“Established in 1991, the Race and Slavery Petitions Project was designed to locate, collect, organize and publish all extant legislative petitions relevant to slavery” according to the Digital Library on American Slavery website. The Project has collected 17,487 slavery-related petitions in the fifteen southern states.
What’s a Slave Petition?
Between the Revolution and emancipation slaves, slave owners, and other parties petitioned the courts for resolution to disputes in any number of issues related to slavery. The issues ranged from the more obvious – a petition for freedom – to the more obscure – interracial socializing. All of these disputes resulted in a legislative or court petition, which amounts to the person drafting their argument and submitting it to the court. For genealogists, this is a goldmine of terrific information on our ancestors’ – black and white – experiences with slavery and the courts.
The Project estimates that there were nearly 250,000 petitions drafted and submitted in this period. It admits that the collection they have created is only a portion of the records available; however, what a portion it is!
What Will You Find in a Petition?
The subjects, as mentioned earlier, are surprisingly varied. Here are some of the categories with just a few examples of the type of petitions you’ll find on the database. Remember, these are all issues brought before the courts and/or legislature.
- Slave Ownership (mortgage value of a slave, insurance value of a slave, taxes on slaves, free black slave owners)
- Change in Slave Ownership (slave auctions, widow’s dower, swapping slaves, slave traders)
- Slaves and Slave Management (term slaves, right to attend church, right to buy alcohol)
- Attaining Freedom (slaves sue for freedom, virtually free slaves, slaves freed by owners)
- Free People of Color (voluntary slavery, suing whites, purchase own family)
- Crime and Punishment (murder, rape, revolts, whipping)
- Health, Death (slave death by disease, suicide)
- Social and Civic Life (illegitimacy, gambling, drunkenness)
- Marriage and Women (divorce, domestic violence, abandonment)
- Migration, Population, Immigration (migration to Canada, Civil War, Veterans)
- Family (orphans, heirs, buying own family)
The Project has abstracted each of the 17,000 petitions, and you can find these abstracts on the database online. (Because it is a database you can search it by name, date, subject, location or any manner of search parameters.) I’ll give you a couple of examples of what you’ll find in the abstracts.
- Women Owning Property Mary Reading purchased three slaves at a sale in Cecil County, Maryland, in the summer of 1817. Noting that “said negroes were purchased for your Petitioner for her sole use,” Reading states that the slaves “have ever since remained in the said state [Mississippi], and out of possession of your Petitioner, by reason of the Laws of this State operating to prevent the introduction of Slaves into the said State.” She therefore prays that an act be passed “authorising and empowering her to bring the said negroes into this state and retain them as such.”
- Passing as White Andrew Barland, the son of a white man by a woman of mixed race, was given a good education by his father as well as some property. He states, that, having married into “a respectable white family,” he has always been received and treated as a white man. Furthermore, he has served as a juror, given testimony in court, voted, and “enjoyed all the privileges of a free white Citizen.” Recently, however, a controversy has arisen in a court case when one Joseph Hawk called into question whether Barland, a man of color, should be allowed to testify. Barland writes to the legislature that “his education, his habits, his principles, and his society are all identified with your views.” Barland notes that he owns slaves and therefore “can know no other interest than that which is common to the white population.” He asks, therefore, that the state “extend to your petitioner such privileges as his countrymen may think him worthy to possess.”
- Taxes on Slaves On behalf of a committee representing Franklin County, John Robinson tells of the tax burdens of local residents. He laments that “Black Slave Children” are taxed high while still a charge to their owners and that “young grown Men of ₤100 value able to work for their Living at a less rate than a Black Suckling.” Robinson seeks relief.
As you can see the records are revealing if not always “fun” to read.
Obtaining the Actual Petitions
The Project has microfilmed the 17,000 petitions on 151 reels and created seven guides. They have been distributed to multiple archives. You can find a list of the repositories and their holdings of their website here. (You’ll note that the Midwest Genealogy Center is listed as “Mid-Continent Public Library” on this list.) So, obtaining a copy of the petition is as simple as visiting or inquiring of any one of these fine repositories.
Even if you don’t think your ancestors had anything to do with slavery, it’s well worth a few minutes to check out the site. It’s a riveting, first-hand account of a most formative chapter in our combined American History.