Race and Slavery Petitions Project

Glossary of Terms


A vinculo matrimonii
A court-authorized divorce by which a marriage is dissolved. Both parties are generally allowed to remarry. Also known as a divorce from the bonds of matrimony
Used when a spouse leaves the marital residence or a slaveholder deserts his or her slaves
The elimination of slavery/individuals or societies active in advancing that cause
Absentee owners
Slaveholders who do not reside on the plantation with their slaves
Absolute slave
A slave for life; not a term slave
Refers to a person (male/female) with the court-appointed right to manage and settle the estate of an individual who died without leaving a will
Sexual relations with a person other than one's legal spouse, either free or enslaved. In the documents it is sometimes referred to as criminal conversation, illicit connection, and other related terms
A legacy or bequest received during the testator's lifetime
An allowance sought by a spouse for her maintenance upon or pending a legal separation or divorce. It can also appear in the documents as support, maintenance, necessaries of life, or other related terminology
American Indians
Native Americans. Also used when a specific tribe is mentioned
The annual payment of an allowance or support
To cancel
Used to denote a legal relationship that binds a free person of color to serve a master, primarily a white person, until age twenty-one for the purpose of learning a trade. The contract implies obligations on both sides
(Free blacks) As property owners
Denotes primarily free people of color who own property of any kind, other than slaves, but primarily real estate
May also apply to slaves owning property
A violent attack, verbal or physical, by one person on another. The attacker and/or the victim can be male, female, slave, free person of color or white
To transfer one's rights, for which one usually receives compensation
The legal process by which a defendant’s property is taken into legal custody to satisfy a plaintiff's demands


Inability to pay outstanding debts, often resulting in the seizure of slave property. It appears in the documents when someone is described as being insolvent or bankrupt
To leave someone a legacy
A legacy
Breeding of slaves
The economic decision, through deliberate planning, to ensure the increase of slave property over and beyond natural reproduction. The subject is used when the value of a female slave is expressed in terms of her breeding ability
Bride’s dowry
Property brought by a woman to her husband at the time of marriage. Used primarily in Louisiana, where the dowry was specifically intended as the wife's contribution to the marital household. Slaves were often part of a a bride's dowry
An archaic term for burden


Canada, migration to
Used primarily when Canada is cited as the destination for runaway slaves
Caribbean Islands, migration to/from
The movement of blacks and whites between the Caribbean Islands and the slaveholding states of the American South, and/or the revolutionary events that typically triggered such movement
Casually lost
A term describing the contention by a person that his or her legal slave property fell in the hands of another person by unknown means. Used only when the specific term appears in the documents
A notice given by an interested party requests that no action be taken on an order of the court until his or her case has been heard
Cestui que trust
the beneficiary of a trust estate
Charitable organizations
Any private or public organization established for the purpose of assisting people in need, enslaved or free. such as the Overseers of the Poor
An article of personal property
Chose in action
A party’s right to any personal thing not in his or her possession, but recoverable by law. Can also refer to the recovery of a debt, stocks, or to reparations
Mentions of specific congregations and/or religious denominations
Civil War, impact of
The anticipated or actual consequences of the American Civil War on all members of the slaveholding society
The concept of resettling emancipated slaves to points outside of the United States, primarily Liberia. This subject also includes all mentions of specific colonization societies that were founded to facilitate the transportation and resettlement of emancipated blacks. This subject is used whenever Liberia is referenced
a court-appointed official with various responsibilities, such as appraising estates and submitting reports of estate sales to the court
A person or persons appointed by the court to oversee the rights, property, and body of a lunatic
Community Property
primarily used in Louisiana; property acquired during a marriage by the joint efforts of both spouses, and thus owned in common; it is used in opposition to separate property; after the decased of a parent, his/her estate becomes community property of his/her heirs and the surviving parent
Concealing slaves
The crime of hiding slaves from their legal owner
The inducement (monetary or otherwise) used when parties enter into a contract; specifically, it is the promise given by one party in return for the act or promise of the other
Used in the context of slave rebellions; that is, the act of two or more individuals coming together for the purpose of encouraging and organizing slave rebellions
A barrel maker
This category includes the cultivation, harvesting, and selling of five specific crops when mentioned in the documents: cotton, rice, sugar, timber, and tobacco


