Deed and Mortgage Records
Records of Civil Cases
Execution Dockets, Fifas
The Case for Loose Papers
Slave history and genealogy have suffered from inadequate attention to
many of the records which tell us most about the identities and lives of
Georgia's slave population. When records from the slavery period have been
extracted and published, they have been mainly the records which are most
useful to researchers looking for free persons; and those records tend not
to be the most fruitful sources of slave information. In many other cases,
published extracts of records have omitted the names of the slaves present
in those records. Legal records preserved in our county courthouses (and,
in some cases, at the Department of Archives and History in Atlanta) are,
in fact, the most numerous and most easily accessible of all pre-1865 records,
and are the richest source of primary slave data. They deserve careful and
methodical examination, analysis, and extraction.
There is no such thing as a "slave record" in the courthouses
of Georgia, if, by slave record, we mean a court document whose purpose
was to record the names or activities of slaves for their own sake.
Legal records were about the personal rights and property rights of free
persons, and slaves had no personal or property rights. The fundamental
relationship between free persons and legal records, therefore, was different
from the relationship between slaves and legal records. Slaves do not appear
as parties to any lawsuit, marriage, contract, deed, bond, or court action
(except in rare cases as defendants in criminal trials). They did not make
wills or inherit property. They are not named in the tax digests. They do
not appear on any jury list, land lottery, poor school roster, or voters
list. And yet, tens or hundreds of thousands of individual slaves are named
and described in the court records of Georgia, their lives inseparably intermingled
with the lives of free citizens with whom they lived.
The historian or genealogist researching legal records for our Georgia
ancestors who lived as slaves must take a different approach to that task
from the approach taken toward records of free persons living in Georgia
- Because slaves were property, they are liable to be found in
any record which documents property rights. Many of these records
are of little or no interest to persons tracing free ancestors, and
are therefore unfamiliar to most genealogists.
- Because slaves were accountable under the law for criminal acts,
they are present in criminal court records as defendants and as witnesses,
but even more slaves are identified in the criminal records of white
persons who traded illegally with slaves, stole slaves, or had other
improper relations with slaves.
- The careful reader of court records will discover a world of information
about slaves and slavery not equaled in size by any other kind of record.
It is this author's opinion that a comprehensive program of extracting,
organizing, and indexing all legal records from the slavery period for each
Georgia county (and, eventually, for the entire United States) is long overdue.
The old court records of most Georgia counties have not even been thoroughly
inventoried. I encourage historical societies to consider such projects
in cooperation with the official custodians of their county records.
A note on extracting and indexing genealogical data on slaves.
Genealogists researching free persons recognize that, without the combination
of first, middle and last names by which free persons were legally known
in different legal records, tracing free ancestors would be virtually impossible.
Imagine how useless an index or extracted record would be if it only contained
first names! Full names allow us to somewhat confidently connect persons
from one record with the same persons in another record. Slaves in legal
records also have more than first names. A slave's legal identity was the
combination of his/her first name and the full name of his/her owner. This
combination of slave's first name and owner's full name can be as effective
as the name of any free person in tracing slaves from record to record.
It is essential whenever extracting slave data about slaves that their
owners' full names, as given in the record, also be extracted. When
indexing any record which includes slaves, always index slaves by owners'
full name (in the usual manner of last, first, middle) followed by the slaves'
names, for example:
(Holloway, Martha J.) Martin
One of the greatest challenges in tracing slave ancestors is to trace
individual slaves back through former owners, because (working from
more recent records to older records) the identifying "tag" of
the owners' names usually changes without a clue. A slave typically appears
in the records of an owner's legal affairs with no indication of where he
or she came from. This is similar to the dilemma faced by researchers of
free persons in trying to trace a married woman's ancestry when marriage
(or other) records do not exist to show her maiden name. Just as marriage
records are indispensable in tracing free persons, records of sale or transfer
(as in estate sales, distributions of estates, and bills of sale) are essential
to trace individual slaves from owner to owner. In many cases, a particular
enslaved person with multiple owners, or even several generations of slaves,
could be traced from our oldest records forward, if all existing
records were thoroughly extracted and indexed
I. Georgia's Courts
To make the best use of court records, we must understand the organization
and functions of Georgia's courts. The following brief descriptions of each
court may help make sense of the wide variety of legal records generated
during the period of slavery.
