Saturday, June 02, 2018

Slavery Databases Open to Researchers

The Runaway Slaves in Britain database just became available for online researchers. It offers:
a searchable database of well over eight hundred newspaper advertisements placed by masters and owners seeking the capture and return of enslaved and bound people who had escaped. Many were of African descent, though a small number were from the Indian sub-continent and a few were Indigenous Americans.
Interest is so high that the host servers are having trouble keeping up.

This is just one of several online databases about enslaved people that researchers can now use. There’s the venerable Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade Database, which has numbers (not names) of every known slaving voyage from Africa to the New World. This project has recently received a National Endowment for the Humanities grant to expand with information about shipments from one American port to another.

The New York Slavery Records Index has collected records that “identify individual enslaved persons and their owners, beginning as early as 1525 and ending during the Civil War.”

Runaway Connecticut is based on a selection of the runaway notices that appeared in the Connecticut Courant between 1765 and 1820. Those advertisements involve different sorts of people—escaping slaves, runaway apprentices, deserting soldiers, escaped prisoners, and dissatisfied husbands and wives.

The Afro-Louisiana History and Genealogy site is based on databases created by Dr. Gwendolyn Midlo Hall and published on CD-ROM by the Louisiana State University Press in 2000.

The Virginia Historical Society’s Unknown No Longer website collects “the names of all the enslaved Virginians that appear in our unpublished documents.” That means it’s not as comprehensive as other compilations, but the society felt it was better to share what they had which would otherwise remain hidden than to wait for more.

There are a couple of databases for North Carolina, drawing on different pools of data: N.C. Runaway Slave Advertisements and People Not Property – Slave Deeds of North Carolina.

African Runaway Slaves in the Anglo-American Atlantic World is a compilation of runaway advertisement by Douglas B. Chambers. There are separate sections for the Chesapeake Bay and Carolina Low Country regions.

The Black Loyalist site starts with the “Book of Negroes,” people who evacuated New York with the British military in 1783, adding other sources about their lives in Canada and elsewhere in the British Empire. It comes from the University of Sydney and grew from Cassandra Pybus’s research for Epic Journeys of Freedom.

[ADDENDUM: Marronnage in Saint-Domingue is a bilingual website from Canada offering a database on Haiti. It compiles advertisements about enslaved or formerly enslaved people that appeared in the Affiches américaines between 1766 and 1790.]

[ADDENDUM: makes available the Slave Registers of Former British Colonial Dependencies, 1813-1834. Between outlawing the transatlantic slave trade in 1808 and outlawing slavery in 1834, the British Empire collected registers of “lawfully enslaved” people in many of its Caribbean colonies.]

What data of this sort is available for Massachusetts? I know of three sites that offer raw numbers, not names. Unfortunately, even those numbers are incomplete and not comparable from one database to the next, but they can provide a start.

Primary Research has shared the 1754 Slave Census of Massachusetts, which counted the number of enslaved people over age sixteen in 119 towns in Massachusetts and Maine. Thus, for example, in 1754 two men and two women over age sixteen were held in bondage in Waltham.

The province’s 1765 census was reproduced in Josiah H. Benton’s Early Census Making in Massachusetts, available on So far as I know, these figures haven’t been transcribed into a searchable or formulatable data, so one has to consult this just like a printed book. Also, these numbers make no distinction between enslaved and free people. In 1765, Waltham was home to eight male Negroes and five female.

Finally, the 1771 Massachusetts Tax Inventory compiled the property of individuals in many towns (though not all towns’ records survive). One type of taxed property was “Servants for Life,” or slaves. Drilling down patiently from county to town data reveals that in 1771 four Waltham residents were taxed for each owning one enslaved person: the widow Anna Ball, Samuel Gale, Thomas Wellington, and Bezaleel Flagg. Unfortunately, we still don’t know the names of the enslaved people, but it’s possible that further research on the owners would yield more details.

1 comment:

  1. J.L. Bell properly noted in 2018 about Benton's data on the 1765 census "So far as I know, these figures haven’t been transcribed into a searchable or formulatable data, so one has to consult this just like a printed book."

    I have transcribed Benton's data into a searchable spreadsheet and would be pleased to share it with anyone who is interested. Contact me at