Deed of gift
A document that conveys a gift to another individual
Deed of indenture
A contract that outlines the obligations of an apprentice and his/her master
Deed of trust
A document that conveys property to another individual
The defendant’s answer to the petitioner’s complaint
A court document that records the answers of a witness to certain questions or interrogatories; supplemental information introduced as evidence in a court proceeding
Destruction of property
Primarily used in the context of slaves accused of sabotage. Can also be used in cases of dispute between property owners. Includes all methods of intentional destruction of non-slave property, including arson
A person who receives a legacy from a will
Diseases, mental
Primarily insanity or dementia. Used when someone is described as a lunatic, an idiot, or an imbecile. Also used when a person is described as having some undefined mental defect
Diseases, physical
Covers the range of physical ailments. Used when a person is described as being afflicted with a specific disease(s) or with a condition
The court’s rejection of a petitioner’s request
To be reckless or to squander
A person who receives a portion of an estate’s distribution
The legal termination of a marriage or a legally sanctioned separation of the spouses. Divorce was not a legal option in South Carolina during the period covered by the documents; therefore the subject "divorce" was not selected for that state
Domestic violence
Physical and verbal violence among family members. Primarily used when acts of physical or verbal violence were alleged to have been perpetrated by one spouse on another
Primarily used in Louisiana; the portion of a wife's separate property that was acquired by dowry
The right of a widow to one third of her late husband’s estate
An affliction associated with swelling
Excessive use of alcoholic beverages; sometimes appears in the documents as “consumption of ardent spirits,” “habitual (or beastly) inebriation,” “intemperance,” and other related terms


Education and literacy
Used when there is evidence of a slave or free person of color being taught a trade or to read and write
Elderly free black
A free person of color sixty years of age and over. Also used when a person of color is described as elderly or advanced in age
Elderly slaves
A slave sixty years of age and over. Also used when a slave is described as elderly or advanced in age
Emancipation laws/statutes
Used whenever a slave or group of slaves are entitled to freedom as a result of state, territory, or federal legislation abolishing slavery
A person who is heavily in debt, often described as having “pecuniary difficulties"
Enticing slaves
The act of encouraging slaves to engage in disobedient behavior or to run away. Slaves can be enticed by white people, free people of color, and other slaves
Equity of redemption
To foreclose on a mortgage
The process where property that once belonged to an individual reverts, or is taken back, by the state
Estimated value of slaves
The estimation of the value of a slave or group of slaves provided by any individual, including court-appointed appraisers
Ex parte
A judicial proceeding brought for the benefit of one party only, without notice to or challenge from an adverse party
To sign
Refers to a person (male/female) designated in a will to execute the wishes of the testator


Family Head
the person to whom all other family members are shown as being related
Fear of enslavement
Used whenever free persons of color express a fear that they may be enslaved or re-enslaved. The subject is also used when slaves who have been promised freedom express a fear that they will be kept in slavery for life
Feme sole
This term refers to a single woman, whether widowed, divorced, or never married. It is usually used in the context of a woman’s ability to own and manage property, as well as conduct business, without the authorization of her father, husband, or any other appointed guardian
Fieri facias, A writ of
A written command issued by a judge in order to enforce the collection of a claim that has gone to judgment and become final
Free black frees own family
Used whenever reference is made to slaveholding free people of color manumitting members of their family
Free people of color as slave owners
Used whenever a free person of color is identified as a slave owner
Freedom papers
Legal documents verifying the freedom status of a person of color. It can also appear in the documents as certificate of freedom, or other related terminology
Freedom suit
The process of a slave coming to court to petition for his/her freedom
A person who owns real estate


