|An AfriGeneas Library Article. May not be reproduced without permission.|
Introduction to Courthouse Resources
A note on Documenting Slaves’ names
Indentures of Apprenticeship
Tax Digests after 1865
Marriage records, 1875-6
Deed and Mortgage Records
Records of Civil Cases
Writs and Declarations
Judgment Dockets, Execution Dockets, Fifas
Minutes of Inferior Court Meeting for
Legal Notices in Newspapers
Tax Digests (before 1865)
Persons of Color
Treasures Hidden Among Loose Court Papers
There is no such
thing as a "slave record" in the courthouses of Georgia, if, by slave
record, we mean a court document whose purpose was to record the names or
activities of slaves for their own sake—I say this to emphasize that a
researcher looking for slaves must use a completely different strategy from the
approach he would use to research free persons.
Legal records were about the personal rights and property rights of free
persons, and slaves had no personal or property rights. The fundamental relationship between free
persons and legal records, therefore, was different from the relationship
between slaves and legal records. Slaves
do not appear as parties to any lawsuit, marriage, contract, deed, bond. They did not make wills or inherit
property. They are not named in the
tax digests. They do not appear on
any jury list, land lottery, poor school roster, or voters list. And yet, hundreds of thousands of
individual slaves are named and described in the court records of
are many types of non-legal records that contain valuable slave information,
legal records preserved in our county courthouses (and, in some cases, at the
Department of Archives and History in
The historian or genealogist researching legal records for our
The careful reader of court records will discover a world of information about slaves and slavery not equaled in size by any other kind of record.
One of the greatest challenges for genealogists seeking slave ancestors is to trace individual slaves back through former owners, because (working from more recent records to older records) the identifying "tag" of the owners' names usually changes without a clue. A slave typically appears in the records of an owner's legal affairs with no indication of where he or she came from. This is similar to the dilemma faced by researchers of free persons in trying to trace a married woman's ancestry when marriage (or other) records do not exist to show her maiden name. Just as marriage records are indispensable in tracing free persons, records of sale or transfer (as in estate sales, distributions of estates, and bills of sale) are usually essential to trace individual slaves from owner to owner.
It is my opinion that a comprehensive program of extracting, organizing,
and indexing all legal records from the slavery period for each
A Note on Documenting Slaves’ Names. When extracting and indexing historical or genealogical data on American slaves, researchers will find that most kinds of records usually give slaves a first name only. Since slaves were documented as property in most surviving records, a slave's legal identity was the combination of his/her first name and the full name of his/her owner. For research purposes, the slave owners’ complete names act as the best substitute for surnames of slaves (even if a record gives both a first and last name to a slave, the slave owner’s name will still be essential to tracing that slave in other sources); this combination of slave's first name and owner's full name can be as effective as the name of any free person in tracing slaves from record to record. For a lengthier discussion, see David E. Paterson, “A Perspective on Indexing Slaves’ Names,” The American Archivist, 64 (Spring/Summer 2001), 132-142.
To make the best
use of court records, we must understand the organization and functions of
Note: The author is
most familiar with records post-dating the State Constitution of 1798. My descriptions of courts and legal
records may not accurately reflect courts and practices from the colonial period
Justice's Court. Each county was divided into militia districts, and each militia district elected two justices of the peace whose powers included the power to try small claims of $30 or less, and the power to convene a tribunal of fellow-justices to try slaves and free persons of color accused of non-capital crimes.
Justices of the Peace were required to keep record books of their court proceedings, but their courts were not designated “courts of record” (their records were not “for a perpetual memory and testimony” and they did not have the power to fine or imprison for contempt.).
Because their records were not required to be maintained at a permanent, central location like the county courthouse, most of them are now lost.
Researchers will occasionally find cases appealed from Justice's Court among the papers of Inferior or Superior Court.
Inferior Court. Each county had an
Court of Ordinary. In 1851, the Clerk of the Court of Ordinary, who had been subordinate to the Justices of Inferior Court, was made an independent, elected judge of the Court of Ordinary. His official title was "Ordinary"—which can still be seen painted over the doorways of Probate Judges' offices in many counties today. Ordinaries administered the laws regarding probate of estates, registered free persons of color, bonded guardians, and issued marriage licenses, and heard petitions for homestead exemptions.
