African American Research in Maryland
[Info from the Maryland State Archives]
The following types of documents are available for African-American Research in the Maryland State Archives:
A manumission is the legal document freeing a slave. The earliest manumissions were recorded by deed in the county land records. Between 1752 and 1790, the deed was the only legal document that could free a slave. But before and after those years, manumissions were also recorded in wills, chattel records, and, for Anne Arundel and Harford counties, in a separate record series called (Manumissions).
The typical information found in a manumission is the name and residence of the slave holder, the name (often just the first name) and age of the slave or slaves to be freed, and the date or age at which the freedom would be granted. Sometimes the manumission even indicates familial relationships by listing the names of children, wives or husbands. Sometimes, though, the manumission does not list the names of the slaves being freed. The document may simply refer to “sundry slaves.”
The Archives holds the land records, chattel records and wills for all the counties in Maryland prior to the Civil War. The manumissions recorded in these records are indexed by the name of the slave holder, not by the name of the slave. In the land record and chattel record indexes, the slave holder’s name is listed in the grantor/seller column, the slave’s name in the grantee/buyer column, and the word “manumission” in the transaction column. The indexes to wills list only the names of the decedents, and not other names appearing in the document. Only by reading the wills can one find information about slaves being freed.
Two counties kept their manumissions in separate record series. The Archives holds a book of manumissions for Harford County covering 1774 to 1784. There is an index in the front of the book arranged by the name of the slave holder. For Anne Arundel County, the Archives has separate manumissions covering 1785 to 1866.
Certificates of Freedom
In 1805 the General Assembly passed a law to identify free African Americans and to control the availability of freedom papers. As the lawmakers explained: “great mischiefs have arisen from slaves coming into possession of certificates of free Negroes, by running away and passing as free under the faith of such certificates” (Chapter 66, Laws of 1805). The law required African Americans who were born free to record proof of their freedom in the county court. The court would then issue them a certificate of freedom. If the black person had been manumitted, the court clerk or register of wills would look up the manumitting document before issuing a certificate of freedom.
A typical certificate not only indicates how the black became free, but also lists physical characteristics that could be used to establish identity. These include height, eye color, complexion, and hair color and texture.
Often, blacks would bring to the courthouse witnesses or affidavits as proof of freedom. A sampling of such affidavits remains only for Prince George’s County and dates from 1810 to 1862. The affidavits are unindexed, but contain a wealth of information including the names of the person’s parents, the names of former owners, and how the person became free. This record series is called (Freedom Affidavits).
The Archives has the certificates of freedom for Baltimore City and the following counties: Anne Arundel, Baltimore, Caroline, Cecil, Charles, Dorchester, Frederick, Harford, Howard, Kent, Prince George’s, Queen Anne’s, Somerset, St. Mary’s, Talbot and Washington. In general the certificates date from the early 1800s and continue until the Civil War. A few of the volumes are self-indexed, but most are not.
Assessment Record, Slaves
Maryland residents paid personal property tax on slaves. In many of the counties, slaves were listed along with silver plate and gold watches in the personal property schedules. Depending on the county and the time period, the personal property schedules may simply list the total number and value of the slaves in each household. But sometimes the schedules go into more detail, setting out several broad age groups and then giving the number and value of the slaves in each age group.
Five counties – Frederick, Kent, Montgomery, Talbot, and St. Mary’s – recorded their slave assessments separately in a series called (Assessment Record, Slaves). A typical record lists the election district, the year the assessment was taken, the slave owner’s name, the first name of the slave, and the slave’s age, sex, and value. The assessments are arranged by election district and then by the name of the slave owner. The exception is St. Mary’s County, where the returns are loose and arranged by year and then alphabetically by owner’s name. The dates covered vary depending on the county.
Distribution of Slaves
A distribution documents how the assets of a deceased person’s estate were divided among the heirs. Most distributions record the percentage and dollar amount of the estate that each heir received. Only occasionally do distributions list slaves.
Two counties, however, kept record series that specifically recorded distributions of slaves. The Archives holds distributions of slaves for the Somerset County Register of Wills from 1827 to 1862 and for the Kent County Register of Wills from 1860 to 1864.
A typical distribution of slaves gives the name of the deceased, the date of distribution, the name of the executor or administrator, and the names (first name only), ages, and values of the slaves. Also listed are the names of the heirs who inherited the slaves. Most of the volumes are self-indexed by the name of the deceased, but there is no index for Somerset County for 1842-1850.
Although the Archives has distributions of slaves for only Kent and Somerset Counties, some of the other counties kept separate series of regular distributions: Anne Arundel, Caroline, Cecil, Dorchester, Frederick, Harford, Prince George’s, St. Mary’s, Talbot, Washington, and Worcester. One may find mixed in with these regular distributions some that specify slaves.