A person who has a black parent and a parent of American Indian blood; can also be used as an alternative designation for mulatto; primarily used in Louisiana
Guardian ad litem
Latin for “Guardian at law.” One who is appointed by the court to protect the interests of a minor involved in a lawsuit


Habeas corpus
A writ requiring a person to be brought before a judge or court
A carriage that can be hired
Heirs dispute
A suit filed by heirs of an estate against other heirs. Primarily used when heirs disagree over a will and/or the distribution of property
Held as a slave
This subject refers to free people of color, held in slavery, who ask the court to release them from bondage and/or affirm their free status. Used whenever documents provide clear evidence that an individual was born free or has been legally declared free, and/or has been living as a free person for an extended period of time
Hiring value of slaves
The estimated or actual hiring value of a slave or group of slaves, given at a monthly or annual rate
The death of one person at the hand of another person. Includes infanticide


All references to and evidence of the birth of a child out of wedlock. It can also appear in the documents as “natural child,” “bastard,” and related terms
In forma pauperis
Latin for “in the form of a pauper.” A petitioner who cannot afford the costs of a lawsuit can petition the court to waive normal costs
In solido
An obligation where multiple parties are individually liable for the whole. For example, when several people have jointly borrowed the same item, they are all bound for it “in solido” to the one who loaned the item. Only used in Louisiana civil law
The legal inability to perform certain tasks, due to mental incapacity or age
Indentured servant
A person who must serve another individual for a specific term of years
A minor under legal age
The actual or alleged behavior of slaves or free apprentices of color who refuse to submit to the authority of their master
Insurance on slave property
Insurance policies taken by slaveholders and/or slave traders to protect themselves against the decrease or loss of value in their slave property
Interracial relationships
Used whenever reference is made to the existence or consequence of a sexual relationship between two people of different ethnicities, whether free or enslaved
Interracial socializing
Used whenever reference is made to the existence of non-sexual social interaction between and among people of different ethnicities, whether free or enslaved
Intestate (adjective and noun)
One who dies without a valid will. This person is referred to as "an intestate"


This subject is used whenever a white person, a slave, or a free person of color is detained in jail or prison. A workhouse is a type of jail for the exclusive keeping and punishment of slaves at the discretion of a slaveowner


The forcible and illegal seizure of a free person of color, often with the intent of selling him/her into slavery


Landless slave owners
Individuals who own slaves but no land on which the slaves can work
A narcotic derived from opium
A gift of property mentioned in a person’s will
A person who receives a legacy from a will
To seize or collect for debts
Life estate [also Life interest]
Interest in real and/or property given to an individual (a “life tenant”) for the balance of that person’s life. Usually, a life tenant cannot dispose of the life estate without the consent of the court
A term used to describe a slave as valuable
Loathsome disease
A term describing venereal disease


Management of slaves
Used when there is evidence of an attempt by the slave owner or an overseer to control the behavior of a slave or group of slaves and/or to make them productive. Also used in instances where the composition or size of an owner's slave property is not conducive to a productive operation
Mantua maker
A person who makes a specific woman's garment
To free
Marital right
A husband's legal right to his wife's property
A skilled workman, often a contractor; not someone associated with machinery
Medical treatment
The application of medical techniques and/or medication by a physician for the purpose of treating an illness primarily in slaves. It is sometimes used when there is evidence that medical treatment fails to be provided by a slave owner for the treatment of his/her slaves
One submits a petition
Meritorious service
Extreme acts of devotion or loyalty that serve as grounds for freeing a slave
Federal, state, county, or local organizations of men for the purpose of providing civil defense and public peace. This subject is primarily used in cases where militias or patrols were organized to enforce codes of slave conduct and to quell suspected/actual slave rebellions
Minors as slave owners
Persons under the age of twenty-one who own or are entitled to own slaves
Mortgage value of slaves
The collateral value of a slave or group of slaves used to secure a debt
A person who has one white parent and one black or mulatto parent