Superior Court. This court heard all types of civil suits and petitions in equity, all criminal cases in which whites were charged, and, after 1850, all capital cases involving slaves and free persons of color.
County Court. This court was established
Supreme Court of
the State of
Emancipation divided the lives of four million Americans into earlier experiences in slavery and later experiences in freedom. Researchers often encounter one of their greatest genealogical challenges when trying to connect a known ancestor’s free identity with that person’s slave identity. Because the 1870 US Census was the earliest census that tried to name all Americans, five years after the Civil War and nationwide emancipation, research before this year this is sometimes called the “1870 brickwall.” Researchers seeking to find positive linkage between names of free people and those same people held in slavery need to consult records other than the antebellum censuses (for a discussion of slaves in the 1850 and 1860 US Censuses, see the Afrigeneas Library article: The 1850 and 1860 Census, Schedule 2, Slave Inhabitants ).
logically, we may look to records made by the slavemasters prior to
emancipation. When other evidence is
lacking, we are sometimes forced to speculate by matching freedpersons' last
names with the last names of slave owners, even though we know that freed slaves
often did not share the same surnames of their last masters. My research in
In cases where evidence is not so clear or convincing, there are some types of records made after emancipation that can positively identify a few freedpeople with their previous slave identity.
Apprenticeship. Indentures of apprenticeship were often used
by poor people when they could not afford to care for their own children. At emancipation, when the paternalistic
support system of slavery was destroyed, many former slaves found themselves
uncertain that they could provide adequate care for their children. Sometimes voluntarily, sometimes under
pressure, they apprenticed these children to white persons who were often their
former owners. Look for records of
apprenticeship in the Court of Ordinary up to 1866, and in County Court
beginning in 1866. These records
typically state the name of the parent or parents who are petitioning for the
apprenticeship (or name of a custodian in the case of orphans), the names and
ages of children being apprenticed, and the name of the person agreeing to take
the apprentices. The following are
typical examples from
Example 1. Loose papers of County Court, Special Session, January 14, 1867; the petition of Miless R. Meadows states that "at the time the Negroes were Emancipated in [Georgia] your petitioner owned one Willis, the son of Jeremiah Green a freedman, a freed boy now about 5 years old, that said freed boy is entirely destitute of the means of a support or any near relatives that are able & willing to care for [him]. . . That the said boy now has no mother."
Example 2. Loose papers of County Court, petition
3. Loose papers of
County Court, Special Session, October 27, 1866; Petition of Jabez Dallis,
states that "at the time of the emancipation of the slaves in this state he
was the owner of certain Slaves, to wit
Eliza a girl about twelve years old
Josie a girl about 10 years old
Harriett a girl about 7 years old
and Samuel a boy about 4 years old all of whom are destitute of either Father or Mother so far as your petitioner knows."
Tax Digests (after 1865). Post-war tax digests can indirectly link free persons to a slave past. Tax records were arranged by militia district, which helps to geographically locate a person within the county. Beginning 1866, tax digests were divided into two parts; the first for white taxpayers, the second for "freedmen." The format for freedmen asked for (1) employer’s name, then (2) freedman’s name, followed by tax data. Frequently, the employer was the same as the person's previous owner, which, coupled with a coincidence of last names and geographical location, may bolster a possible link between free and slave identity.
Records, 1875-6, can be peculiarly valuable in
Return of a
Marriage, Form A,
1. Full name of groom James Collier
2. Place of residence Paines Mill
3. Age 21
4. Color Colard
5. Occupation Miller
6. Place of birth-State or
country Upson County Georgia
7. Father's name Japhes Dicerson
8. Mother's maiden name Fannie Dicerson
9. Full name of bride Fannie Tisinger
10. Maiden name if a widow First Husban
11. Place of residence Benjamin Lowe's place
12. Age 19
13. Color Colard
14. Place of birth-State or
country Upson County Georgia
15. Father's name Japhes Tisinger
16. Mother's maiden name Lizebeath Tisinger
Notice that, in the example above, the groom's last name (Collier) is not the same as either parent’s last name (Dicerson). Making the inter-generational connection could be difficult without this kind of record.
