Petitions for Compensated Emancipation

Before Abraham Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation on September 22, 1862, with an effective date of January 1, 1863, he freed slaves in the District of Columbia. On April 16, 1862 President Lincoln signed An Act for the Release of Certain Persons held to Service or Labor in the District of Columbia. The slaves were freed, and the federal government agreed to compensate the former slave owners for their loss of property. Slave holders had ninety days to present written petitions to three commissioners who had the responsibility of determining the validity and value of the claims.

The government collected the petitions, now held at the National Archives, and they yield a wealth of information about the slave holders and the former slaves. This information includes the purchase and sale information about each person and a history of ownership. Slave holders needed to describe in detail each person whom they were claiming, including a physical description and age. Value was claimed based on several criteria including the position of the slave in the household, the age of the enslaved, the physical condition of the enslaved and the overall value of the slave to the slaveholder.

For Civil War Washington, these records reveal a trove of information and data, but before the data can be compiled the records need to be digitized. We are transcribing and encoding the petitions and various forms associated with the petitions to make them machine-readable. The nine hundred and sixty six records are of varying lengths and legibility and are beginning to yield interesting information. Once they are machine readable, they will be easier to digitally manipulate and data-mine. The emancipation records will be valuable to genealogists and historians on a local level as well as on a national level, as these records reveal the process of the first wholesale emancipation of American slaves.

–Rob Voss

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One Response to Petitions for Compensated Emancipation

  1. Pingback: Petitioners’ Language | Dispatches from Civil War Washington

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