I have ALL THE SOURCES

Last month I blogged about how all the best sources for my project went up in smoke as the Confederates were evacuating Richmond in 1865, but how I wasn’t loosing hope. And I have been rewarded for my positive thoughts!

To recap, I am researching how African Americans used credit in Virginia in the early American and antebellum periods. This semester my work is focused on the Richmond City Sergeant Jail Register for the years 1841 to 1846. The Register shows that free African Americans who were arrested “for want of free papers” were often reduced to near enslavement. These men, women, and children were not “sold” because they were pretending free status. Instead each free person in the Register proved his or her freedom in court. However, nineteenth century law required that prisoners reimburse jails for the expense of their imprisonment. Subsequently free African Americans who would not pay for their room and board were in debt to the jail and sold to pay these fees. They were free and then they weren’t. Because of debt.

During the month of March I have been looking for sources to help me flesh out the numbers presented in the jail register. Who were these folks? What can we learn about their networks? Why were some people able to pay and others weren’t? I’ve hit pay dirt with a few important sources.

Daybook of the Richmond City Police Guard, 1834-1844

Do y’all know Leni Sorensen? No? Well come on in close. Sorensen is a historian, folk singer, and homesteader who lives at Indigo House in Albemarle County. She wrote a Ph.D. dissertation at William and Mary on runaway enslaved African Americans in Richmond. I haven’t met her personally, but I know enough about her from others to know that she is a FASCINATING individual. Why is she relevant to this slightly rambly blog post?

Sorensen’s dissertation is not only an analysis of, but also a full transcription of the Daybook of the Richmond City Police Guard from 1834 to 1844. The original Daybook is housed in the archive at UVA. Lucky for this researcher Sorensen’s dissertation is available in PDF through Swem.

After reading and learning from the analysis, I combed through the transcription, cross-referencing it to the aforementioned Registry. The Daybook is a list of the daily activities of the police force in Richmond. They make note of robberies reported to them, when the night watchman finds a door unlocked, and when masters write to report a runaway slave.

The Daybook gives me more information than I previously had about many of the folks listed in the Registry. For example I learned that Clabourne Meiles (spelled “Clabern” in the Daybook), who was arrested as a free person in want of his papers, was actually a runaway. The Register was never updated to reflect his legal status. The Daybook also gives biographical and physical facts about the individual. Meiles was owned by a woman in Charles City County, Virginia, and stood six feet tall. Unfortunately for Meiles his grasp of freedom in the city of Richmond lasted less than a month after he was reported as a runaway.

Free Negro and Slave Records, 1843-1865

The second source from which I have been able to glean information about the folks listed in the Register is the Henrico County Free Negro and Slave Records 1791-1865 held at the Library of Virginia. The Records are a loose collection of papers, each attesting to the freedom of an individual. Some are handwritten notes penned by (presumably) a white person swearing that “Catherine” was the daughter of “Rachel, a free negro woman.” Others are preprinted forms with the free person’s name and physical description and signed by the clerk of the court.

I am making a spreadsheet of the names that appear in the Records. My plan is to cross-reference this spreadsheet with the names of the free African Americans who appear in the Registry. Did people who were part of this network contribute funds to keep free people from being sold? Did they testify in court as to a person’s freedom?

Hustings Court Records 1841-1846

And the final Really Great Source I found is the record of Richmond’s Hustings Court. I have twelve hundred glorious pages of primary source material.

The Hustings Court handled civil suits, recorded deeds, granted licenses, and tried cases of robbery and murder that occurred within the boundaries of the City of Richmond. The carefully recorded, handwritten details of each proceeding are scanned onto microfilm and available at the Library of Virginia.

These documents make for riveting reading. (Really. I’m being totally serious.) There are details on feuds that ended in stabbings, the theft of a pocket watch, and a carnal act with “a certain bay mare.” Guardians were appointed for orphans. Widows sue their deceased husbands’ former business partners. For my purposes, the most interesting part of the Hustings Court Records is the fact that they include details of the trial for each free person recorded in the Register.

I learned that “Maria,” imprisoned for being allowed to “go at large,” spent months in the Richmond City Jail because the court had trouble locating her owner. Richmond authorities wrote to one man in far southwest Virginia who finally retained legal counsel to appear in court to say he was not Maria’s owner. Maria’s actual owner must have lived in Richmond because he appeared in court the day after he was summoned. If he was right there in the city why did it take him months to claim ownership of Maria? Why was there so much confusion over the identity of Maria’s owner? And what of poor Maria who spent months in jail?

I also learned that Norborn Nicholas proved his freedom by the testimony of Cornelius Crew. On the same day in court Harriet Freeman asked to be registered as free. Crew also attested to her freedom. What was the connection between the three? Was Freeman inspired to apply for her registry because Nicholas had been arrested for going without his?

The best sources inspire as many questions as they provide answers. (That’s what I tell myself, at least.) Armed with these three sources (and the census is my next stop!) I plan to spend the rest of the spring semester combining the information from these documents into a clearer picture of life for the men, women, and children who appear in the City Sergeant Jail Register.

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