Birth and death records were also required to be submitted to the Ordinary during 1875-1876. Copies may be preserved in your local Probate Court.
Look for useful
records that may be peculiar to your county.
I found that the Ordinary of Upson County had formulated
his own marriage license for non-whites between 1865 and 1869. His form asked the bride and groom to
name their former owners. A
random check of other counties' marriage records suggests that this format may
be peculiar to Upson; nevertheless, thanks to these records, about 470 persons
III. Probate Records
sheer numbers of persons who can be identified, the richest source of
information about slaves is probate records.
For example, the probate records of
Inventory & Appraisement, Record of Accounts, Record of Vouchers, Record of
Sales. These are some of the
names under which probate records are found.
Although probate documents are available from the early days of the
Wills are particularly useful for identifying how slaves in an estate were to be distributed. Wills may be found recorded in a special Will Book, or may be recorded in any of the many varieties of probate record books kept by the Court of Ordinary (now known as Probate Court). Many slaveowners left special instructions in their wills concerning certain slaves. Other slaveowners did not name any slaves in their wills, but merely left instructions on how their estate was to be divided. Some counties' wills have been extracted in county histories or other genealogical books, but too often the slaves have been omitted.
Inventory and Appraisement. This was the first action on a deceased's estate. All slaves were listed, usually by gender and name, and often also by age. Sometimes relationships like husband/wife and mother/child were given. The slaves were given a value. When extracting probate records, always include appraised value because these values give clues as to the age or health of a slave, and can sometimes be the only way to differentiate between slaves of the same name.
Annual returns by executors and administrators gave an accounting of the income and expenditures of the estate each year. Many estates hired slaves, and annual returns frequently state to whom they were hired, as well as for how much. For the family researcher, annual returns naming "Mary and her child" one year, followed by "Mary and two children" the next year, are obviously useful to suggest births and ages of children. Most expenditures are explained on numbered vouchers (detailed receipts), which may be copied into the same record books as the returns, or may be recorded in separate books, according to the whim of the court clerk. Vouchers include doctors' bills which give valuable information about ailments and medical treatment of particular slaves, midwive's bills which suggest children's birthdays, purchases of clothing for slaves, and even the occasional purchase of a "Negro coffin" which can explain the disappearance of a particular person from the next year's annual return. Sometimes vouchers were listed only by number, while the contents were not transcribed into the record books. The original detailed vouchers may be with the loose original returns which are still preserved in many probate judges' offices throughout the state. Often these loose records have never been microfilmed.
Sales. Sales of slaves
belonging to estates, like real estate, were carefully regulated by law. After 1805, it was illegal for
administrators to sell slaves belonging to an estate without court permission. Records of petitions to sell particular
slaves are usually found in Minutes of Inferior Court Meeting for Ordinary
Purposes or the Minutes of the Court of Ordinary. These sales were scrupulously documented
and given in with annual returns. Returns
of sales usually included the names of slaves sold, the date and place of sale
(usually at the steps of the county courthouse on the legal day of sale), the
amount each slave sold for, whether for cash or credit, and (in most cases) who
they were sold to. These estate
records of "Sales of Negroes" are the most abundant evidence we have
of the transfer of individuals from one owner to another in
Probate records. The following
example shows selected extracts from
return for 1827:
John Johnson hired Lilly for 1827 for $40
return for 1828: John Johnson
hired Lilly for 1828 for $30
return for 1829:
John Johnson hired Lilly for 1829 for $30
return for 1830:
Beneter C. Johnson hired Lilly
for 1830 for $25
return for 1831:
Beneter C. Johnson hired Lilly
for 1831 for $25
 midwife's fee to Lilly $3.00
return for 1832: midwife fees
 girl Lilly hired $30
return for 1833: hire of boy Tom
and girl Lilly for 1833 for $100
return for 1834: girl Lilly
hired for 1834 for $40
return for 1835:
midwife's fee $3.00
 girl Lilla hired for $15
John Arnold's share: Lilly and her child Henry
New guardian receipts for "Lilly & her three children Mary,
Bill, Henry" on
The preceding example shows that Lilly (the only female slave in this small estate) was delivered of five children between 1827 and 1836, three of whom survived. The fact that Lilly was hired in 1828 for $10 less than in 1827 suggests that she was nursing a child (the one born around New Year 1828). When her hire remained the same in 1829, it suggests (but without certainty) that either the first child or the next child born October 1828 may have died. The fact that her hire rose to $40 in 1834 (although she had young children) suggests that she was not then encumbered with a nursing child, and argues an early birth year for her second surviving child - possibly 1828, but no later than 1831. Her hire for 1835, only $15, suggests the presence of an infant.