Note: The author is most familiar with records post-dating the
State Constitution of 1798. His descriptions of courts and legal records
may not accurately reflect courts and practices from the colonial period
Justice's Court. Each county was divided into militia districts,
and each militia district elected two justices of the peace whose powers
included (among others) the power to try small claims of $30 or less, and
the power to convene a tribunal of fellow-justices to try slaves and free
persons of color accused of non-capital crimes. Justices of the Peace were
required to keep record books of their court proceedings. Because these
records were not maintained at a permanent, central location like the county
courthouse, most of them are now lost. Researchers will occasionally find
cases appealed from Justice's Court among the papers of Inferior or Superior
Inferior Court. Each county had an Inferior Court which convened
twice a year, presided over by five elected Justices. The court heard law
suits and presided over criminal trials for capital offenses in slaves and
free persons of color. When sitting for "Ordinary Purposes," the
court dealt with probate (estate) matters. To carry out the routine business
of probates and to issue marriage licenses, the court had a full-time clerk,
originally called the Register of Probates, but, from 1799 to 1851, called
the Clerk of the Court of Ordinary. When sitting for "County Purposes,"
the Inferior Court dealt with public affairs like roads, bridges, poor schools,
licenses, and support for paupers. In 1866, most functions of Inferior Court
were transferred to County Court, except the public functions, in which
Inferior Court acted much like a county commission. Inferior Court was abolished
Court of Ordinary. In 1851, the Clerk of the Court of Ordinary,
who had been subordinate to the Justices of Inferior Court, was made an
independent, elected judge of the Court of Ordinary. His official title
was "Ordinary" - which can still be seen painted over the doorways
of Probate Judges' offices in many counties today. Ordinaries administered
the laws regarding probate of estates, registered free persons of color,
bonded guardians, and issued marriage licenses, and (after the Civil War)
heard petitions for homestead exemptions.
Superior Court. This court heard all types of civil suits, all
criminal cases in which whites were charged, and, after 1850, all capital
cases involving slaves and free persons of color.
County Court. This court was established March 17, 1866, in large
part to relieve Superior Court of the burden of hearing minor civil and
criminal cases involving freedpersons; in fact, one of its particular jurisdictions
was "all cases arising out of the relation of master and servant."
Besides hearing misdemeanors and civil cases, County Court took over many
of the functions of Inferior Court, such as hearing petitions for apprenticeship,
and trying civil suits for debt. Although not established until after slavery
was abolished, its records contain many valuable "linking records"
(records which enable us to link freedpersons with their pre-emancipation
identity). County Court was abolished in 1891, and its records were to be
deposited with the Clerk of Superior Court.
Supreme Court of the State of Georgia. Established by law on December
10, 1845, the state supreme court heard cases on appeal from Superior Court.
Collections of published Supreme Court decisions are well indexed and readily
accessible in many county and college law libraries. The testimony in the
printed reports is often greatly condensed or summarized, but the Georgia
Department of Archives and History in Atlanta has the original, full transcripts
of each case. Sometimes duplicate copies of the complete appeal are in the
loose papers of the local court from which the case was appealed.
II. Linking Records
Often, one of the biggest genealogical challenges is to break through
the "emancipation barrier" - to connect a person's free identity
with his or her former slave identity. When all other evidence is lacking,
we are sometimes forced to speculate by matching freedpersons' last names
with the last names of slave owners, even though historians know that freed
slaves did not always take the surnames of their last masters (My research
in Upson County suggests that about 14% of slaves used some name other
than that of their most recent former masters/mistresses). This circumstantial
evidence can be particularly doubtful if there was more than one slaveowner
with the same last name. Sometimes, when we know the first names of the
slaves, the identity becomes more certain; for example, since Alzina Spier's
(Upson County) estate contained a man named "Manuel," and post-emancipation
records from the same county talk about "Manuel Speer," chances
are good that this is the same person. When we learn that Manuel the slave
was a shoe-maker, and Manuel Speer the freedman was also a shoe-maker, this
identity is practically clinched. However, in cases where evidence is not
so clear or convincing, there are some types of records which can positively
identify a few freedpersons with their slave identity. I call these "linking
Indentures of Apprenticeship were often used by poor people when
they could not afford to care for their own children. At emancipation, when
the paternalistic support system of the plantation was destroyed, many former
slaves found themselves unable to provide adequate care for their youngest
children; hence, they apprenticed them to someone else. Look for records
of apprenticeship in the Court of Ordinary up to 1866, and in County Court
beginning in 1866. These records typically state the name of the parent
or parents who are petitioning for the apprenticeship (or name of custodian
in the case of orphans), the names and ages of children being apprenticed,
and the name of the person agreeing to take the apprentices. The following
are typical examples from Upson County:
Loose papers of County Court, Special Session, January 14, 1867; Petition
of Miless R. Meadows states that "at the time the Negroes were Emancipated
in [Georgia] your petitioner owned one Willis, the son of Jeremiah Green
a freedman, a freed boy now about 5 years old, that said freed boy is entirely
destitute of the means of a support or any near relatives that are able &
willing to care for [him]... That the said boy now has no mother..."
Loose papers of County Court, petition filed August 23, 1866, by Jesse
G. Butts, stating that at the time of emancipation he owned slaves Catherine,
a girl about 15 years old, Henry, a boy about 10 years old, Sarah, a girl
about 8 years old, and Lee, a [blank] about 2 years old, and Minerva, the
mother of the children who is about 50 years old. They remained in his service
after emancipation, but Minerva is unable to provide a support for her children
by reason of her physical condition...
Loose papers of County Court, Special Session, October 27, 1866; Petition
of Jabez Dallis, states that "at the time of the emancipation of the
slaves in this state he was the owner of certain Slaves, to wit
Eliza a girl about twelve years old
Josie a girl about 10 years old
Harriett a girl about 7 years old
and Samuel a boy about 4 years old all of whom are destitute of either
Father or Mother so far as your petitioner knows..." The court grants
the petition, and binds these children to Jabez Dallis as apprentices.