Ne exeat, A writ of
A judge’s written command to restrain a person from leaving the jurisdiction of the court until he or she has satisfied or pledged to satisfy a claim. Failure to comply can result in an arrest
Next friend
An individual suing on behalf of another person (a minor, married woman, etc.) without full legal capacity
A caregiver that often has no medical responsibilities; when associated with children, the equivalent of a nanny


This subject is used whenever reference is made to free people of color, including apprentices, who are engaged in a specific occupation or business. Also includes references to free people of color who own or run a business
Of the half blood
Related through one parent, i.e., a stepchild
Extremely shameful
A term for male/female petitioners
Used whenever there is evidence that a child has lost both parents. Also used when a person is specifically described as being an orphan, even if there is evidence that one of the parents is still alive
A person hired by a slave owner to manage his/her plantation and his/her slaves


Primarily used in Louisiana; the portion of a wife's separate property acquired other than by dowry or marriage settlement; for example gift or inheritance
A sudden, violent outburst
To divide into portions
Passing (as white)
A person of color attempting or successfully concealing his/her ethnicity so as to be perceived and treated as a white person
Personal estate
Moveable articles of property, such as slaves, furniture and money. Distinguished from real property. Laws defining personal, as opposed to real, property vary across states
A court document recounting a person’s request for legal remedy; also referred to as a bill or bill of complaint
Plea of trespass
Police jury
Primarily used in Louisiana; an elected panel of twelve citizens who decide whether a petition can be heard by the court
Prenuptial agreement
A written document document containing the terms of agreement concerning property, including slave property, owned by the parties to an anticipated marriage. It may also appear in the documents as a marriage contract or marriage settlement
Pro confesso
The granting of a petition due to the absence of the defendant
Promissory note
Pro-slavery opinions
The expression of opinions defending the institution of slavery, and/or attacking those favoring its abolition
Used whenever a woman is described as being a prostitute, or living or working in a house of ill fame. Also includes mention of women allegedly engaging in sexual encounters with multiple men
Purchase of freedom
Money paid to a slave owner in return for the owner emancipating the slave. The price can be paid by a third party, a family member, or by the slave himself or herself
Purchase own family
Used whenever reference is made to free people of color purchasing members of their family, often but not always with the intent of manumitting them
Purchase/sale of slave children
The purchase or sale of a slave child, age twelve or under, separate from his or her family
Purchase/sale of slave family
The purchase or sale of two or more slaves with an identified family relationship
Purchase/sale prices of slaves
The purchase or sale price of a slave or group of slaves, primarily expressed in currency


A person born of one White and one Mulatto parent. There are multiple spellings of this word, among which “quartroon” and “quatroon”, both of which are a derivative of the French equivalent “quarteron” (for a male) or “quarteronne” (for a female)


Real estate
Immoveable articles of property, such as land and buildings, which can be owned. Distinguished from personal property
Remainder interest
The residue of an estate that can only be distributed to an individual after another person’s interest in the estate has terminated
Person/persons who have a remainder interest in a life estate
To leave or move away from
Republic of Texas
A sovereign state in North America that existed from 1836 to 1845; in 1845 it joined the United States
Revivor, a bill of
The continuance of a previously-filed bill. A bill is “revived” when one party to the suit has become incapable to prosecute or defend it due to a number of circumstances, including death or change in legal status
Right to assemble
Mention of regulations governing the rights of a group of slaves and/or free people of color to assemble, and the violation thereof
Right to attend church
Any reference to regulations governing the right of slaves to practice religion and attend church. Also used in instances when slaves are described as going to church or practicing a religion
Right to carry weapons
The regulations governing the right of slaves and free people of color to carry a gun
Right to reside in a state
Used when free people of color, in compliance with a state law petition the court to remain in the state. Also used when free people of color express fear that they may be expelled from the state
Right to sell/buy alcohol
Any reference to regulations governing the right of slaves and free people of color to buy and/or sell alcohol
Rights of citizenship
Mentions of the state of being free and/or endowed with the rights of citizenship (enfranchisement). Conversely, complaints regarding the state of being deprived of freedom and/or without the rights of citizenship (disenfranchisement)
A slave or an apprenticed person of color who has allegedly or actually left his/her place of residence without the owner's permission. A slave could run away to freedom or merely absent himself/herself for a few days before returning to his/her master. It can also appear in the documents as “lying out,” “absconding,” and other related terms