Census of Negroes
In 1831 a census was authorized by the General Assembly to aid in the effort to resettle recently freed slaves and other free African Americans in Africa (Chapter 281, Laws of 1831). Marylanders saw colonization as a means of curtailing the growing free black population. During the antebellum period Maryland had the largest free black population in the United States. Enough Maryland blacks sailed to Africa that a “Maryland District” was created in Liberia. Original schedules for the Census of 1832 for Harford, Talbot, and Somerset counties are available at the Maryland State Archives. Microfilm copies of all other counties except Baltimore City and Baltimore County are available at the Maryland Historical Society. Abstracts of Allegany, Anne Arundel, Calvert, Caroline, Cecil, Charles, Dorchester, Frederick, Kent, Montgomery, Queen Anne’s, and St. Mary’s Counties are available in the Maryland State Archives’s Library.
Each county arranged its census a different way. The Harford County census groups free blacks by household and then lists the name and age of each family member. The Somerset County census is really two lists: one of the names and ages of free males and one of the names and ages of free females. The Anne Arundel census lists the head of household, the number of family members, the number of males and females, their ages, and the number willing to go to Liberia. None of the records are indexed.
Court Papers, Blacks
The Prince George’s County Court is the only court with a set of miscellaneous papers pertaining solely to African Americans. The papers date from 1799 to 1865. The series is not indexed, but the quantity of material is relatively small. The papers include pardons, indictments of free blacks who entered Maryland from out of state, bench warrants for people harboring runaways, petitions for freedom, bills of sale, and registration of slaves imported from out of state
In Maryland, parents could voluntarily indenture or apprentice their children. Until 1794 the county courts could apprentice orphans with insufficient income to support them. Boys were indentured to tradesmen to learn a craft, and girls to housewives to learn household skills. The people purchasing the indentures were required to support the children until they reached the age of majority, at which point the young adult was released from servitude.
The General Assembly passed a law in 1793 (Chapter 45, Laws of 1793) that transferred jurisdiction over apprenticeships to the county orphans court. The orphans court or a justice of the peace could order involuntary indentures of children falling within the following categories: orphans whose inheritance was insufficient to maintain them, illegitimate children, and children whose parents were too poor to support them. Although this law did not mention race, an 1808 supplement singled out free African American children. This law provided for the indenturing of “the child or children of lazy, indolent, and worthless free negroes” (Chapter 54, Laws of 1808), who could not financially support their children. Since most free blacks were denied the economic opportunities available to white Marylanders, they were constantly at risk of having their children indentured.
The indentures handled by the county courts, if recorded, are found in land records or chattel records. Those handled by the orphans courts are recorded in (Indentures). In addition, the Archives has (Indentures, Original) for Anne Arundel, Caroline, Frederick, Queen Anne’s, Talbot, and Washington counties and Baltimore City.
A typical indenture includes the names of the parties involved, the date recorded, sometimes the reason the child was indentured, the child’s birth date or age, and the length and conditions of servitude. Many of the indenture books are self-indexed. Indentures may be indexed by the name of the parent, the name of the child, and the name of the person purchasing the index.
This docket exists only for the Talbot County Register of Wills and covers 1855 to 1867. The docket entries frequently cite an 1839 law. The law authorized the orphans court to sell into slavery for a year any free blacks found to “have not the necessary means of support, and [be] not of good and industrious habits.” Children of such blacks were “bound out as apprentices to good masters, to serve until the age of twenty-one years if male; or eighteen years if female” (Laws of 1839, Chapter 38).
The Negro Docket is a record of the court cases in which the above determinations were made. The docket records the date the case was instituted, the first and last names of the free black and his or her children, the informer’s name, and the disposition of the case. If the case resulted in an indenture, the court recorded the child’s birth date and the length of the indenture.
(Chattel Records) contain bills of sale for personal property. Recorded sales include cattle, horses, tobacco, wheat, farm implements, furniture, wagons, and ships. Prior to the Civil War, the sale of slaves was also recorded in the chattel records.
The earliest chattel records were recorded in the county land records, but some counties later began recording the bills of sale in separate books. The Archives holds land records for every county, and holds separate chattel record books from the antebellum period for Anne Arundel, Baltimore, Caroline, Cecil, Dorchester, Harford, Howard, Kent, and Talbot counties. For other counties the records either are not extant or and be found in Land Records.
A typical chattel record lists the names of the buyer and the seller, their places of residence, the items sold, the amount sold for, and the date of the sale. When a slave is sold, the record usually gives the name of the slave, sometimes both first and last names. Unfortunately, the records are indexed by the names of the buyer and the seller, not by the name of the slave sold.
There are separate, comprehensive indexes for the chattel records of Anne Arundel, Howard, and Kent counties. Some of the books for the Baltimore County and all of the books for Dorchester, Harford, Howard, and Kent counties are self-indexed. Bills of sale in Dorchester county chattel records for 1827 to 1833 are also. Unfortunately, there are no indexes for the records of Caroline, Cecil, and Talbot counties.