Turning to the
For a more complex analysis using probate records, see the AfriGeneas Library article, "Case Study: Determining Maternity by Correlating Records of Alpheus Beall's Slaves."
IV. Deed and Mortgage Records.
Second only to probate records,
deeds and mortgages undoubtedly record the greatest number of persons in
Deeds of Gift. Deeds of gift were a special type of
deed, typically from a parent to a child, transferring property to that child
during the lifetime of the parent. Wedding
gifts to daughters usually contained things needed to set up a comfortable
household, including slaves to act as house servants. Gifts to females were often entrusted to
a male relative for the benefit of the woman, to keep the property from being
sold or lost by her husband (see Deeds of Trust, below). At first recording deeds of gift was
optional, and they could be recorded in either
Deeds of Trust. Deeds of trust were a legal device frequently used to protect and separate a wife's property from that of her husband. They were also used by men who were heavily in debt, and who wished to avoid wholesale seizure and sale of their property to satisfy creditors. The trust was nominally managed by the trustee, but often the trustee retained possession and use of the property. Trustees could be required to make returns of their transactions with the trust property, and these returns are sometimes in the minutes of Superior Court.
Mortgages. Some farmers and merchants
routinely used mortgages to finance their next crop or to secure loans for other
purposes. Slaves were often used as
collateral in these mortgages, so that mortgages are an
exceptionally valuable source of information about enslaved people during a
slave masters' lifetime. Mortgages
can be the only source for the identities of some slaves who were later
emancipated by the Civil War during the lifetimes of their owners. Mortgages of slaves often name persons
and identify family kinships that are not documented anywhere else. The growth of enslaved families can
sometimes be followed if the same families were repeatedly mortgaged. Until 1827, there was no law requiring
mortgages to be recorded, or specifying where they were to be recorded. Up to that time, they may be found in the
record books of any court of record, including the
Conditional Sales. Conditional sales of slaves were extremely common—perhaps more common than mortgages in some places. The conditional sale was usually the last resort of a slave owner deep in debt, and can be likened to pawning his property. Title (and sometimes possession) of the property went immediately to the purchaser who was usually a major creditor, but the seller retained the right to repurchase his property for a prescribed amount, within a prescribed time. Somewhat similar in appearance to mortgages, conditional sales can be recognized by use of the word "sale" in place of mortgage, and a clause at the end of the document beginning with "Nevertheless. . ." and stating the conditions which must be met to make the sale "void and of null effect." The distinction between mortgages and conditional sales, however, is sometimes blurred; I have seen at least one deed where the words "sale and mortgage" were used together throughout, as if the parties were not sure which instrument they meant to use. In practice, because the seller was usually in financial extremis, it is possible that the majority of conditional sales became permanent, never to be redeemed by the seller. This is where the contemporary tax records can be exceedingly useful to confirm whether or not a certain number of slaves disappears from the tax return of one person, and another’s person’s return increases by a similar number of slaves (see Tax Digests, under Miscellaneous Records, below).
Prenuptial agreements. These contracts were often executed between wealthy widows who were about to remarry and their prospective husbands. They were designed to protect the woman's property from being controlled or squandered by the man. These agreements are often in the form of a deed of trust to another male relative. They commonly include slave information.
Bills of Sale. Unfortunately for
A note about modern Deed Indexes: Clerks of Superior Court in most counties have current indexes to all their Deed Books, probably compiled fairly recently (in the last 20-30 years) for the benefit of lawyers, real estate brokers, and others researching titles to real estate. In many cases, deeds of gift, slave bills of sale, chattel mortgages, and any other documents which do not have current legal relevance are omitted from these modern indexes. The best way to search the Deed Books for particular records, besides reading every page, is to locate the original indexes, or a nineteenth-century compiled index which includes all the legal instruments recorded in the books. Sometimes the original indexes were bound in the front of each book, but often they were separate. These early indexes may be in the courthouse basement or attic, or on top of some inaccessibly high shelf, along with other records which are irrelevant to most current-day court activities.