Security [Surety]
Becoming a “security” or a “surety” usually involves the posting of a bond either to an individual or to the state. Designed to protect the individual or the state from having to shoulder the costs involved in situations perceived as risky
Separate Property
Primarily used in Louisiana; property brought to the marriage or inherited by one of the spouses and thus separately owned by that spouse, apart from the community property; it is used in opposition to community property
Separation from bed and board
A court-authorized divorce that entails living separately but does not dissolve the bonds of matrimony. By this form of divorce, the parties are not allowed to remarry. Also known as a divorce “a mensa et thoro"
Sequestration, A writ of
A written command usually issued to a sheriff ordering the appropriation of a person’s property in order to satisfy the claims of a creditor. The property is held in the court’s possession until either the debtor has satisfied the creditor’s interest or the property is sold for the creditor’s benefit
Used whenever a ship (named or unnamed) is mentioned in relation to the transportation of slaves. Can also be used when a ship is mentioned as a place of work for slaves and/or free people of color
Skilled slaves
Used whenever a slave is identified as possessing or practicing a particular skill
The making of a false and malicious statement injurious to another person's reputation. Defamation of a person's character may be the subject of a suit or, in some cases, it may be listed as one of the grievances in divorce cases
Slave auctions
Public selling of slaves to the highest bidder. It can also appear in the documents as “cried off," “vendue,” “public outcry,” and other related terms
Slave death by disease
Used whenever illness is cited as the cause of a slave's death
Slave death by other
Used whenever a slave dies from injuries received in an accident, from punishment, homicide, or suicide
Slave execution
The legally sanctioned act of putting a slave to death as punishment for an alleged crime
Slave inventories
Used whenever a specific petition and/or related documents contain a list of twenty or more named slaves held by an owner or estate. The number twenty has been chosen to correspond to the widely accepted designation of planter status
Slave revolts
Mention of an organized revolt, rebellion, or insurrection of slaves, or a conspiracy of slaves to revolt
Slave title dispute
A suit between individuals who claim title to the same slave property
Slave trade/traders, Atlantic
The buying, selling, and transportation of slaves between Africa and the Americas by people engaged in such trade. Also used when people are identified as engaged in the trade
Slave trade/traders, domestic
The buying, selling, and transportation of slaves between states of the American South by people engaged in such trade. Also used when people are identified as engaged in the trade
Slave trials
The legal proceedings against a slave or slaves accused of a crime. Used whenever there is mention that such proceedings have occurred and/or the result of such proceedings is provided
Slaves as inheritors
The inclusion of a slave or slaves as recipient(s) of a monetary or non-monetary legacy in a slaveholders' will
Slaves engaged in economic transactions
Selling, buying, and bartering among slaves, and between slaves and non-slaves. Such transactions may or may not be sanctioned by a master or by law. When not sanctioned, can be referred to as clandestine economy
Slaves engaged in non-plantation work
Used when there is evidence that a slave is working in a non-plantation environment, such as, but not restricted to, factories, trading houses, ships or steamboats, the docks, mines, and hotels. This also includes incidences where a slave is hired out to perform such work
Slaves freed by owner
Used whenever a slave owner or a group of citizens signal his/her/their intent to manumit a slave or group of slaves
Slaves purchased for emancipation
The purchase of a slave or group of slaves for the expressed purpose of freeing them
Slaves sue for freedom
A slave who sues a person or persons holding him/her in slavery in order to be set legally free. Grounds for suing for freedom include, but are not necessarily restricted to, promise of freedom in a will, birth or residence in a non-slaveholding state, and lineage from a free white mother or a free woman of color
St. Dominque
Modern-day Haiti
Steam packets
Sue whites
Used whenever at least one petitioner in the suit is a free person of color and at least one defendant is a white person
Sues other free black
Used whenever at least one petitioner and at least one defendant in the suit is a free person of color
Swapping slaves
The trading of one slave for one or more slaves, in lieu of monetary payment
A person appointed to represent an organization in business transactions; a business agent


