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AfriGeneas Slave Research Forum

Researching Manumissions or "Free Papers"

Whenever researching manumission papers, you have to know the laws that governed legal manumission. These laws varied
(1) by time period, and
(2) by state.

To research state laws ideally you should have access to a good law library (at a courthouse, law school, or research archive in the state). Alternatively, Google the subject, and you may find that a historian or genealogist has published a book, article, or online guide describing the applicable laws. Perhaps, even, the Google Books project may have scanned the nineteenth century laws for your target state.

Legal references usually have good indexes. Look up "manumission" and read all the applicable citations. Note what years each law was in effect, and how laws changed over time. Take particular notice how and where manumissions were to be documented.

Example of a primary source: _Thomas R. R. Cobb, A Digest of the Statute Laws of the State of Georgia . . ._ (Athens, Ga.: 1851) is an example of a primary legal source available online. Follow this link: http://books.google.com/books?id=Tx9FAAAAYAAJ&printsec=frontcover&dq=cobb+digest+of+the+laws+of+georgia+1851#v=onepage&q=&f=false

Example of a secondary source: Ruth Scarborough, _The Opposition to Slavery in Georgia prior to 1860_ (Atlanta: George Peabody College for Teachers, 1933) is an example of a secondary source that introduces readers to manumission laws in Georgia.

Georgia, for example, the state passed a law, approved December 5, 1801, that said:
"From and after the passing of this Act, it shall not be lawful for any person or persons to manumit or set free any negro slave or slaves, any mulatto, mustizoe, or any other person or persons of color, who may be deemed slaves at the time of the passing of this Act, in any manner or form, than by an application to the Legislature for that purpose." Just in case anyone tried to slip an illegal manumission into the books anyway, the law specified, "It shall not be lawful for the Clerks of the Superior Courts, nor any other officer of the State, to enter on record in any book of record by them kept, any deed of manumission, or other paper which shall have for object the manumitting and setting free any slave or slaves, and the party offending therein, shall forfeit for every deed or paper so recorded, the sum of $100." (quoted from Cobb's _Digest_ at the link above, page 983)

So, how much time should researchers spend looking for "free papers" recorded in Georgia courts after 1801? Probably not much.

Based on the law, where should Georgia researchers look?

The only LEGAL manumissions in Georgia after 1801 can be found in the private laws passed by each legislative session. Private laws (those laws that benefit only individuals in personal matters like legitimation of children, divorces, tax relief, and manumissions) are not generally included in legal digests or compilations. Finding these usually involves browsing the indexes of each year of published laws. For Georgia, Ruth Scarborough's book, _The Opposition to Slavery in Georgia prior to 1860_, is handy because it lists or describes most of the legal manumissions for the state. This book is available in many libraries.

To summarize: Before looking for manumissions, research the applicable laws to learn what kinds of manumissions were authorized and where these would have been recorded. Laws varied by time period and from state to state.


18 Dec 2002 :: 14 Nov 2008
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