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Washington D.C. Genealogy Trails
Researchers and Family Historians Guide to Documents Reflecting African Americans
in Slavery and Freedom in the District of Columbia.
( Data Index/Available Documents Below )


The District of Columbia has an unparalleled collection of historical records and documents on the freedom and enslavement of African Americans. When the federal District was established in 1800, the laws of Maryland, including its slave laws, remained in force. Additional laws on slavery and free blacks were then made by the District, and by Southern standards its slave codes were moderate. District slaves were permitted to hire out their services and to live apart from their masters. Free blacks were permitted to live in the city and to operate private schools. By 1860 the District of Columbia was home to 11,131 free blacks and 3,185 slaves. The National Archives and Records Administration, and District of Columbia Archives today have extensive holdings of original records available to researchers reflecting the lives of African Americans. Below are descriptions of some of these records and suggestions for further study. Please remember that many of the historical documents and excerpts posted here were created during the eighteenth, and nineteenth centuries and reflect prevalent attitudes and language used at the time. The following summary of resources includes transcribed examples of the documents available at Genealogy Trails Washington DC., to researchers and family historians.

John G. Sharp Concord. Ca

February 19, 2010


United States Census for the District of Columbia

The U.S. Census for the Washington D.C. lists only the free heads of households until 1850; with rare exceptions census enumerators gathered only the names of free blacks. The separate slave schedules for the 1850 and 1860 U.S. Census list only the names of owners, and the number of male and female slaves. All researchers using the census, especially those looking for free African Americans, need to take particular care to carefully examine the census rolls for variant spelling. For example the first record of diarist Michael Shiner, as freeman is on the 1840 census roll, where his name is recorded as: “Michael Shener” a “Free Colored Person”, while the 1850 and 1860 census, correctly records his name, the 1870 US Census for the District of Columbia: Michael Shiner is enumerated as “Michael Schnier”

Certificates of Freedom:

For free blacks in Washington D.C., life was generally better then for African Americans living further south. However, the District of Columbia’s Municipal Code, like that of most southern cities placed curfews of the movements of all blacks, free and enslaved and required free blacks to carry on their person a "certificate of freedom" without a certificate of freedom an individual could be jailed as runaway slave. A typical certificate of freedom, not only indicates how the person became free, but may lists physical characteristics that could be used to establish identity. These include height, eye color, complexion, and hair color and texture. Often, blacks would bring to the courthouse witnesses or affidavits as proof of freedom. District of Columbia affidavits contain a wealth of information including on some, the names of the person's parents, the names of former owners, and how the person became free. Typically the District court would retain a copy in its registers and the other copy went to the applicant. The following are transcribed examples of District of Columbia Certificates of Freedom:

Moses Liverpool, Senior 1773 – 1845.

William Winters, 1774 – after 1820.

more data at bottom or more Certificates of Freedom here


was the legal instrument for making an enslaved person free. The best source of information on District of Columbia manumissions is: The District of Columbia Free Negro Registers 1821 -1861 volumes 1 & 2 by Dorothy S. Provine, Heritage Books, Bowie, Maryland 1996. See the introduction to volume 1 for a discussion the various types of manumission and "certificates of freedom" used in the District of Columbia. Volume 2 contains a valuable index of both owners and newly manumitted persons names. Also : Free Negroes In the District of Columbia 1790 -1846 by Letitia Woods Brown Oxford University Press New York 1972 has an excellent discussion on modes of emancipation and manumission in the District of Columbia.

