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:
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 enter a county name to search those counties only.
I did a search for petitions from Maryland during the period of 1820-1850 and got 533 results:
Each entry is numbered and summarized and the site explains how to order copies of the actual petitions if you find one relevant to your research.
Sample Database Entries
Claiborne County, Tennessee, 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.”
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:
Obviously, this database does not contain every or even most court records, but it does contain a huge representative sample. Kudos to Loren Schweninger and his entire research team for making a tool that both historians and genealogists can utilize.
I am an engineer by day, but my true passion lies in genealogy. I have been a researcher, writer, lecturer and teacher for over twenty years. This blog is where I share family history methods, resources, tips and advice, with an emphasis on slave research, slavery and its aftermath. This lifelong quest has helped me to better know my family’s past. I’ve taken back– reclaimed– some of that lost memory, especially that of my enslaved ancestors. I hope you’ll sign up to receive my posts—if you do, you’ll get a free PDF with some of my favorite tips! And please do share posts that interest you.