Records of civil
suits probably identify the next highest number of slaves after probate records
and deed books. I estimate that for
If your courthouse has preserved the loose, original papers of Inferior and Superior Court, you have a bonus of information which is not recorded in any of the bound books. Certain county records (such as Coroner's Inquests) were not required to be transcribed into record books. Most civil cases settled out of court were not recorded, although the original pleadings filed with the clerk may remain among the loose "settled papers." Interrogatories—among the most interesting of all civil court records—were never recorded except when cases were appealed to the Supreme Court.
These are two names for the same type of
record. A writ or declaration was
written by the plaintiff's lawyer, identifying the parties to a lawsuit, and
describing, in legal terminology, the reason for the lawsuit and the amount of
damages requested. The person being
sued (called the respondent) had an opportunity to write his legal response on
the writ or declaration. Most cases
in these records are about money due on promissory notes. Writs and Declarations which went to
court were required to be recorded within 40 days after judgment. Writs and Declarations which were settled
out of court, or prior to judgment, were usually not recorded; instead, they
were folded up and filed with the loose papers of that term of court.
Most of the cases are, frankly, very boring (probably why not many people look at them), but among the more interesting are the cases for money due on the hire of a slave. The actual promissory note was usually attached to the original writ or declaration, and then copied into the record book.
Unlike the example above, Writ Records and Declaration Books do not generally record the outcome of a trial. To learn the verdict, you usually have to refer to the court's Minute Books.
proceedings are a good source of slave data; there is usually a list of property
to help the court decide alimony issues. Sometimes
the man's relationship with a slave woman is implicated in the grounds for
Keep an eye out for “trover” cases. They usually involve disputes over ownership of slaves.
Minute Books record the court's actions in each case. In civil suits, usually only the verdict and award are recorded (details of the case are found only in writ and declaration books described above). Petitions to the court, however, are recorded in full. One type of petition, the petition in equity, almost always contains useful, detailed information. Among the most interesting equity cases are Bills for Discovery, Account, Relief and Injunction which initiate a lengthy court battle over the rightful title to some property, usually slaves. Only Superior Court heard petitions in equity; these were cases that involved issues of fairness for circumstances not covered by statute law or common law. When sitting as a court of equity, Superior Court was sometimes referred to by lawyers as a “Chancery Court” and the judge was sometimes called a “chancellor” or “master of equity.”
Interrogatories were sworn
written depositions from witnesses who could not conveniently appear personally
in court, usually because they lived out of the county. If interrogatories have been preserved,
they will be among the loose papers of the court.
Since witness testimony in civil trials was not recorded in court minute
books, interrogatories are generally the only evidence we have of the testimony
given in court (the exceptions are cases appealed from Inferior to Superior
Court, and from
(an 1855 case involving a disputed estate, recalling events from thirty
years earlier) Samuel Harrison, in Macon
County, Alabama says: "negro woman Hannah belonged to James Walker; a negro
woman named Rebecca belonging to William W Walker was taken ill in her arms, and
Hannah went to William W Walkers for the purpose of cooking for William W
Walkers family until Rebecca got able to cook and while Hannah was at Wm
W Walker's William Harrison the father of witness was about to whip Hannah and Wm
W Walker told Wm Harrison not to whip her, for if he did whip her,
his father would take her back. Wm
Harrison talked of quitting to oversee for Wm W Walker on account of
not being permitted to whip Hannah, but Wm W Walker said he wished
Harrison to remain with him and not whip Hannah, for if he whiped her his father
would send and take her back. . . . Witness
says he saw Hannah in the possesion of James Walker after she had left Wm
W Walkers and the reason he recollects it, Hannah was about to whip him
afterwards. Witness says the names
of the children of Hannah were Cain and Winney, witness thinks she had two or
three other children, but does not know their names."
