New Digital Collection: Manumissions, Indentures, and Bills of Sale

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By Michael Scott, Maryland Digital Cultural Heritage Coordinator

Betsey Nugent - her mark from manumissionOn July 29, 1845, Betsey Nugent, a free woman of color living in the Howard District of Anne Arundel County, bought her daughter Harriet from slaveowner Rezin B. Simpson for $260. She had borrowed some of the funds for her daughter’s purchase from George Bond, who provided her with a receipt when she repaid the debt in full. At 4 o'clock on September 1, 1847, E.P. Hayden, first clerk of the Howard District courthouse, witnessed and filed the deed of manumission bearing Betsey Nugent's mark. The document proclaimed her 19 year old daughter free and "discharged from all manner of servitude."

William H. Lewis manumission (detail)William H. Lewis enlisted in the 4th Regiment of the United States Colored Troops at Baltimore on August 11, 1863. Lewis was among numerous slaves in Maryland who received a "Deed of Manumission and Release of Service" after becoming part of the Union Army. Lewis was wounded in action near Petersburg, Virginia on June 15, 1864, but survived and mustered out of military service when the war ended. James Livers, however, suffered a more unfortunate fate. After being freed and enlisting in the 30th Regiment of the Colored Troops in March 1864, Livers was reported missing and assumed killed in action only four months later.

Slave bill of sale (detail)While Lewis, Livers, and other former slaves served in the Union Army, slaves continued to be bought and sold in Maryland throughout the course of the war. In October 1862, a year and half after the conflict began, a bill of sale was filed in the Howard County courthouse. The bill of sale documented the purchase of several pieces of property from Slingsby Linthicum to Charles G. Linthicum in the amount of $328.08. Slaves named William (age 50), Harriet (age 25) and her four children, and Louisa (age 21) and her three children were sold. Also included in the transaction were livestock, wagons, and farming equipment.

These are just a few of the compelling and often heartbreaking stories told through the items included in the Howard County Historical Society’s Manumissions, Indentures, and Bills of Sale collection, which was recently published on the Maryland Digital Cultural Heritage (MDCH) website. This digital collection of 168 historic legal documents reveals the inner workings of the institution of slavery on the local level, particularly in the decades before and just after the Civil War. Originally filed at the district courthouse before they came to reside at the Historical Society, these documents represent a microcosm of the types of transactions that took place throughout Maryland during this period. They capture how treatment of human beings as property was so well woven into the legal and social fabric of society as to be mundane and, therefore, just how pervasive and insidious slavery had become.

One of the best aspects of being part of MDCH, a statewide collaborative digitization program headquartered at Pratt, is the opportunity to partner with small, local organizations like the Howard County Historical Society. We get to see firsthand some of the historically significant collections residing on library shelves and in archival boxes, and to talk with the staff and volunteers who work to preserve these collections for future generations. Many of the items we digitize and publish on would not otherwise be available online to researchers, educators, and the general public. These collections provide people with access not just to information about history, but with stories that bring it to life.

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