaved persons that made up the estate of a wealthy slaveholder who had died, or to collect money for someone’s debts. Auctions were held every Saturday under the domed rotundas of several extravagant hotels. Sometimes small-time dealers would sell enslaved persons, usually the youngest and strongest, to auctions around the city such as those held at the St. Louis Hotel & Exchange.

The enslaved people would be made to stand on top of a large wooden stage called a slave block and an auctioneer would present the slave to the audience. The auctioneer would stress on all the person’s physical such as height, strength, or health, and wait until someone made the highest bid. Enslaved individuals were typically sold by racial categories, which were recorded in sale records, but could often be fictions created by slave traders depending on the appearance of those for sale. Common racial categories were negro (black), mulatto (biracial), griffe (of African and Native-American descent), quadroon (¼ black), and octaroon (⅛ black). From there, the slave’s dealer would conduct a business transaction with the buyer, draw up a bill of sale, sign some papers, and then the individual would be handed over to the buyer to be entered into a life of enslavement.


Today, if you face the Chartres side of the Omni Royale Orleans Hotel, above the columns located near the parking garage, the word “CHANGE” is clearly visible. Originally there was a sign that read, “NEW ORLEANS EXCHANGE.” This is the only remnant of the old St. Louis Hotel and now serves as a constant reminder of the location’s telling past.

Images

"Sale of Estates, Pictures and Slaves in the Rotunda, New Orleans"

"Sale of Estates, Pictures and Slaves in the Rotunda, New Orleans"

This painting, dated around 1842, shows an auction being held in the St. Louis Hotel's famed rotunda. As is shown, slaves were auctioned off in the St. Louis Hotel & Exchange alongside various goods and materials. | Source: Courtesy of the Historic New Orleans Collection | Creator: William Henry Brooke (artist) & J.M. Starling (printer) View File Details Page

"Old slave block in St. Louis Hotel, New Orleans, La."

"Old slave block in St. Louis Hotel, New Orleans, La."

This 1906 photograph shows the auction block of the St. Louis Hotel & Exchange. Everything from paintings, goods, and slaves were auctioned off from this exact block over a century and half ago. | Source: Library of Congress | Creator: Detroit Publishing Co. View File Details Page

"The Old Slave Block in the Old St. Louis Hotel, New Orleans, La"

"The Old Slave Block in the Old St. Louis Hotel, New Orleans, La"

This photograph, featured on a postcard, shows a woman standing on the same slave block in the St. Louis Hotel from which she was sold for $1,500 as a little girl. | Source: Slaves Waiting for Sale: Abolitionist Art and the American Slave Trade; from the collection of Maurie D. McInnis; URL: https://pages.shanti.virginia.edu/abolitionistart/portfolio/the-old-slave-block-in-the-old-st-louis-hotel-new-orleans-la-before-1915/ View File Details Page

"Advertisement for a Slave Auction at St. Louis Hotel & Exchange"

"Advertisement for a Slave Auction at St. Louis Hotel & Exchange"

This image shows an auction ad featured in an 1843 issue of The Daily Picayune advertising for a auction of slaves at the St. Louis Hotel & Exchange by J.A. Beard & Co. J.A. Beard was a prominent slave dealer in New Orleans during the early-to-mid 19th century and posted many advertisements in the newspaper for the sale of slaves. | Source: America's Historical Newspapers | Creator: J.A. Beard & Co. View File Details Page

"Advertisement for a Slave Auction at the St. Louis Hotel & Exchange"

"Advertisement for a Slave Auction at the St. Louis Hotel & Exchange"

This image shows an auction ad featured in an 1843 issue of The Daily Picayune advertising for a auction of slaves at the St. Louis Hotel & Exchange by J.A. Beard & Co. J.A. Beard was a prominent slave dealer in New Orleans during the early-to-mid 19th century and posted many advertisements in the newspaper for the sale of slaves. | Source: American Historical Newspapers | Creator: J.A. Beard & Co. View File Details Page

"Chartres side of the Omni Royale Orleans Hotel"

"Chartres side of the Omni Royale Orleans Hotel"

This photograph shows the Chartres Street side of the Omni Royale Orleans Hotel. If you look towards the left of the image, the word "CHANGE" is clearly visible. Originally there was a sign that read, “NEW ORLEANS EXCHANGE.” This sign and the columned wall it rest on is the only remnant of the St. Louis Hotel & Exchange.. | Source: Rebecca Ann Photography | Creator: Brett Todd View File Details Page

Slave Auction

Slave Auction

Source: Courtesy of the Historic New Orleans Collection View File Details Page

Cite this Page:

Brett Todd and Kate Mason, “St. Louis Hotel & Exchange: Auctioning off Lives,” New Orleans Historical, accessed July 22, 2017, http://neworleanshistorical.org/items/show/926.
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