(an 1856 case involving a
slave’s medical fitness) John Alsabrooks of
(an 1859 case
involving a stolen trunk) "[William E.] Castlin said he would not give up
his Negro [Bob] to have evidence whipped out of him. [Mark]
(Not all useful
interrogatories come from the antebellum period.
The following extracts were taken from interrogatories dated 1892,
concerning events fifty years earlier) "I have known William Guilford from
a little child up to now. . . old
man Guilford Spear was his father & Vinie Spear was his mother. . . James Spear owned them. . . [William] was born on the
VI. Judgment Dockets, Execution Dockets, and Fifas
These records are merely the by-products of lawsuits, and thus seldom draw the attention of genealogists or historians; yet, they contain detailed information on a significant number of slaves who may not be recorded elsewhere.
and Execution Dockets were two names used for the same type of
record. They may be found among the
records of Superior Court or
Term 1844, Isaac B. Williamson vs. Josiah Mims (mortgage fifa): January 2,
1844 levied on six negroes Moses a man, 34; Treacy a woman, 25; Hannah a woman,
40; and 3 boys, Nero, 10; March, 8; Prince, 6.
Private sale of "Hannah and her three children to wit Nero, March
& Prince" sold by Josiah Mims to William D. Alexander for $200. Money received
pp. 260-1, July Term 1853, H. P. Kirkpatrick
J. McLeroy maker & E. F. Knott
endorser (fifa #8):
As illustrated above, one value of these records is that they frequently contain more detailed descriptions (age, complexion, family relationships) than found elsewhere. Unlike estate records, which document estates in transition at the death of a slaveowner, these records identify slaves during an owner's lifetime. In the most cases, owners of slaves levied on by the sheriff were able to come up with the money to pay off the debt in order to avoid sale of their property. Unfortunately, in those cases where the sheriff sold the slaves at public auction, purchasers' names are seldom documented. The first example given above, of Hannah and her three children, is unusual in that they were spared the degradation of public auction by being sold privately, and the new owner's name is given.
Fifa, short for the
Latin phrase fieri facias ("let it be made..."), was a court
order (execution) to the sheriff to levy on (meaning take) the property of a
debtor in order to satisfy a judgment. See
judgment and execution dockets, above. The
sheriff might typically keep track of fifas in a Sheriff's Fifa Docket
Book. Usually written on a
fill-in-the-blank form, a fifa names the parties to the court judgment
and the value of property to be taken to satisfy the judgment. On the back, the sheriff or his deputies
annotate their actions in carrying out the order.
The fifas were to be returned to the court which issued them and
the actions annotated on the Judgment Docket.
Theoretically, the docket books should contain everything that was noted
on the fifas. In fact, the
clerks frequently failed to transcribe all the information. Also, many docket books may be missing,
having been discarded when their useful life as legal records was over. In
Superior Court, August Term 1842, Edwin C. Turner
vs. Crawford Martin maker &
William Rainey, endorser; March 26, 1842, levied on land and a negro man named
Ching, about 50, property of Crawford Martin (not sold).
Superior Court, February Term 1842, Elias Beall vs. Augustus C.
The first example illustrates that unsatisfied fifas could remain in force without any action for up to seven years: notice that the second levy (on Mourning and Jane) occurred just months before the fifa would have expired under the seven-year statute of limitations. The second example illustrates the difficulty of tracing some slaves from owner to owner. Who bought Betsey and her two children, and where did they go?
VII. Criminal Records
Justice's Court. Any three Justices of the Peace could
convene as a tribunal when a slave was accused of a crime. If the case was a non-capital offense,
these JPs could try the case. If the
case was capital, they had to refer it to
Inferior Court. This court had jurisdiction over slaves charged with capital offenses from 1811 to 1850. By law, records of such trials were to be kept by the clerk in a book "separate and distinct from other records of his office." Because slave trials were infrequent, these records did not require a large book. Overlooked in many courthouses are slender, cheaply-made, quarto-size record books, sometimes with undistinguished titles like "Inferior Court Minutes." Sometimes, when you open these, you find the slave trials. Unlike civil trials, in which courtroom testimony was seldom recorded, the minutes of criminal trials (of free persons as well as slaves) usually contain a paraphrased transcript of witness' testimony. Slaves were admissible witnesses in the trials of other slaves; therefore, much information about persons besides the defendant can be gleaned from the court record. After 1850, jurisdiction over capital offenses in slaves was moved to Superior Court.
