Tuesday, January 1, 2013

Slaves, Slave Owners, and Compensation

Emancipation Act - Washington, DC. NARA
Emancipation Act, D.C.
As family researchers we know that one of the keys to successfully tracing our ancestors, is to follow the "money trail." This is a key to following both slave holders and their slaves.  As with any property transaction,  records were generated; and since money was involved when selling, or even emancipating slaves, you may learn more about your ancestor, the slave owner, or even your slave ancestor.

More Than One Emancipation 
Some would say slaves were freed by the Union government three (3) times. Although this posts emphasizes the Emancipation Act, District of Columbia, knowing where to look for records becomes much clearer when we understand accurate history. 

Slaves Freed, Slave Holders Compensated 
1) Jan 1 1863
Slaves were not freed due to the Emancipation Proclamation. This was absolutely impossible since President Lincoln did not have recognized jurisdiction over the ten rebel states that had seceded from the Union. But the Union Army did free approximately 20-50 thousand slaves as they marched through and gained control of Confederate territories.

Even as it were, slaves from Confederate states that did not attempt to secede from the Union, were not affected by the proclamation. Kentucky, Missouri, eastern Tennessee, West Virginia (western part of Virginia , to include the border states of Maryland and Delaware and the New Jersey "3500 apprentices for life" were exempt from the proclamation and the slaves remained in bondage. Keep in mind the Emancipation Proclamation, although it was a step to the 13th Amendment that freed of all slaves, was designed to encourage rebel states to reunite with the Union. Of course after its signing on 1 Jan 1863, the war emphasis expanded to not only preserving the Union, but instating a slave-free reunited Union.

2) Dec 18, 1865
Slavery was actually abolished 18 Dec 1865 upon the ratification of the 13th Amendment. Where as the Emancipation Proclamation freed slaves of the Confederate states that seceded from the Union, the 13th Amendment freed all slaves - approximately 4 million slaves.

3) April 16, 1862
The District of Columbia Emancipation Act freed approximately 3000 slaves 16 April, 1862, beginning nine months before the Emancipation Proclamation of 1 Jan 1863. To encourage the freeing of the D. C. slaves, slave owners were compensated from $1 - $300 for each slave. There are cases where slaveholders sought for higher compensation. A 15 July 1862 deadline for submitting petitions to receive the compensation and free slaves gave a sense of urgency. Over 161 slaves also petitioned directly, usually after the 15 July deadline. 

Where Are the Records?
Emancipation Act, District of Columbia
Federal records held at the NARA include the emancipation of District of Columbia, Maryland and Virginia. If researching these files be sure to reference both the last name of the slaveholder and that of the slave. These records are digitized on Ancestry.com and Fold3: 

  • Records of the Board of Commissioners for the Emancipation of Slaves in the District of Columbia, 1862–1863 (Microfilm M520) relates directly to dispensation of the emancipation acts of April 16 and July 12, 1862 and information on the 966 petitioners. Reference Record Group 217: Records of the Accounting Officers of the Department of the Treasury
  • Records of the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia Relating to Slaves, 1851–1863 (RG 21, M433). These records include manumission papers, and certificate of freedom" of free blacks and documents of enslaved blacks living in Washington, DC
  • Habeas Corpus Case Records, 1820–1863, of the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia (M434), contain records relevant to runaway slaves in the District of Columbia. However, due to the nature of the cases, researchers may find manumission papers and detailed statements of freedom. 
For more information be sure to visit the National Archives Prologue Magazine article: Slavery and Emancipation in the Nation's Capital.

Kathleen Brandt
Website: a3genealogy.com 


  1. Very clearly stated. I had just read about this 1862 DC Emancipation Act in an article in the NYTimes the other day. I think the article was "The Emancipation of Lincoln." In other words, his thinking evolved about how to free all the slaves, and at first he thought about compensation. I assume that records for the 1865 emancipation, after ratification of the 13th Amendment, are elusive or nonexistent in the chaos that was Reconstruction.

  2. You missed one other time that slave owners were compensated. When the Bureau of Colored Troops was established, provisions were made to compensate loyal slave owners in the border states whose slaves joined the U. S. Army. Each of the states was to appoint a "slave claims commission" to hear claims for compensation. The only state to organize a commission in 1863 was Maryland, and the program was suspended before the other states organized their own committees. It was later reinstituted after the War, and thousands of claims were accepted in Maryland, Delaware, Kentucky, Missouri, Tennessee, and West Virginia. However, Congress again stopped the program completely in 1867. Of the thousands of claims, only the first claims from 1863 in Maryland ever actually received compensation, amounting to about 20 or fewer claims.

  3. Thanks Michael. I really didn't miss this fact, but I was concentrating on the DC Emancipation and the posts was getting too long. But,thanks for reminding all of this historical bit. The more we share, the more we know!

  4. Mariann, with the celebration of the Emancipation Stamp, this has become a popular topic lately. I have located quite a few emancipation records. I most often find them in passport applications, seamen's records, and military pension records. But, also there are emancipation and requests for compensations in slave holder records and in the Freemen's Bureau. The Congressional Serial Set, although usually earlier, also holds a few documents of compensation.