Tax Digests (after 1865) are indirect linking records, which may
be used to reinforce other evidence. Tax records were arranged by militia
district, which helps to geographically locate a person within the county,
and, beginning 1866, were divided into two parts; the first for white taxpayers,
the second for "freedmen." The format for freedmen asked for (1)
freedman's name, and (2) employer's name, followed by tax data. Frequently,
the employer was the same as the person's previous owner, which, coupled
with a coincidence of last names and geographical location, may bolster
a possible link between free and slave identity.
Applications for Homestead Exemption often prove kinship among
freedpeople which is not evident in the records from the period of slavery.
The homestead law was passed during Reconstruction, and homestead applications
were recorded in the Court of Ordinary. They can provide unique evidence
of spousal and parental relationships as they existed in the years immediately
after emancipation, and can clarify relationships which are only implied
by the 1870 Census data. As part of the justification for requesting homestead
exemption, the applicants often name their spouse and children, and sometimes
give ages of the children. Petitions also list all personal property and
real estate owned by the petitioner.
Example: (Upson County) Record of Homesteads Book B, p. 109. William
Guilford petitions for homestead exemption for himself, his wife Lucinda
age 33, and his four children Duffield age 15, Lucinda age 13, Douglas age
9 and Babe age 2, along with a detailed description of his possessions.
Approved November 3, 1879.
Marriage Records, 1875-6, are peculiarly valuable because the
legislature experimented with a system to collect vital statistics for the
newly-formed State Board of Health. Although the experiment only lasted
two years, anyone performing a marriage during this period was required
to complete "Form A" and return it with the marriage certificate.
Form A asked for names of groom and bride, their place of residence, age,
color, occupation (of groom), place of birth, and father's and mother's
name. Because inter-generational links between slaves and their parents
are often hard to document, these records may provide the vital evidence
needed to find the parents of a particular slave. Almost every
non-white person married in 1875-6 had been a slave, and his/her parents
had been slaves. You may find a copy of Form A attached to the original
marriage license in the files of your local Probate court. The following
example is from Upson County:
Return of a Marriage, Form A, October 17, 1876;
1. Full name of groom James Collier
2. Place of residence Paines Mill
3. Age 21
4. Color Colard
5. Occupation Miller
6. Place of birth-State or country Upson County Georgia
7. Father's name Japhes Dicerson
8. Mother's maiden name Fannie Dicerson
9. Full name of bride Fannie Tisinger
10. Maiden name if a widow First Husban
11. Place of residence Benjamin Lowe's place
12. Age 19
13. Color Colard
14. Place of birth-State or country Upson County Georgia
15. Father's name Japhes Tisinger
16. Mother's maiden name Lizebeath Tisinger
Notice that in the example above, the groom's last name (Collier) is
not the same as his parents' last name (Dicerson), which could make inter-generational
connection extremely difficult if not impossible without this record.
(Although they are not linking records, it should be mentioned that
birth and death records were also required to be submitted to the
Ordinary during 1875-1876. Copies may be preserved in your local Probate
Look for linking records which may be peculiar to your county.
For example, in Upson County, I found that the Ordinary had formulated his
own marriage license for non-whites between 1865 and 1869, which asked not
only for names of bride and groom but also for names of their former
owners. A random check of other counties' marriage records suggests
that this form was probably peculiar to Upson; nevertheless, thanks to these
records, about 470 persons in Upson County can be positively linked to their
III. Probate Records
Measured by sheer numbers of persons who can be identified, the richest
source of information about slaves is found in probate records. For example,
the probate records of Upson County, 1825-65, identify about 6,000 individual
slaves. Since Upson's slave population at its peak did not exceed
5,000 persons, it is clear that probate records must identify a very large
percentage of all slaves who ever lived in the county. Although wills are
the most well known probate record, the majority of slave owners did not
leave wills; nevertheless all estates were required to be probated. The
estates of persons with wills were managed by executors. The estates
of persons without wills were handled by administrators. The annual
reports these persons made of their actions were essentially the same.
Will Book, Inventory & Appraisement, Record of Accounts, Record
of Vouchers, Record of Sales are some of the names under which probate
records are found. Although probate documents are available from the early
days of the colony of Georgia, it was not until 1810 that a law specifically
required Clerks of the Court of Ordinary to record Inventories and Appraisements
in a bound book. The requirement to record other documents came even later.
Throughout the slavery period, court clerks kept probate records in highly
individualized ways. Seldom are the records of any two counties organized
the same way. The title of a book does not always accurately describe its
contents; for example, Forsyth County Will Book A (1833-44) contains some
wills, but mainly records inventories, returns, and sales. Upson County
Inventory & Appraisement Book A, although it contains inventories, would
better be described as a record of returns.
