The purpose of this project is to assemble a searchable index of records of slavery in New York identifying individual enslaved persons and their owners. New York State has many records and historical studies of slavery beginning in 1623 and ending in 1848. The project does not seek to take custody of or manage records, but rather to provide a comprehensive index of the records that exist.
What are the records being indexed? The following is a list of records we are indexing and their sources. They are in roughly chronological order, starting with the oldest.
Dutch Records of New Amsterdam
These are records of the Dutch Colonial Council in New Amsterdam, which was the early place name for New York. These are maintained by the NY State Archive. We have indexed records that refer to slave holders and enslaved persons.
Colonial Census Records
These are records in O’Callaghan: The Documentary History of the State of New York for the colonial period up to 1790.The include censuses taken by Dutch and British officials. These include counts of the number of enslaved persons in a jurisdiction, as well as lists of slave owners and enslaved persons by name.
United States Census
This are the household-level census records for the U.S. Census for the years 1790, 1800, 1801, 1820 and 1830, where the household reports 1 or more slaves living on the premises. Our records include the name of the head of household, who is presumed to be the slave owner, along with the number of slaves, the county or borough, and the locality. These include summary counts of the number of enslaved persons in a jurisdiction
Slave Trade Records
These are records of sales of enslaved persons, including sales of enslaved persons outside of New York State who are recorded as being born in or residing within New York State.These come from a variety of sources because New York did not maintain registries of slave transactions. All slave trades are tagged with the code “SALE.”
Slave Ship Records
When are record related to a ship, we use the tag “SHIP.” These include ships as well as escapes from vessels.
Based on Colonial records, we have coded all of the slave ships arriving in New York harbor from 1715 to 1765. They are tagged “SHIP” and there are separate records for each investor, and the investors are coded “INVNY” if the investor is from New York, and “INVI” is the owner is not from New York. Thus, we have identified 998 instances of New Yorkers investing in slaveships to import slaves into New York. The records provide their names and the number of enslaved persons involved.
These include the records of the New York Manumission Society as well as governmental records from towns and cities where these exist. These records are tagged with “EMN” for emancipation.
Runaway Slave Advertisements and Announcements
These are ads seeking the return of enslaved persons who have escaped from their owners. The ads identify the owners and the enslaved persons. They largely come from two books:
- Stressin-Cohn, S. a.-B. (2016). In Defiance: Runaways from Slavery in New York’s Hudson River Valley 1735-1831. Delman, NY: Black Dome Press.
- Hodges, Graham Russell, and Brown, Alan Edward: Pretends to be Free: Runaway slave Advertisements from Colonial and Revolutionary New York and New Jersey.(New York, Garland, 1994)
For each record, we identify the owner and enslaved person, and reference the book where the reader can find detailed information and copies of the actual advertisements. The are coded with the tag “RAN.”
Treaty of Paris Records
The Book of Negroes is a hand-written list of more than 3,000 formerly enslaved persons allowed to emigrate from New York for Nova Scotia in 1783 because of their service to the British during the Revolutionary War. Emigration was a guarantee in the Treaty of Paris which officially ended the war. The NY Slavery Records Index includes the records that identify the slave owner as residing in New York at the time the enslaved person escaped to the British side. These records are tagged with “BON” for the Book of Negroes.
Birth Registrations of Children Born to Enslaved Mothers after 1799, and Emancipation Records
The 1799 Act for the Gradual Abolition of Slavery provided that “any child born of a slave within this state after the fourth day of July next shall be deemed and adjudged to be born free: Provided nevertheless. That such child shall be the servant of the legal proprietor of his or her mother until such servant, if a male, shall arrive at the age of twenty-eight years, and if a female, at the age of twenty-five years.”
It further provided that “every person being an inhabitant of this state who shall be entitled to the service of a child born after the fourth day of July as aforesaid, shall, within nine months after the birth of such child, cause to be delivered to the clerk of the city or town whereof such person shall be an inhabitant, a certificate in writing containing the name and addition of such master or mistress, and the name, age and sex of every child so born…”
The above birth records are tagged as “REG” for registrations, identifying children claimed for servitude.
It also provided for the abandonment of the newborn children: “The person entitled to such service may, nevertheless, within one year after the birth of such child, elect to abandon his or her right to such service, by a notification of the same from under his or her hand, and lodged with the clerk of the town or city where the owner of the mother of any such child may reside; in which case every child abandoned as aforesaid shall be considered as paupers of the respective town or city where the proprietor or owner of the mother of such child may reside at the time of its birth; and liable to be bound out by the overseers of the poor on the same terms and conditions that the children of paupers were subject to before the passing of this act.”
These records are tagged as “ABN” can mean that the owner separated the child from the mother and presented the child to the overseers of the poor. The state paid $3.50 per month for the care of the abandoned children. ABN can also mean, particularly after payment program was terminated in 1804, that the owner was “abandoning” the right to future services by the child, but the child remained in the household.
The registration, abandonment and emancipation records that are currently indexed in the dataset include the following sources:
- The New York State Archive
- The New York Historical Society
- The Westchester County Records Archive
- The New Paltz Historical Society
- The Town of Mamaroneck
- Emancipation Records published in the Journal of Negro History (Yoshpe, 1941).
The payment program described above resulted in invoices from towns and cities, for care of abandoned children, presented to the NY State Comptroller for almost two decades. These records have been maintained in the NY State Archive and our project has digitized them. The records name the children and their former owners, and have the tag “CMPT.”
Cemetery Records are also included, with the tag “CEM.” These records can be challenging as the enslavement status of persons is frequently not clear. Our protocol is to include persons interred in cemeteries that officially claim to include slaves, and to include the records of interred persons who might (based on their birth and death years) have been enslaved, or who might have been subject to servitude based on the 1799 Gradual Abolition law, indicating in the comment section that the status is not resolved. We include persons who are free at the time of death if during their lives they had been enslaved.
Underground Railroad Records
Leading up the the end of the Civil War, people enslaved in southern states sought freedom in northern states and Canada. The expression “underground railroad” describes the informal network of support and aid for enslave people seeking freedom. There is an excellent book on the subject by Eric Foner titled Gateway to Freedom (New York, W.W. Norton, 2015). The covert nature of the escape from slavery meant that there are few individualized records to be indexed, and because the New York Slavery Records Index focuses on records of slavery in New York, this might be a topic beyond the scope of our project. However, we are indexing records of the underground railroad in New York.
We have started with Sydney Howard Gay’s Record of Fugitives which is maintained by Columbia University. There are 171 records tagged with “RAIL” identifying fugitive slaves assisted in New York, with links for the digitized records and transcriptions at Columbia.