Helen Hoban Rogers, Freedom & Slavery Documents in the District of Columbia , Recorder of Deed Office, Volumes 1. 1792 – 1806, Volume, 1806 -1816,  and Volume 3. 1816 -1822. ( Baltimore : Gateway/Otterbay Press, 2007). Rodgers volumes provide entries for thousands of named enslaved individuals and slave holders, the entries are abstracted in the endnotes All three volumes contain transcriptions and 1792 -1822 with superb summaries of many of the earliest bills of sale, certificates of freedom, certificates of slavery, emancipations and manumissions recorded in the District of Columbia, Recorder of Deeds Office. Previously researchers, looking for manumission records prior to 1822 had to make the journey to NARA to see the originals or go to the District of Columbia Archives, and  view transcribed copies made by the federal government during the 1930’s. The District’s early 19th century filing system of manumissions and related records left much to be desired as these important records were simply placed with property deeds and related document. . All of these vital manumission records were kept in books or “Liber’s” and then assigned by a clerk, a folio or page number. The Recorder’s Office had a crude and very partial index, used to locate documents, but the process, required researchers to  physically go to the office and even then, the whole process was incredibly time consuming and for many ultimately futile.   Now thanks to Ms.Rogers, there is convenient way, for researchers to quickly find their way through the maze.  


Also see NARA online for Damani Davis, informative Slavery and Emancipation in the Nation's Capital: Using Federal Records to Explore the Lives of African American Ancestors which is an excellent update on slavery and emancipation records available at the Archive. This article can be accessed


more data Manumissions index


 The following are excellent examples of manumissions:

Josiah Fox to Edward Jones, Betsey Doyle and William Oakley, dated 11 December 1809

Levi Pumphrey to Phillis Shiner, dated 11 June 1833

George Bell to Enoch George Bell dated 12 June 1835.

Sister Mary Joseph Keating to Sidney Tilghman 1 Aug 1859

Sister Mary Joseph Keating to Jane Mahoney 1 August 1859

Commodore Thomas Tingey to Abraham Lynson 21 July 1808

Alexandria Manumissions: for many years a part of the District of Columbia now has a search engine for manumissions effected in Alexandria:

more data at bottom


Slave Certificates:

were a legal requirement of the District of Columbia.  The D.C. Slave Code. mandated all District slaveholders register any slaves purchased outside the District with the District of Columbia Courts.  Typically this involved stipulating before a clerk the name of the enslaved person, where purchased and a brief identification. The slaveholder was then accessed a small fee. Non resident slaveholders who's slaves worked inside the District were subject to yearly taxation.

Example of Slave Certificates:

Certificate of slave for James Pumphrey re Phillis Shiner 9 Oct 1817

more data at bottom



provide insights into the lives of African American family’s. The wills of George Bell and Alethia Browning Tanner give full names of children, grandchildren, nephews and other relations. Some wills furnish significant detail into family property and finances. Slave holders wills are important. Those of Thomas Howard and Timothy Winn, provide the names and ages of enslaved persons. Thomas Howard’s will also offer information on the manumission of Michael Shiner.

George Bell, 1762 -1844

Alethia “Lethe” Browning Tanner, circa 1785 – 1864,

Timothy Winn, Purser USN, September 20, 1773 - February 18, 1836

Thomas Howard, June 21, 1779 - December 4, 1832

Inventory of slaves of the estate of Robert Armistead Susannah Armistead, Administrator, 1838

more data at bottom


Reward Notices for Runaway Slaves & Slave Dealer Notices

Reward notices are valuable and often over looked by researchers. Many were published in the National Intelligencer and other D.C. area newspapers. These notices convey a real sense of the active resistance to enslavement. Notices typically provide descriptions some include full name, physical description, destination and the name of the slave holder. Sadly many notices just state a first name, but others like that for Tilhman Beall are specific. Many provide family information, like that for “Jim” (James Bell AKA James Beall) making it possible to identify the individual. Most runaways were young, strong men, some with the education to forge their own travel papers or freedom certificates. Some escaped multiple times, 'Jim" and "David”, "old runaways" who had been caught in previous attempts for freedom but never gave up their dream to live free. Women too, like “Minty” and “Anna”, made the dangerous journey, ready to take their chances, and to risk the danger of slave catchers and life on the road, rather then remain enslaved. All those running or escaping were putting themselves and their own families at considerable risk, since runaways, and their accomplices, were often sold to that most notorious firm of slave traders, Franklin & Armfield for sale and shipment to the Deep South.