Wills are particularly useful for identifying how slaves in an
estate were to be distributed. Wills may be found recorded in a special
Will Book, or may be recorded in any of the many varieties of probate record
books kept by the Court of Ordinary (now known as Probate Court). Many slaveowners
left special instructions in their wills concerning certain slaves. Other
slaveowners did not name any slaves in their wills, but merely left instructions
on how their estate was to be divided. Some counties' wills have been extracted
in county histories or other genealogical books, but too often the slaves
have been omitted. There is no substitute for examining the original wills.
Inventory and appraisal was the first action on a deceased's estate.
All slaves were listed, usually by gender and name, and often also by age.
Sometimes relationships like husband/wife and mother/child were given. The
slaves were given a value. When extracting probate records, always include
appraised value. These values give clues as to the age or health of a slave,
and can sometimes be the only way to differentiate between slaves of the
Annual returns by executors and administrators gave an accounting
of the income and expenditures of the estate each year. Many estates hired
slaves, and annual returns frequently state to whom they were hired, as
well as for how much. For the family researcher, annual returns naming "Mary
and her child" one year, followed by "Mary and two children"
the next year, are obviously useful to suggest births and ages of children.
Most expenditures are explained on numbered vouchers (detailed receipts),
which may be copied into record books with the returns, or may be recorded
in separate books, according to the whim of the court clerk. Vouchers include
doctors' bills which give valuable information about ailments and medical
treatment of particular slaves, midwive's bills which suggest children's
birthdays, purchases of clothing for slaves, and even the occasional purchase
of a "Negro coffin" which can explain the disappearance of a particular
person from the next year's annual return. Sometimes vouchers were listed
by number, but the contents were not transcribed into the record books.
The original vouchers may be with the loose original returns which are still
preserved in many probate judges' offices throughout the state.
Sales of slaves belonging to estates were, like real estate, carefully
regulated by law. After 1805, it was illegal for administrators to sell
slaves belonging to an estate without court permission. Records of petitions
to sell particular slaves are usually in Minutes of Inferior Court Meeting
for Ordinary Purposes or the Minutes of the Court of Ordinary.
These sales were scrupulously documented and given in with annual returns.
Returns of sales usually included the names of slaves sold, the date and
place of sale (usually at the steps of the county courthouse on the legal
day of sale), the amount each slave sold for, whether for cash or credit,
and (in most cases) who they were sold to. These estate records of "Sales
of Negroes" are the most abundant evidence we have of the transfer
of individuals from one owner to another. When extracting records of sales,
always include former owner, purchaser's name and price paid.
The following example shows data compiled from probate records, and interpreted,
to reconstruct the growth of one young woman's family.
Selected extracts from Pike County I&A Book, 1822-1830; estate
of the orphans of William W. Arnold, as reported by their guardian:
p.116, first return dated January 1, 1827, received girl Lilly
p.117, return for 1827; John Johnson hired Lilly for 1827 for $40
January 2, 1828, paid midwife's fees $2.00
p.118, return for 1828; John Johnson hired Lilly for 1828 for $30
October 5, 1828, midwife fees for Lilly, $3.00
return for 1829; John Johnson hired Lilly for 1829 for $30
Selected extracts from Pike County I&A Book , 1830-1835
p.11 return for 1830; Beneter C. Johnson hired Lilly for 1830 for $25
p.45 return for 1831; Beneter C. Johnson hired Lilly for 1831 for $25
midwife's fee to Lilly $3.00
p.57 return for 1832; midwife fees $3.00
girl Lilly hired $30
return for 1833; hire of boy Tom [another slave of the estate] and girl
for 1833 for $100
p.58 return for 1834; girl Lilly hired for 1834 for $40
return for 1835; midwife's fee $3.00
girl Lilla hired for $15
p.66 division of estate on January 8, 1836
John Arnold's share: Lilly and her child Henry
William W. Arnold's share: Mary and Will
p.108 [new guardian] receipts for "Lilly & her three children
Mary, Bill, Henry" on
January 13, 1836.
The preceding example shows that Lilly (the only female slave in this
small estate) was delivered of five children between 1827 and 1836, three
of whom survived. The fact that Lilly was hired in 1828 for $10 less than
in 1827 suggests that she was encumbered by nursing a child (the one born
around New Year 1828). When her hire remained the same in 1829, it suggests
(but with no degree of certainty) that either the first child or the next
child born October 1828 may not have survived. The fact that her hire rose
to $40 in 1834, however, suggests that (although she had young children)
she was not then encumbered with any suckling child, and argues for an early
birth year for her second surviving child - possibly 1828, but no later
than 1831. Her hire for 1835, only $15, suggests the presence of an infant.
Turning to the receipt dated January 13, 1836, it was customary to record
a mother's children in order of age, beginning with the oldest; hence, Mary,
Bill, and Henry would be the expected age order. This is also supported
by the division of the estate on January 8, 1836, when Lilly is listed only
with Henry, presumably the youngest child, since children too young to live
without a mother's care were customarily kept in the same lot with the mother,
while older, more independent children might be separated from her. The
age at which children were judged to be "viable" apart from their
mothers was usually no younger than four years; hence, Mary and Bill were
almost surely older than four years in 1836. We can conclude, therefore,
with a great deal of confidence, that the oldest child, Mary, was born either
1827 or 1828, that the second child, Bill, was born either 1828 or 1831,
and that Henry, the youngest, was born in 1835.