Superior Court assumed jurisdiction over capital offenses in slaves after 1850. Records of trials are in the minutes of this court. Unlike testimony in civil cases, which is generally not recorded, witness' testimony in criminal cases is paraphrased in the minutes of the court. Slave trials can be found in the indexes to minute book, usually listed as "The State vs [name], a Slave." When researching slaves and slavery, however, do not limit yourself to slave trials. All criminal trials should be read for slave content. Whites were tried for crimes like selling spiritous liquor to slaves, unauthorized trading with slaves, receiving stolen goods from slaves, playing cards with Negroes, harboring runaways, Sabbath-breaking (making slaves work on Sunday), providing false passes, stealing slaves, assaulting slaves, committing adultery and fornication with slaves, and other crimes. Invariably, the slaves involved with these accused whites are named and their masters are identified. See also Grand Jury Special Presentments (below).
Upson Superior Court, Criminal record, Book A:
p.85, May Term
1856, The State vs.
Grand Jury Special Presentments were criminal indictments against persons in the county who were accused of crimes at the semi-annual convening of the Grand Jury. In some counties, you may find the indictments preserved as loose records; in others you may find them transcribed into record books with titles like "Grand Jury Criminal Presentments;" and in other counties you may find both loose and bound records. The Grand Jury evaluated each accusation and decided "no bill' (meaning that the evidence did not warrant a prosecution) or "true bill" (meaning that the solicitor general should prosecute the case). Sometimes an accuser or prosecutor changed his mind, and the case is Nol Pros'd (not prosecuted) The "true bill" cases will most likely be duplicated as indictments in Superior Court, but the "no bill" and nol pros cases may not appear elsewhere, and may include unique references to particular slaves. Because the Grand Jury was an adjunct of Superior Court, surviving records of its proceedings will usually be found amongst the records of Superior Court. This example of an unrecorded nol pros case comes from Upson Superior Court:
February Term 1840, The State vs. John Boyd, Oliver Porter & Thomas Wilkinson; defendants charged with making an assault "in & upon a certain slave named Neptune the property of George Powell... said slave not then & there having first given any sufficient cause or provocation to justify said beating whipping wounding or ill treatment."
VIII. Miscellaneous Records
Records (sometimes called "immigration records") These are records of
affidavits by persons bringing slaves into Georgia, swearing that the slaves
were for their personal use only, not for resale.
This was an attempt to control the internal slave trade. The legislature had a hard time making up
its mind about this subject. Importation
of slaves by anyone except settlers was first prohibited by law in 1817, but
repealed in 1824. Importation of
slaves for resale or for hire was again prohibited in 1829, but later repealed,
then reinstated and repealed several more times thereafter. The Superior Courts of large border towns
and ports like
Inquests. These records are small in
number, but can be particularly illuminating to the historian. Coroners were charged with investigating
the cause "of all violent, sudden or casual deaths within his County."
This meant deaths of slaves as well as free persons. Coroner's inquests were required to be
submitted to the Grand Jury, but were not required to be transcribed into any
permanent record. Those inquests
which have survived may sometimes be found collected together, or may be
scattered amongst the loose papers of each term of Superior Court. In
Inquest into the
death of Joseph McKindley, held on
the deaths of Anabella, a Negro girl the property of Curran Rogers; Patrick, a
Negro boy the property of James Andrews; and Mariah, a Negro girl the property
of Levi D.
