Whaddaya mean there are no records?!

I had only barely started and my research had already come to a screeching halt.

“Almost all of the records for the city of Richmond for the 1840s were burned during the Civil War,” said the researcher at the Library of Virginia.

(The phrase “damn yankees” is often invoked in my hometown, but “damn confederates” was appropriate in this instance.)

I was at the Library of Virginia in search of records to help flesh out the treasure trove of source material I found in the City Sergeant Jail Register for the years 1841 to 1846. The Register lists slaves and free blacks who were committed to the Richmond City jail. I first came across the Register at the Virginia Historical Society where the original is archived, and then luckily found Nancy C. Frantel’s perfectly transcribed, published version of the records.

The City Sergeant Jail Register is painful to read. On August 1, 1841 “Betsy and child were Committed to the Jail of the City of Richmond as a runaway and as the property of D Jno Morris of the County of Goochland.” Four days later the unfortunate woman and her child were returned to their master who paid $9.00 in apprehending and jail fees. On August 3 a James Smith, who was estimated to be only ten or twelve years old was apprehended as a runaway and jailed. Smith’s master also paid his fees and carried him back to slavery.1

Free African Americans who appeared in the Jail Register were almost always there for “want of free papers.” Sarah Ann Farro spent two hundred twenty six days in the Richmond City Jail until she was “discharged by her paying her Jail fees,” which totaled $85.59. Farro’s “debt to society” had grown to a considerable amount. She was somehow able to pay it and reclaim her freedom.2

Lucy Briggs was not as lucky. Briggs was committed to jail on November 22, 1841 also “for want of her free papers.” The following April 19th she was “carried into Court and the said Briggs did prove her freedom.” However by that time the one hundred and fifty five days she had spent in jail made Briggs indebted to the jail for $59.38. So three days after she proved her freedom Briggs was “hired out at publice Auction at the Old market to Benjamin [?] Wropper [?] for the Peried of fifty nine years from date.”3

Fifty-nine years!

Historians have presented clear evidence that the prison system in America has been used to control and extract labor from African Americans. However I’m interested specifically in the role of debt. Briggs was a prime example. She “prove[d] her freedom,” was released from jail, and yet still was effectively enslaved.

Debt in these cases was not the result of overspending at the local store or borrowing to purchase one’s freedom (both of these examples have come up in my research). Instead this debt was the result of the state enforcing the slave system or enforcing the system of laws designed to subjugate free African Americans. If you were enslaved and were jailed, your master was in debt to the state for failing to control you. If you were free and failed to have your free papers on you, you were in debt to the state—a debt that was paid with either money or your freedom.

I wanted to know more. I was hoping to read the court records behind these individual cases. How was Farro able to pay her jail fees? Was Betsy hoping to free herself permanently, or was she visiting family in Richmond expecting to be picked up sooner or later? Were free blacks randomly checked for free papers, or was Farro targeted by city police?

And . . . dead end. No court records. But such is the life of a researcher. Especially if the people one studies were marginalized or illiterate.

Luckily the researcher at the Library of Virginia had other ideas for me.

She suggested I check out Samuel Mordecai’s 1856 Richmond in By-Gone Days, which is held at the Library of Virginia and, conveniently, in scanned PDF online. Mordecai described life in the city of Richmond during the time period in which I am interested.

The Library also has a collection entitled “Free Negro and Slave Records, 1843-1865,” which I am hoping to cross reference with the Jail Register to learn something about the life of the incarcerated.

And there are some court records that survived the 1865 fires that destroyed so much of the city. I’ll be combing those for gems.

It is always disappointing to hit a brick wall with your research. But I’m not giving up! Next time hopefully I can post about how this was a good idea.




[1] Nancy C. Frantel, Richmond Virginia Uncovered: The Records of Slaves and Free Blacks Listed in the City Sergeant Jail Register, 1841-1846, Heritage Books: Westminster, Md., 2010; pages, 9.

[2] Frantel, Register, 6.

[3] Frantel, Register, 16-17.