IV. Deed and Mortgage Records.
Second only to probate records, deeds and mortgages contain (numerically)
the greatest documentation of Georgia's slave population. For example, Upson
County Deed Books from 1825 to 1865 record the names of 1,862 slaves.
Deeds of Gift are a special type of deed, typically from a parent
to a child, transferring property to that child during the lifetime of the
parent. Wedding gifts to daughters usually contained things needed to set
up a comfortable household, including slaves to act as house servants. Gifts
to females were often given to a male relative in trust for the woman, to
keep the property from being used and lost by the husband to pay his own
debts (see Deeds of Trust, below) Before 1838, recording deeds of
gift was optional, but they could be recorded in either Inferior or Superior
Court. After 1827, they were supposed to be recorded exclusively in Superior
Court, and after 1838, Georgia law required all deeds of gift of slaves
to be recorded within 12 months, or they would be of no legal validity.
This law significantly increased the number of slaves documented in the
Deeds of Trust, although a device frequently used to protect and
separate a wife's property from that of her husband, were also used by persons
who were heavily in debt, and who wished to avoid wholesale seizure and
sale of their property to satisfy creditors. The trust was managed by the
trustee to pay off creditors in an orderly and regular manner, while allowing
the debtor to keep possession of his property. Trustees could be required
to make returns of their transactions with the trust property, and these
returns are sometimes in the minutes of Superior Court.
Mortgages of slaves are exceptionally valuable because they document
part (and sometimes all) of the people belonging to certain slavemasters
during the masters' lifetimes. Mortgage records can be the only source for
the identities of some slaves who were later emancipated by the Civil War
during the lifetimes of their owners. Slave mortgages name persons and identify
family kinships which may not be documented anywhere else. The growth of
slave families can sometimes be followed if the same slaves were repeatedly
mortgaged. Until 1827, there was no law requiring mortgages to be recorded,
or specifying where they were to be recorded. Up to that time, they may
be found in the record books of any court of record, including the Inferior
Court and the Clerk of the Court of Ordinary, or the Superior
Court. After December 1827, the legislature required all current mortgages
to be recorded in Superior Court in the same manner as real estate deeds;
although mortgages can be found in the records of some Inferior Courts as
late as 1829. Typically, Superior Court clerks did not keep separate books
for real estate deeds and mortgages, or chattel deeds and mortgages. All
these records will usually be found together in the Superior Court's Deed
Record Books, along with miscellaneous instruments like powers of attorney,
bills of sale, and prenuptial agreements.
Conditional Sales of slaves were extremely common - even more
common than mortgages. Usually the last resort of a slaveowner deep in debt,
the conditional sale was almost like pawning his property. Title to the
property, and possession, went immediately to the purchaser (usually a major
creditor), but the seller held the right to repurchase his property for
a prescribed amount, within a prescribed time. Somewhat similar in appearance
to mortgages, conditional sales can be recognized by use of the word "sale"
in place of mortgage, and a clause at the end of the document beginning
with "Nevertheless..." and stating the conditions which must be
met to make the sale "...void and of null effect." The distinction
between mortgages and conditional sales, however, is sometimes blurred;
I have seen at least one deed where the words "sale and mortgage"
were used together throughout, as if the parties were not sure which they
meant. In practice, because of the financial condition of the seller, it
is likely that the majority of conditional sales became permanent, and were
never redeemed by the seller. This is where the contemporary tax records
can be exceedingly useful to confirm transfer of slaves from one owner to
another (see Tax Digests, under Miscellaneous Records, below).
Prenuptial agreements were often executed between wealthy widows
who were about to remarry, and their prospective husbands. These contracts
were designed to protect the woman's property from being controlled or squandered
by the man. They commonly include slave information.
Bills of Sale were not required to be recorded under Georgia law,
but were sometimes recorded anyway. They may be found in the Deed Records
of Superior Court, but can also be found in the records of Inferior Court
(including records of the Clerk of the Court of Ordinary) prior to 1827.
Persons from Alabama who purchased slaves in Georgia seem to have been particularly
inclined to record these transactions. Occasionally, among loose court records,
there are unrecorded slave bills of sale which seem to be present because
they were evidence in another legal proceeding.
A note about modern Deed Indexes: Clerks of Superior Court
in most counties have current indexes to all their Deed Books, probably
compiled fairly recently (in the last 20-30 years) for the benefit of lawyers,
real estate brokers, and others researching titles to real estate. In
most cases, deeds of gift, slave bills of sale, chattel mortgages, and any
other documents which do not have current legal relevance are omitted from
these modern indexes. The best way to search the Deed Books for particular
records, besides reading every page, is to locate the original indexes,
or a nineteenth century compiled index which includes all the legal
instruments recorded in the books. Sometimes the original indexes were bound
in the front of each book, but often they were separate. These early indexes
may be in the courthouse basement or attic, or on top of some inaccessibly
high shelf, along with all the other records which are irrelevant to current-day
V. Records of Civil Cases
Records of civil suits probably identify the next highest number of slaves
after probate records and deed books. An estimate for Upson County, 1825-65,
suggest that about 400 enslaved people are documented in Writ and Declaration
Books alone. Although the numbers may seem small, the quality of information
concerning individual persons is often much higher in these records than
in probate or deed records. In civil suits we find no mere lists of names,
but details about the lives of particular slaves and their families, the
relationships between master and slave, and working and living conditions.