The Maryland State Archives has posted hundreds of runaway notices many pertain to enslaved persons in the District of Columbia See the August 11, 1761 notice of George Washington.

Diary of Michael Shiner: 1805 -1880

The Shiner Diary contains the names of many enslaved and free Blacks. Among the better known passages are Michael Shiner's accounts of the 1833 abduction of his family by slave dealers and the strike of 1835 and the Snow Riot.


Slave Code of the District of Columbia:

The Code was the legal basis on which the slave system stood, the manuscript volume is shown with the published slave code arranged by topic, listing relevant sections of Maryland and District of Columbia laws as well as the applicable court decisions

Bill’s of Sale


Enslaved people were sold and conveyed as property, the following is an example of a bill of sale .Rachel Pratt to Joseph Dougherty dated 7 July 1810.

Certificate of Slaves Phillis Shiner dated 1817

1862 Compensated Emancipation Documents:

Slavery in the District of Columbia ended on April 16, 1862, when President Lincoln signed a law that provided for compensation to slave owners. An Emancipation Claims Commission hired a Baltimore slave trader to assess the value of each freed slave, and awarded compensation for 2,989 slaves. The District of Columbia Archives has placed information regarding access to these petitions on line,a,1207,q,640006.asp . The following two petitions reveal the type of information available on enslaved persons, their names, occupations, physical characteristics and purported financial value. (Please note: outside links (non GT links) may change but the item maybe found by google search)

Margaret Catherine Barber 1862 Compensation Petition

Sisters of the Visitation, Georgetown D.C. 1862 Compensation Petition

more data at bottom

Washington Navy Yard Employee Listings:

WNY was the District’s largest employer of free and enslaved African Americans. Early Naval regulations did not require muster and payrolls to record employee race or ethnicity; however the Secretary of the Navy, on occasion, required the Commandant of the Yard to state, the names, occupations and wage rates of both free and enslaved black employees. The names of owners were also required periodically and are preserved on some muster and payrolls. Some of the employees recorded are mentioned in the Diary of Michael Shiner.


The 1806 list of WNY civilian employees is the earliest such document for the Navy Yard and contains 148 names.  Only a few employees are specifically noted as enslaved, but see notes as other individuals such as Rodger Howard, Tom King and the Smoot brothers are confirmed as enslaved on other WNY documents. 

 The 1808 employee listings contain forty five names of free and enslaved African Americans. plus, the names of fifteen other blacks from the 1808 list of employees working in the Ordinary. Robert Smith Secretary of the Navy required WNY to specify the status of all black employees as enslaved or free. He apparently also required the names of owners, some of whom were Yard employees.

The 1811 employee listing preserves the names of forty of free and enslaved African Americans. The list also specifies and name of the owners some of whom were Yard employees

The 1819 – 1820 pay roll of Mechanics and Laborers is a partial listing but preserves the names of some African American employees see introduction and notes.

The 1829 list of WNY employees was prepared at the request of the Secretary of the Navy specifically lists the names of “Blacks (Free & Slaves) now Employ'd in the Navy Yard Washington Shewing where Employed, to whom belonging & wages paid to them serially.”

The Use of Slaves to Build the Capitol and the White House:

Bob Arnebeck’s website is superb for early District history, with excellent and insightful discuss of enslaved labor and many transcribed documents:

List of Slaves employed in building the White House: Posted by the White House Historical Association


History of Slave Laborers in the Construction of the United States Capitol. This site written by the Historian for the Archectect of the Capitol, has detailed lists of enslaved and free African Americans,  who worked on the early construction of the U.S.Capitol.  Slave holders /slave owners and slave supervisors are also listed.

Miscellaneous Documents and Transcriptions of Slavery Items
Memoranda Respecting Servants 1833-1847
Michael Shiner
Sale Notices for Slaves

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