Tax on slave property
Used whenever there is mention of taxes being paid by a slaveowner on his/her slave property
Tenants in common
A legal arrangement by which multiple individuals own and control shares in the same piece of property
Term slave
An individual held in servitude for a set period of time; as opposed to a slave for life, whose period of service ends only at death
Term slaves
Slaves who will become free after serving a specified term of servitude, or at a set date in the future, or upon arriving at a certain age. The term often used in Louisiana when speaking of a term slave is "statu liber"
One who dies leaving a valid will
Testimony of free black
Used whenever a free person of color testifies or gives a deposition in a legal suit
Testimony of slaves
Used whenever a slave testifies or gives a deposition in a legal suit
Theft by slave
Used whenever a slave is accused of stealing
Theft of slave
The act of taking illegal possession of another person's slave. Used whenever a person accuses another person of stealing his/her slave or when there is evidence that the illegal possession of a slave has been gained through force and/or enticement without the owner's consent
Tippling houses
Travel passes
A permit that allowed a slave the right to leave and circulate freely beyond the limits of his/her owner's plantation
A legal remedy whereby a plaintiff sues to recover the value of personal chattels wrongfully in the possession of another, but does not seek damages for the taking of the property
Trust estate
Property placed under the charge of one person (the trustee) for the benefit of another
One who has been lawfully appointed to care for the person and property of a minor


A worthless person who may not have a permanent residence
Virtually free slaves
Used when slaves are described as openly living as if they were free and engaging in the activities of free people, such as managing a household away from the owner's residence, negotiating hiring terms for labor, trading to earn a living, and being generally treated and acknowledged by their neighbors as quasi free
Voluntary slavery
Used whenever a free person of color expresses the desire to be enslaved or to return to slavery. Often used in conjunction with a request to a court of law to be allowed to choose one's owner


War veterans
Used whenever a person is described as having participated in a war, named or unnamed
Warranty on slaves
The act by a seller of assuring the buyer that he/she has a valid title to a slave, and that the slave is free from physical, mental and moral defects. Primarily associated with a suit filed by a buyer for breach of contract when a seller allegedly misrepresented the slave
A term for a female, often a slave
Westward migration
Used whenever there is evidence of people resettling west of their current or one-time residence in the United States
A person who makes or repairs wheels
A form of punishment used by owners or overseers on slaves, or inflicted by husbands on their wives. It can also appear in the documents as “sweeping"
White guardianship of
A state requirement that each free person of color, over the age of fifteen, be under the guardianship of a court-appointed white person. Primarily used when a free person of color, in compliance with the law, petitions a court for the approval and appointment of a guardian he or she has selected
White opinions of
The expression of an opinion regarding the behavior and/or moral character of free people of color as a group. It is NOT used to describe the behavior or moral character of a specific free person of color
White opinions of slaves
The expression of an opinion regarding the behavior and/or moral character of slaves as a group. It is NOT used to describe the behavior or moral character of an individual slave
White affection for slave
Used whenever a white person expresses the existence of emotional attachment between him/her and a slave; also used when a slave expresses affection and devotion toward his/her owner or owner's family
Widow's dower
The share of a husband's estate to which his widow is legally entitled, usually one third. Slaves were often a part of the dower
Women owning property
Used whenever there is evidence that a woman asks for and/or is given control over her property without interference of a third-party, primarily but not limited to her husband