The tangled transfers of ownership experienced by some slaves are explained
here, as well as the growth and break-up of some slave families. The most
accessible civil records are those sturdy, leather-bound volumes of Superior
Court and Inferior Court. These are an excellent place to begin methodically
If your courthouse has preserved the loose, original papers of Inferior
and Superior Court, you have a bonus of information which is not recorded
in any of the bound books. Certain county records (such as Coroner's Inquests)
were not required to be transcribed into record books. Most civil cases
which were settled out of court would not be recorded, although the original
pleadings filed with the clerk may remain among the loose "settled
papers." Interrogatories - among the most interesting of all civil
court records - were never recorded.
Writs and Declarations are two names for the same type of record.
A writ or declaration was written by the plaintiff's lawyer, identifying
the parties to a lawsuit, and describing, in legal terminology, the reason
for the lawsuit and the amount of damages requested. The person being sued
(the respondent) had an opportunity to write his legal response on the writ
or declaration. Most cases in these records are about money due on promissory
notes. Most of the cases are, frankly, very boring (probably why not many
people look at them), but many of the cases are for money due for the hire
of a slave. The promissory note is always attached to the original writ
or declaration, and copied into the record book. This is an example:
Upson Inferior Court, Writ Book B (1834-42), p. 227, May Term 1840, Lucius
S. Persons vs. Pleasant Goolsby; Persons sues Goolsby for $300 on a promissory
note dated January 5, 1839, for the hire of "Jack, Ferry, & Chaney
a girl. I agree to find each negro three suits of clothes, one of which
is to be woollen, the boys a good hat each, also three large duff Blankets &
one pair of shoes apiece."[the slaves belonged to James V. Oliver,
who had sold the note to Persons] Goolsby claimed that Oliver never "delivered
said negroes," but a jury awarded plaintiff [Persons] $195, plus interest
and costs of suit.
Unlike the example above, Writ Records and Declaration Books do not generally
record the outcome of a trial. To learn the verdict, you usually have to
refer to the court's Minute Books.
Certain types of cases are particularly informative. Among the most interesting
cases are Bills for Discovery, Account, Relief and Injunction (basically,
these initiate a lengthy court battle over the rightful title to some property,
usually slaves). Divorces are a good source of slave data; there is usually
a list of property to help the court decide alimony issues. Sometimes the
man's relationship with a slave woman is implicated in the grounds for divorce
Never pass up a trover case. It usually involves a dispute over ownership
of a slave.
Writs and Declarations which went to court were required to be recorded
within 40 days after judgment. Writs and Declarations which were settled
out of court, or prior to judgment, were usually not recorded. They were
folded up and filed with the loose papers of that term of court.
Minute Books record the court's actions in each case. In civil
suits, usually only the verdict and award are recorded (details of the case
are found only in writ and declaration books). Petitions to the court, however,
are recorded in full. Many petitions involve slave property.
Interrogatories were sworn written depositions from witnesses
who could not personally appear in court, usually because they lived out
of the county. If they have been preserved, they will be among the loose
papers of the court. Since witness testimony in civil trials was not recorded
in court minute books, interrogatories are generally the only evidence we
have of the testimony given in court (the exceptions are cases appealed
from Inferior to Superior Court, and from Superior to the state Supreme
Court, for which there were special transcripts prepared). Interrogatories
come in three parts, usually on separate sheets of paper which may or may
not be attached together; first, the judge's signed commission naming the
person whose testimony is to be taken, and naming three commissioners to
take down the testimony; second, a list of questions ("interrogatories")
posed by the plaintiff's lawyer and questions ("cross-interrogatories")
posed by the respondent's lawyer; third, the witness' answers. It is difficult
to understand many of the answers without constantly referring to the questions
which are on a separate sheet. Some of the most vivid pictures of ante-bellum
life come from interrogatories. Here are some brief extracts from various
Upson County cases:
"I knew the negro girl Lydia the subject of said suit. She is now
dead and died about the 20th of September 1841, of dysentery & a low
state of typhoid fever... I attended her in her last sickness as her physician."
(from interrogatories taken in 1892, concerning slaves fifty years earlier) "I
have known William Guilford from a little child up to now... old man Guilford
Spear was his father & Vinie Spear was his mother... James Spear owned
them... [William] was born on the Hurricane Place just a little while before
old Mrs. Spear, their mistress, died... Guilford Spear worked on the farm,
but he had a shoe shop of his own in which he worked at night..."
