Taking Back What Was Once Lost

Digital Library on American Slavery

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The Digital Library on American Slavery is a web-based database that contains 18 years worth of research from the Race and Slavery Petitions Project. The site has been updated and anyone researching slaves and slavery should take some time to utilize this wonderful resource.

Here’s a little background from the site:

The Digital Library on American Slavery offers data on race and slavery extracted from eighteenth and nineteenth-century documents and processed over a period of eighteen years. The Digital Library contains detailed information on about 150,000 individuals, including slaves, free people of color, and whites. These data have been painstakingly extracted from 2,975 legislative petitions and 14,512 county court petitions, and from a wide range of related documents, including wills, inventories, deeds, bills of sale, depositions, court proceedings, amended petitions, among others. Buried in these documents are the names and other data on roughly 80,000 individual slaves, 8,000 free people of color, and 62,000 whites, both slave owners and non-slave owners…Established in 1991, the Race and Slavery Petitions Project was designed to locate, collect, organize, and publish all extant legislative petitions relevant to slavery, and a selected group of county court petitions from the fifteen former slaveholding states and the District of Columbia, during the period from the American Revolution through the Civil War. ..The Project now holds 2,975 legislative petitions and approximately 14,512 county court petitions.

Here’s a chart showing the states represented:

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You can search the site from the home screen using the basic search criteria or choose several other advanced searching options. You can also limit the searches using keywords, for example, you could put your county name in to pull up those entries only. I did a search for petitions from Maryland during the period of 1820-1850 and got 533 results:

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Each entry is numbered and summarized and the site explains how to order copies of the actual petitions for yourself if you find one relevant to your research. Here are two examples:

Claiborne County, TN, 1841
Abstract: Lewis, “a man of Color,” represents that “he was the property of William Graham Esquire … and was by him (amongst others of his slave property) [directed] in his will to be emancipated.” Noting that Graham’s executors “have performed the trust confided to them,” Lewis laments that “the act of assembly require for them to leave the State.” He further submits that “he is now getting old” and that “he has a wife & several children, from whom he feels a great hardship to be separated.” The petitioner therefore “prays that your Honorable body would … so modify the Law, that he might be permitted to remain in this State.”

TN, 1841
Abstract: Thirty-one petitioners, lamenting the deplorable condition of people of color and citing rights promised in the Constitution, seek a gradual end to slavery. The petitioners argue that slaveholders should be permitted to free their slaves on terms that will not involve their estates so long as the emancipated slaves can maintain themselves. They also argue that descendants of slaves born after the passage of an emancipation law should be freed when they reach a certain age. Black people to be freed should be taught a useful occupation and to read the Scriptures. Lastly, a law should be passed prohibiting within the state “the inhuman practice of separating husbands and wives.”

The website  is easy to use, beautifully organized, and a wealth of information. Take a look at some of the categories of entries, which you can also browse:

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Obviously, it does not contain every single record, but it does contain a very large (in fact huge) representative sample that is outstanding. Kudos to Loren Schweninger and his entire research team for making a tool that both historians and genealogists can utilize.

3 Comments

  1. October 13, 2009    

    oh wow! i can’t wait to check this out! Thank you for sharing the information about it.

  2. October 13, 2009    

    Thanks, I love using this resource! You mentioned that it’s been updated. Do you know when that took place?

    • October 13, 2009    

      I’m not sure exactly when, but when I taught about this resource earlier this year, the website was completely different. I recall somewhere on the site seeing the dates 2008-2009, so I assume within the last year.

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I blog, teach, write and lecture about family history research and it's just as rewarding today as it was when I began 18 years ago. This lifelong quest has helped me to better know my past and I've taken back--reclaimed- my kin and some of that lost memory.  

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