Runaway Docket, Baltimore City and County
In 1824 the General Assembly noted “that Baltimore county is subjected to great annual expense on account of negroes being committed to the jail of that county, on suspicion of being runaway slaves” (Chapter 171, Laws of 1824). The law goes on to outline procedures for detaining suspected runaway slaves. The (Runaway Docket) of the Baltimore jail contains brief entries about African Americans apprehended in the Baltimore area, who were suspected runaways. The dockets cover 1831 to 1864 and include blacks whose alleged owners resided in all parts of Maryland. The entries list the runaway’s name, the date committed to jail, the name of the justice of the peace handling the case, the charge (running away), the name and residence of the presumed owner, and the name of the witness claiming the person is a runaway. Also included are notes on the disposition of the case. Most typical is a note stating that the warden released the slave to the owner or the owner’s agent. Usually the owner signed for the slave. If the suspected runaway could not prove he or she was free, the sheriff would hold the suspect and advertise him or her as a runaway in the newspapers. If no owner appeared as the result of the ad, the suspect was set free.
The General Assembly established the Maryland Penitentiary in 1804 and opened in 1811 (Resolution 51, Laws of 1804. It was the first maximum security prison in Maryland, and only the second in the United States. The Archives holds the records pertaining to the prisoners confined there from 1811 to 1893. The entries in (Prisoners Record) are arranged chronologically by prisoner number, and the records after 1839 are indexed by a separate series called (Prisoners Record, Index). The entries list the prisoner’s name, birth place, age, complexion, hair type, stature, eye color, usual place of residence, occupation, distinguishing marks, county where convicted, crime, date and length of sentence, release date, occupation in prison, and when and how discharged. The records also provide information about the convict’s social characteristics: ability to read and write, age orphaned, whether indentured or a runaway, marital status, and temperance. Many of the prisoners listed have physical characteristics indicating they were African American.
Another prison, the Maryland House of Correction, was established in 1874 and opened in 1879 (Chapter 233, Laws of 1874). This medium security facility was the second prison built by the State of Maryland. The Archives holds the records of the prisoners incarcerated there from 1879 to 1912. The (Prisoners Record) books are similar to the ones created by the Maryland Penitentiary. They are arranged in chronological order by prisoner number, and the Archives holds an index covering 1879 to 1905. The entries list the prisoner’s name and number, former occupation, crime, sentence length, age, education, Sunday school attendance, at what age orphaned, whether bound to a trade, temperance, religion, race, sex, marital status, number of convictions, place of birth, county where convicted, date incarcerated, and expiration of sentence. The records covering 1900 to 1912 also include hair and eye color, complexion, height, weight, and any identifying scars, tattoos, and marks.
Maryland remained in the Union during the Civil War, despite the divided loyalties of her people. Because Maryland was a Union state, Lincoln’s emancipation proclamation did not free Maryland slaves. Instead, they were freed by a new state constitution which took effect on November 1, 1864. Many slaves, however, had taken advantage of the war’s confusion to leave their owners earlier, some by joining the Union Army.
In a law passed in 1867 the General Assembly complained that “under the Military of the United States, a large number of slaves owing service to loyal citizens of Maryland, were induced to leave their owners and enlist in the military service of the United States.” The lawmakers pointed out that Marylanders had received “no compensation for their inconveniences, public and private” (Chapter 189, Laws 1867). Hoping that the federal government would repay the state’s loyalty and compensate its citizens for the chattels lost, the General Assembly ordered that a listing be made of all slave owners and their slaves as of November 1, 1864.
The federal government never compensated the owners, but these records, called (Slave Statistics), are the only evidence available of slaves and owners at the time of state emancipation. Besides the names of owners and slaves, the lists include the age, sex, physical condition and term of servitude for each slave. The schedules also indicate those slaves who enlisted in the Union Army, and sometimes give the regiment in which the slave enlisted. Slave statistics survive for Anne Arundel, Dorchester, Frederick, Howard, Kent, Montgomery, Prince George’s and St. Mary’s counties. A few of the volumes are indexed.
African Americans served in Maryland units during the Revolutionary War, especially after 1780 when both free blacks and slaves were eligible for enlistment. Unfortunately, documenting proof of service is difficult. Muster rolls frequently fail to indicate race, although sometimes the word “Negro” or “mulatto” appears after a soldier’s name. Pension records for Maryland blacks, unlike those for white soldiers, are virtually non-existent. In 1793, Maryland restricted militia enrollment to whites. Blacks worked as laborers and servants in the white units, but they could not serve as soldiers.
Not until the Civil War was the role of black Marylanders officially recognized in Maryland’s public records. During the first years of the war, Maryland slaves who escaped from their owners to join the federal army were usually returned to their owners or incarcerated as runaways. By July 1863, despite the protests of Maryland’s governor and slave owning Unionists, the federal government began actively recruiting slaves as well as freemen. The United States recruited six regiments of African Americans from Maryland as part of the United States Colored Troops (USCT). The USCT regiments mustered in Maryland were the 4th, the 7th, the 9th, the 19th, the 30th, and the 39th. In addition, Maryland blacks joined the United States Marine Corps and the United States Navy.