(in the case of a stolen trunk) "[William E.] Castlin said he would
not give up his Negro [Bob] to have evidence whipped out of him. [Mark]
Harvey said I am not intending to whip evidence out of your Negro give me
up the Negro and I can get my trunk without injuring your Negro. Castlin
said he had once gave up a Negro, the complainants whiped testimony out
of said Negro, and under the conviction of that Negroes testimony he Castlin
had to pay one hundred dollars, and that he would not give up the Negro."
Dockets, Execution Dockets, and Fifas
These records are merely the by-products of lawsuits, and thus seldom
draw the attention of genealogists or historians; yet, they contain detailed
information on a significant number of slaves who may not be recorded elsewhere.
Judgment Dockets and Execution Dockets were two names used for
the same type of record. They may be found among the records of Superior
Court or Inferior Court. When a party to a civil suit won a monetary award,
he could have the clerk enter a judgment in his favor, for the amount
of the award, in the judgment docket. If the party who owed the judgment
failed to pay, the entry in the judgment docket could be used to initiate
an execution. An execution was an order for the sheriff to seize
sufficient property from the indebted party to cover the amount of the judgment
and associated court costs. Judgment and execution dockets are arranged
chronologically by court term, and typically contain the names of the parties
involved, the amount of judgment, date that an execution was issued, and
a summary of actions by the sheriff to collect the judgment. In those cases
where a judgment resulted in an execution, you should find a description
of the property seized, and whether or not it was sold (but for discussion
of how incomplete these records may be, see fifas, below). These
examples were extracted from Pike County Inferior Court Execution Docket
pp.13-14, June Term 1844, Isaac B. Williamson vs. Josiah Mims (mortgage
fifa): January 2, 1844 levied on six negroes Moses a man, 34; Treacy a woman,
25; Hannah a woman, 40; and 3 boys, Nero, 10; March, 8; Prince, 6. Private
sale of "Hannah and her three children to wit Nero, March & Prince"
sold by Josiah Mims to William D. Alexander for $200. Money received January
25, 1844. Sale on balance postponed. Debt settled.
pp. 260-1, July Term 1853, H. P. Kirkpatrick vs. E. J. McLeroy maker &
E. F. Knott endorser (fifa #8): October 11, 1853, levied on negro boy West
about 14 years of age of yellow complexion. Paid in full.
As illustrated above, one value of these records is that they frequently
contain more detailed descriptions (age, complexion, family relationships)
than found elsewhere. Unlike estate records, which document estates in transition
at the death of a slaveowner, these records identify slaves during an owner's
lifetime. In the most cases, owners of slaves levied on by the sheriff were
able to come up with the money to pay off the debt in order to avoid sale
of their property. Unfortunately, in those cases where the sheriff sold
the slaves at public auction, purchasers' names are seldom documented. The
first example given above, of Hannah and her three children, is unusual
in that they were spared the degradation of public auction by being sold
privately, and the new owner's name is given.
Fifa, short for the Latin phrase fieri facias ("let
it be made..."), was a court order (execution) to the sheriff to levy
on (take) the property of a debtor in order to satisfy a judgment (see judgment
and execution dockets, above). The sheriff might typically keep track of
fifas in a Sheriff's Fifa Docket Book. Usually written on
a fill-in-the-blank form, a fifa names the parties to the court judgment
and the value of property to be taken to satisfy the judgment. On the back,
the sheriff or his deputies annotate their actions in carrying out the order.
The fifas were to be returned to the court which issued them and
the actions annotated on the Judgment Docket. Theoretically, the docket
books should contain everything that was noted on the fifas. In fact,
the clerks frequently failed to transcribe all the information. Also, many
docket books may be missing, having been discarded when their useful life
as legal records was over. In Upson County, for example, less than 4% of
fifa actions were transcribed into court judgment or execution docket
books which survive for the period 1828-65; and a Sheriff's Fifa Docket
Book, 1846-54, documents only seven levies on slaves. On the other hand,
among the thousands of original fifas which have been preserved among
Upson County's loose court records of that period, there are over 160
fifas levied on slaves, which describe a total of about 260 individuals.
If the county you are studying has kept original loose court records, they
are well worth investigating. These are examples extracted from loose
fifas in Upson County:
fifa #28, Superior Court, August Term 1842, Edwin C. Turner vs. Crawford
Martin maker & William Rainey, endorser; March 26, 1842, levied on land
and a negro man named Ching, about 50, property of Crawford Martin (not
sold). January 26, 1849, levied on Mourning, about 24, and Jane a girl about
6 (not sold).
fifa #36, Superior Court, February Term 1842, Elias Beall vs. Augustus
C. Hawkins; December 25, 1841, levied on 3 negroes, Betsey and her two children,
Jim and Maria. Sold June 7, 1842, for $642.
The first example illustrates that unsatisfied fifas could remain in
force without any action for up to seven years: notice that the second levy
(on Mourning and Jane) occurred just months before the fifa would
have expired under the seven-year statute of limitations. The second example
illustrates the difficulty of tracing some slaves from owner to owner. Who
bought Betsey and her two children, and where did they go?
