Transcribing the Supplemental Petitions

On July 12, 1862, Congress passed an act to supplement the Compensated Emancipation Act of April 16, 1862. The provisions of this supplemental act allowed slaves who were freed under the DC Emancipation Act to file for certificates of freedom, provided their former masters had not previously petitioned for compensation. The petitions submitted in pursuance of the supplementary act represent a relatively small, yet significant and complex, subset of DC-area emancipation records. This summer, we have begun transcribing and encoding these nearly 130 supplemental petitions and their corresponding evidentiary materials.

These documents raise significant challenges because the supplemental petitions are not always as clearly organized as were the petitions filed following the April act. For instance, almost none of the supplemental petitions are numbered and documents relating to a particular case may be scattered in various places. Held at the National Archives and catalogued with manumission papers and fugitive slave cases, the supplemental petitions are found in Record Group 21, which houses the Records of the District Courts of the United States, 1685-2004. This set of documents includes what appear to be the actual petitions as filed by former slaves. At times, the petitioners submitted preprinted forms; however, the bulk of the petitions are entirely handwritten. (For more on the handwritten content of the petitions, see below.) Another set of documents held at the National Archives and relevant to the supplemental petitions are evidentiary materials that have been archived in Record Group 217, with Records of the Accounting Officers of the Department of the Treasury, 1775-1978 and with the petitions filed in response to the April act. These documents are entirely handwritten and read much like transcripts of court proceedings, including witness testimonies and notes regarding the commissioners’ decisions in each case.

Negotiating between these two sets of documents has been a complex process. We first had to pair the evidentiary materials with their respective petitions, but as neither the petitions nor evidentiary materials were clearly organized, this pairing had to be done by hand, sorting through both sets of records, comparing names and dates. Petitions and evidence that could clearly be associated with each other were then grouped together, to be transcribed and encoded in the same TEI file. Although both sets of documents have been transcribed in the same file, our encoding practices allow us to distinguish between documents that originated in different Record Groups, and we will make this information clearly available to users of the site.

Not only have these documents required difficult organizational decisions, they also reveal complexities in the petitioning process. For example, the authorship of these documents is not always clear. In most cases, it appears as if the petitioner (i.e. former slave) did not complete the paperwork his/herself; instead, it seems likely that a court scribe was responsible for recording the information in both the petitions and court proceedings. And while the testimony of African American witnesses was considered alongside the testimony of white witnesses, it is unclear whether petitioners were allowed to testify on their own behalf.

We will start making these documents available in the fall.

~Kevin McMullen & Janel Cayer

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