Digital Library on American Slavery

About the Digital Library

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.

Chowan County Courthouse
Edenton, North Carolina

One of the inherent tragedies of slavery is the fact that the masses of black people often remain nameless in the historical record. The 1850 and 1860 United States Population Slave Censuses, for example, recorded the age, gender, color, and owner's name for approximately 7.2 million slaves, but failed to record the names of individual slaves.

One of the unique aspects of the Digital Library is the information on individual slaves that will be made available along with additional data on their owners stretching over time. For each slave, other data, when included in the documents, will be added: an alternate name, name extension (Jr., Sr.), age, gender, color, dates of ownership, as well as economic and family information. Free black data will include name, name extension, age, gender, color, occupation, how and when freed, names and status of family relations. Despite these unique profiles, the total number of names in the database, compared with the millions of slaves and free blacks over time, is small. Even so, no other online database connects slaves with their owners in such a manner.

The Digital Library is a rich resource in other ways as well. The list of subjects reveals the variety of "causes" or "bills of complaint," in the language of the courts, that petitioners brought, or defendants raised, in their civil suits. The general topics include slave ownership, slave management, freedom suits, crime and punishment, health, death, social and civic life, marriage, women, and family, among others. In addition, all of the petitions relate in one way or another to a broad range of legal issues and state laws concerning race and slavery.

Information accuracy and user feedback page

All information about individuals, events, dates, and places used to create the Digital Library and found on this website was taken from petitions and related documents submitted with the filing and trying of civil cases submitted by various individuals. The accuracy of this information therefore depends entirely on the accurate recollection, telling, and recording of these individuals, events, dates, and placed by the various individuals involved in the trying of the cases, including petitioners, defendants, witnesses, lawyers, and public officials. In some cases, inconsistent information regarding an individual, an event, a date or a place was found in multiple documents. In such cases, a "best guess" was made based on cross-checking and comparative analysis of the multiple documents.

One specific area where inaccuracy or inconsistency may be detected by users of this website relates to the color of individuals identified as being slaves or free people of color. The color of an individual was assigned based on the following two criteria. If an individual slave or free person of color was specifically described by his or her color, then that color was used. Examples: a person described as black or very dark was assigned the color "black;" a person described as mulatto, or copper, or yellow, or dark mulatto, or light mulatto was assigned the color "mulatto." If an individual's color, however, was not specifically provided, that person would be assigned the color "black" by default.

In order to provide additional dynamic and interactive cross-checking of information accuracy, users of this Digital Library are invited to provide feedback regarding any information which, based on knowledge of a specific individual, event, date, or place through other sources, personal or public, they believe to be inaccurate. This information will be posted to the Digital Library and made available to all users for consultation.

Genealogists

The genealogical information provided by the Digital Library on Slavery is based on information found in court documents and legislative petitions pertaining to civil cases filed by slave owners, slaves, and free people of color in the fifteen states of the slaveholding South between the end of the American Revolution and the end of the Civil War. The types of documents thus used are varied; they range from plaintiffs’ complaints to local and regional courts, defendants’ answers to the complaints, witnesses’ depositions, judges’ rulings, and documents, such as wills, inventories, and property assessments, among others, that were offered by each side to support its case. The accuracy of the information found on this website is therefore directly related to the accuracy of the information found in the documents thus utilized. The documents were prepared by attorneys and court personnel, who wrote down what the plaintiffs, the defendants, the witnesses, and the local authorities told them. Similarly scribes were used to take down the last wishes of a person on his or her deathbed, or to document on-site inventory taking or estate valuation proceedings by court-appointed commissioners. As is sometimes the case, the person telling the story or dictating it may have had imperfect knowledge of family relations; his or her recollection may have been distorted by the many retellings through family or local lore, the passing of time, the incorrect interpretation of what was told, or even a personal “agenda” in the case at hand. In addition, scribes may have taken down the information incorrectly, corrected it at a later date to fit contradictory statements, or omitted critical pieces of the story through inattention. The information found in these court and legislative documents are uniquely valuable in that they fill in the gaps created by the limitations or, in the case of slaves, the absence of civil records; at the same time it is vulnerable to the distortion that can be introduced any time someone tells his or her story, or the story of relatives and neighbors, friends or foes. We therefore caution the user to view the information provided by this website as another piece in the family history puzzle, or perhaps, when the user has not yet found any piece at all, its starting point; in some cases it will corroborate already known information, in others it will point to new directions, and yet in others it will suggest the need to untangle conflicting information.

What is a PAR?

Each set of documents, including the petition and all the documents related to it, collected by the Race and Slavery Petitions Project is uniquely identified by an eight-digit PAR (Petition Analysis Record) number. The first digit in the number identifies legislative (1) versus county court (2 or 3) petitions. The next two digits indicate the state where the petition was filed. The numbering is in state alphabetical sequence. Since only the fifteen slaveholding states and the District of Columbia are represented in the collection, the numbering is from "01" (Alabama) to "16" (Virginia). The next three numbers represent the last three numbers of the filing year. The last two digits are used to uniquely identify a petition among petitions filed in the same year and the same state.