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Watson, Slave Importation Affidavit Registers

Book Review

Dawn Watson, Slave Importation Affidavit Registers for Nine Georgia Counties, 1818-1847 (Clayton, GA: Bone Diggers Press, 2012). 114 pages, 3 ill.

Dawn Watson has published an important book of extracts, Slave Importation Affidavit Registers for Nine Georgia Counties, 1818-1847. If any Georgia records could cry out for priority attention these would have been among the loudest, and this book does a fine job making the content easily available to the public.

These records are important for genealogy and history research because they document migration of specific people, because they list the enslaved during the lifetimes of the slave owners (we don’t have to wait for probate), and because they often include details like ages, occupations, kinships, and physical descriptions. Watson’s book extracts records related to about 950 slaves, a small number of the hundreds of thousands living in Georgia, but a significant addition to our libraries because it is so difficult to catch the ancestors on the road—to learn where they may have come from and when they migrated.

The nine counties whose slave importation affidavit registers are extracted in this book are Camden, Columbia, Elbert, Franklin, Jackson, Jasper, Morgan, Pulaski, Wilkes. See the map, showing that 7 of 12 surviving Slave Importation Affidavit Registers were kept by counties bordering South Carolina or Florida. Records from the dark-gray-shaded counties are in Dawn Watson’s book. The light-gray-shaded county is Richmond, which has not yet been extracted, but will yield the identities of thousands of enslaved migrants.

Most slave owners registered in their home counties, but occasionally someone passing through on his way home would register slaves as he came across the Georgia line. Watson’s extracts include registrations by masters whose homes were in Appling, Oglethorpe, Jones, Warren, Washington, and Wayne (one each). Columbia County’s book, for example, registered slaves imported by men whose home counties were in Virginia, Maryland, North Carolina, and Mississippi.

Watson’s extracts are presented in a clear, workmanlike manner. Watson provides a preface describing her methodology. There is a section for each county. Each section begins with a description of the format used by that county’s clerk, followed by the extracts in page order. Watson includes all information about each person. Personal names are printed in bold type to stand out from the rest of the text. Watson includes photos of three pages to show what typical entries look like in the original manuscript books.

Watson includes two indexes, a surname and place index useful for finding slave masters and localities, and a “Slave [Master] Index.” This second index is arranged alphabetically by the slave’s first name followed by the slave master’s name in square brackets. Watson’s “Slave [Master] Index” is a huge advance over so many first name indexes in genealogy and history books that fail to acknowledge how slave master names are key to differentiate one person from another. Watson’s index system, or one similar, that links slave name to master name, ought to be standard in all genealogy and history books, whether in print or online.

The book needs a map. Perhaps the author will rectify this when she publishes the Richmond County extracts.

I found no significant errors (Jones County, mentioned in one of the extracts, was omitted from the place index). There is a minor error of fact in the preface (p. vii) where Watson states that Georgia laws regulating the interstate slave trade were “based on an earlier federal law.” No federal law ever regulated the interstate slave trade. Southern congressmen never would have allowed it, even though the Commerce Clause in the Constitution arguably gave Congress power to do so. Watson may be thinking of the national ban in the African slave trade that went into effect in 1808.

Dawn Watson’s Slave Importation Affidavit Registers for Nine Georgia Counties, 1818-1847, is an important contribution to African American genealogy for the slavery period. I look forward to the publication of Slave Importation Records from Richmond County, which contain information about many thousands of slaves, and which will complete the extraction of vital information from this record series.

The Genesis of Georgia’s Slave Importation Affidavit Registers

The Georgia Constitution of 1798 banned the “future importation of slaves into this State, from Africa or any foreign place, after the first day of October [1798]”; however, the legislature “shall have no power to prevent emigrants from either of the United States to this State from bringing with them such persons as may be deemed slaves by the laws of any one of the United States.” Slave traders were not protected by this clause of the constitution. By 1817 the Georgia legislature’s attitudes toward the interstate slave trade led to the first of a series of laws attempting to restrict importations by slave traders.

To document legal importations, the 1817 law required: “That any person or persons hereby authorized to bring, import, or introduce any slave or slaves into this State, shall, before such slave or slaves is or are actually so brought, imported or introduced therein, go before the Clerk of the Superior Court of some county in this State, and make and subscribe an affidavit in writing, which shall be lodged with such Clerk, stating that he or she is about to bring, import and introduce into this State, a slave or slaves, in terms of this Act, particularly describing such slave or slaves by their names, ages and qualifications; that he or she is the true and lawful owner of such slave or slaves; that the said slave or slaves is or are about to be brought, imported or introduced into this State, for the sole purpose of being held to service and labor by him or her . . .”

Why? If Georgia white people loved slavery, and it was legal, what was wrong with slave traders bringing more enslaved people into the state? During the antebellum period, newspaper editorials and letters to the editor harped on three themes:
(1) Slaves sold from the Upper South were criminals or troublesome people whose owners sold them to slave traders to get ride of them. Georgia did not need the dregs of other slave states.
(2) Imported slaves depressed slave prices, thus hurting the property values of Georgia slave owners.
(3) Upper South states like Virginia had worn out their lands and were no longer able to employ slaves profitably. If the Upper South sold all their slaves to the Lower South two bad things would happen: (a) the Upper South would have all Georgia’s cash and Georgia would have all the Negroes but no cash, (b) the Upper South states would no longer be interested in protecting slavery in Congress. Once they had all Georgia’s money and had unloaded all their slaves, they would unite with the Northern states to abolish slavery in the Union, thus swindling Georgia and the other Lower South states out of their property and loosing millions of Free Negroes upon the hapless white people of the Lower South.

Delusional? Of course, but then what about American slavery did NOT cultivate self-deception and paranoia among slave owners? The 1817 ban was repealed in 1824, then re-enacted in 1829. The law was modified in 1836, then repealed again in 1842, re-enacted exactly one year later in 1843, repealed again in 1849, reimposed in 1851, and finally repealed for the last time in 1855. Was the law effective? It seems the only people who registered their slaves when they migrated to or through Georgia were legitimate migrants. Slave traders ignored the law. Historian Ralph Betts Flanders (Plantation Slavery in Georgia, 1933, p. 184) found that “[t]hese laws were violated with great frequency and boldness.” Newspaper editorials notwithstanding, Georgians wanted to buy slaves.

The 1817 law also specified that clerks of Superior Court keep bound books to record Slave Importation Affidavits. Each clerk had to design his own because the state did not provide a standard form (we’re talking about a state that did not even provide counties with a standard printed form for annual tax digests until 1850!). That is why each county’s book looks different. It also probably accounts for why we do not have books for most georgia counties; clerks in the interior of the state did not want to waste money on an expensive book. The clerk in Pulaski County, at the very center of the state, went to the expense of procuring a special book, but only made 8 entries, before using the rest of the pages for other purposes. In my own experience, in Upson County, in the western half of the state, only one person made affidavit under the importation law, and it was recorded in a deed book in 1852

Here is how the law specified recording the affidavits: “And be it further enacted, That it shall be the duty of every clerk of the Superior Court, before whom any oath required to be taken by this act shall be made, to keep a bound book, in which shall be recorded the affidavits required to be made, and the certificates necessary to be given, agreeable to the provisions of this act, previous to the introduction of any slave into this state . . .”

The complete law can be read at Google Books, if you Google on this phrase: "That any person or persons hereby authorized to bring, import, or introduce any slave or slaves into this State"

Messages In This Thread

Watson, Slave Importation Affidavit Registers
Re: Watson, Slave Importation Affidavit Registers

18 Dec 2002 :: 14 Nov 2008
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