Inferior Court Meeting for County Purposes contain entries concerning
guardianships of free persons of color, licenses for men of color to preach, and
other interesting but miscellaneous transactions concerning slaves and free
persons of color. The following
examples come from
Inferior Court Meeting for
Attachments may be found in
the Minutes, and among the loose records, of
(sworn before JP
Legal Notices in
Newspapers were required to be published before certain actions
could be taken, such as before an administrator could sell slaves belonging to
an estate (see probate records), or before a sheriff could sell private property
at public auction (see fifas). Sometimes,
notices of sales give details about certain slaves which are not recorded
elsewhere. Sheriffs, coroners, and
clerks of the Court of Ordinary were required to publish in a newspaper of their
county, or, if the county had no newspaper, in a nearby newspaper which had
large circulation in their county. Making
matters more complicated for the researcher, administrators of estates were not
limited to advertising estate sales in any particular newspaper, as long as it
was published in
As early as
1839, a law required Clerks of the Court of Ordinary to maintain a file of
newspapers in which their legal notices appeared, but rarely has a complete
collection of these newspapers survived in local courthouses. Sometimes it is even difficult to know in
which newspapers the county's early legal advertisements appeared. The
It is important
to remember that, in the case of sheriff's sales, just because the sheriff
advertised a slave for sale, did not mean that the slave was sold. Execution dockets and fifas in
who were caught could be lodged in the county jail by their captors until their
owners came to claim them. The
captors expected a reward, and the sheriff received fees for keeping the slave
in jail. Runaway slaves held by the
sheriff were required to be advertised in a
"Brought to jail by John D. Pitts, Jailor, a Negro man, named Jesse, claims to belong to Matthias Mock of Upson Co., 30 yrs, dark complexion."
Tax Digests before 1865 do not name any slaves, but provide valuable data about how many slaves a particular owner possessed on 1 January of a particular year. Tax law beginning in 1804 required each white male over the age of 21 to pay 31 1/4 cents per year poll tax, and to pay the same amount on each slave under age 60. Beginning in 1826, white males 60 years and older were exempt from poll tax. Through 1849, it was common practice for tax collectors to combine, as a single "number of poll," the poll owed by the male slaveowner and the number of poll due on his slaves. Therefore, it becomes necessary to know the age of the male taxpayer to determine the number of slaves under age 60 (if the taxpayer was under age 60, the number of taxable slaves is number of poll minus one; if over age 60, poll equals taxable slaves). White women did not pay a poll tax, therefore, in the case of a woman taxpayer, the number of poll equals the number of slaves under age 60. In 1850, poll tax on white adult males was reduced to 25 cents, but tax on slaves remained at 31 1/4; therefore, tax digests beginning with 1850 had separate columns for poll and slaves.
IX. Free Persons of Color in Georgia
Free persons of
color may be researched in many of the same types of records as free persons,
including census and tax records (although usually not in county marriage
records), but there are some special records in
The guardian for
a free person of color was required to post a bond with the county. Look for guardianship bonds in the
records of the
registration books or published lists of free persons of color, but some county
officers ignored these requirements.
Tax digests are usually arranged alphabetically by militia district, then by the initial letter of taxpayer’s surname — but free persons of color are likely to the listed under the name of their white guardian.
X. Treasures Hidden Among Loose Court Papers
When looking at sources for slave information, we have already seen that there may be treasures hidden among the unrecorded loose papers of county courts. Here is an example that relates to free persons of color:
The first paper said:
"James Cozens is 60 years old, six feet high, yellow
was born in
Andrew Jackson Cozens is 16 years old, five feet six inches
yellow, was born in Geo. Farmer,
resides in Upson
Rebecca Cozens, 50, 5 ft. 6 in. yellow, born in Geo.
Resides in Upson. Spinster. [a person who spins thread and yarn]
The second paper said:
"Andrew Jackson Cozens was born the
2nd day of September 1833
Eveline Frances Cozens was born the
25th day of September 1838"
For somebody, somewhere, fragments of information like this may be the missing piece in a family puzzle. For another researcher, papers like this may provide details to help make a county history come alive, to shine the historian's light on obscure or forgotten persons who deserve a rightful place as past participants in our shared heritage.
About the Author: David E. Paterson, AfriGeneas Slave Research Forum manager, was born in Scotland, UK, grew up in Seattle, WA, and lives in Norfolk, VA. He is married to the former Judy L. Moody of Memphis, TN. David is completing his MA in History from University of West Florida with a concentration on the American Old South and Reconstruction. David's slavery-related work has appeared in American Archivist, and Oxford University Press has commissioned him to write two biographies for the forthcoming African-American National Biography. His long-term research goal is to write a history of Upson County, GA.
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31 Aug 2004 . 31 Aug 2004
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