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AfriGeneas Free Persons of Color Forum

Re: Henry Watts' freedom status

There is something I hadn't considered, and I'm only mentioning it as another way at looking at your research. Please forgive my rambling, but if I don't post it now, I probably won't remember all of what I wanted to say...

I have often come across deeds of emancipation/manumission that are worded that the person from that moment would be treated "as if born free," and I've always been curious about that statement. I have yet to discover anyone who has looked into the legal ramifications of that type of emancipation, but I have explored a few possibilities.

I've read several "freedom lawsuits," where plaintiffs claimed that they were entitled to freedom based on the status of their mother. Unfortunately, the court records don't always include deliberations and testimonies related to the court cases. Thus, the direct evidence is lacking. Sometimes it emerges in places where you least expect it. For example, some Free Negro registers, like the one in Norfolk County, added notes on how a person established their freedom. I found one example where the clerk stated that the freedom was estblished as a result of a lawsuit, and provided the date of the court case and names involved. Entries like these are rare, but they do emerge in the records from time to time.

In such lawsuits, one finds that the child was born after the mother's deed of emancipation was written. In cases where the emancipator stated that all of the woman's "future increase" would be free, the child's status was generally not challenged. However, when that statement was missing, the mother’s former owner or the former owner’s heirs could claim the children as slaves. Such claims might stipulate that the mother only was given her freedom, not her children or her future children. Thus children born to emancipated mothers could be born into a legal enslaved/free limbo. And it sometimes required a lawsuit to straighten out the legal status of the child.

Sometimes the emancipator took extra measures to straighten out the ambiguities. You might find codicils to wills that included the names of the newborn children, or added the phrase "and all her future increase." Sometimes the emancipator, when paying to have the deed recorded, added the extension of freedom to the woman's child/children. There are other examples where the woman only was mentioned in a deed, but her freedom papers included the names of her children. And subsequent references to the children in later years, included statements that said the children were freed on the same date as their mother.

I have an example in my family, where my ggg aunt was freed in 1816 along with her two-year-old son. State laws required that anyone freed after March -- 1806 was required to leave the state. Children born to these mothers could remain in the state until they reached a certain age (I think 21). After that age, they too had to leave the state like their mothers. Thus my ggg aunt and her son fell under the rulings of this law. The local courts treated her differently than they did her son. She never registered and was never summoned to court to register. Her son however, was frequently summoned to court to register. He finally left the state and emigrated to St. Louis.

This is all to say, that Henry could have been born into a legal limbo that was subsequently resolved. His appearance in the county free register as a freeborn person suggests that the court regarded him as such, or rather, didn't have any proof that he was born enslaved and emancipated.

You may have to search extensively in the Norfolk county records for clues that will help you unravel the mystery. Although I can't tell you specifically where to look, I would suggest that you look through the court records to see if his freedom status was ever challenged. Typically these types of records would be amongst the court order books or miscellaneous records. I don't know if all of the Norfolk County records have been microfilmed. There may still be original manuscripts at the courthouse that have not been filmed. But, the Mormons have some film available that you could borrow and view at one of their research centers close to where you live.

The court order books include criminal proceedings and a variety of other cases. Typically, at least in Virginia, they provide numerous references to Free Blacks and slaves. Hopefully you'll find Henry amongst these records.


18 Dec 2002 :: 14 Nov 2008
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