VII. Criminal Records
Justice's Court. Any three Justices of the Peace could convene
as a tribunal when a slave was accused of a crime. If the case was a non-capital
offense, these JPs could try the case. If the case was capital, they had
to refer it to Inferior Court (and after 1850, to Superior Court). Antebellum
records from these local courts are very rarely preserved.
Inferior Court. This court had jurisdiction over slaves charged
with capital offenses from 1811 to 1850. By law, records of such trials
were to be kept by the clerk in a book "separate and distinct from
other records of his office." Because slave trials were infrequent,
these records did not require a large book. Overlooked in many courthouses
are slender, cheaply-made, quarto-size record books, often simply labeled "Inferior
Court Minutes." Sometimes, when you open these, you find the slave
trials. Unlike civil trials, in which courtroom testimony was seldom recorded,
the minutes of criminal trials (of free persons as well as slaves) usually
contain a paraphrased transcript of witness' testimony. Slaves were admissible
witnesses in the trials of other slaves; therefore, much information about
persons besides the defendant can be gleaned from the court record. After
1850, jurisdiction over capital offenses in slaves was moved to Superior
Superior Court assumed jurisdiction over capital offenses in slaves
after 1850. Records of trials are in the minutes of this court. Unlike testimony
in civil cases, which is generally not recorded, witness' testimony in criminal
cases is paraphrased in the minutes of the court. Slave trials can be found
in the indexes to minute book, usually listed as "The State vs _____,
a Slave." When researching slaves and slavery, however, do not limit
yourself to slave trials. All criminal trials should be read for slave content.
Whites were tried for crimes like selling spiritous liquor to slaves, unauthorized
trading with slaves, receiving stolen goods from slaves, playing cards with
Negroes, harboring runaways, Sabbath-breaking (making slaves work on Sunday),
providing false passes, stealing slaves, assaulting slaves, committing adultery
and fornication with slaves, and other crimes. Invariably, the slaves involved
with these accused whites are named and their masters are identified. See
also Grand Jury Special Presentments (below).
Example from Upson Superior Court, Criminal record, Book A:
p.85, May Term 1856, The State vs. Clark W. Upson & Simeon S. Oslin;
Defendants charged with entering the Thomaston graveyard on May 26, 1856,
disinterring the body of slave man William ("the property when living
of Hilliard B. Mabry"), and stealing the dead body of a human being "without
the consent of slave man William deceased & without the consent of William's
Grand Jury Special Presentments were criminal indictments against
persons in the county who were accused of crimes at the semi-annual convening
of the Grand Jury. In some counties, you may find the indictments preserved
as loose records; in others you may find them transcribed into record books
with titles like "Grand Jury Criminal Presentments;" and in other
counties you may find both loose and bound records. The Grand Jury evaluated
each accusation and decided "no bill' (meaning that the evidence did
not warrant a prosecution) or "true bill" (meaning that the solicitor
general should prosecute the case). Sometimes an accuser changed his mind,
and the case is Nol Pros'd (not prosecuted) The "true
bill" cases will most likely be duplicated as indictments in Superior
Court, but the "no bill" and nol pros cases may not appear
elsewhere, and may include unique references to particular slaves. Because
the Grand Jury was an adjunct of Superior Court, surviving records of its
proceedings will usually be found amongst the records of Superior Court.
This example of an unrecorded nol pros case comes from Upson Superior
February Term 1840, The State vs. John Boyd, Oliver Porter & Thomas
Wilkinson; defendants charged with making an assault "in & upon
a certain slave named Neptune the property of George Powell... said slave
not then & there having first given any sufficient cause or provocation
to justify said beating whipping wounding or ill treatment."
VIII. Miscellaneous Records
Importation Records (sometimes called "immigration records")
These are records of affidavits by persons bringing slaves into Georgia,
swearing that the slaves were for their personal use only, not for resale.
This was an attempt to control the internal slave trade. The legislature
had a hard time making up its mind about this subject. Importation of slaves
by anyone except settlers was first prohibited by law in 1817, but repealed
in 1824. Importation of slaves for resale or for hire was again prohibited
in 1829, but later repealed, then reinstated and repealed several more times
thereafter. The Superior Courts of large border towns and ports like Augusta,
Savannah, and Darien had special registration books to record imported slaves.
Entries typically contain the name of the slaveowner swearing to the affidavit,
and names, ages, complexion and occupation of the slaves being imported.
Occasionally, such affidavits are recorded in the Deed Books of interior
counties. The following is an example:
[Upson County] Deed Book G, p. 504. Affidavit of James Anderson, dated
June 1, 1852, "that he has introduced into the state a mulatto woman
named Clarissa, twenty one years of age, a house servant for the sole purpose
of being held to service and labour... without any intention to sell, transfer,
barter, lend, hire, mortgage... to defeat avoid or elude the true intent
and meaning of the act [of]... Dec. 23rd 1833."
Coroner's Inquests. These records are small in number, but can
be particularly illuminating to the historian. Coroners were charged with
investigating the cause "of all violent, sudden or casual deaths within
his County." This meant deaths of slaves as well as free persons. Coroner's
inquests were required to be submitted to the Grand Jury, but were not required
to be transcribed into any permanent record. Those inquests which have survived
may sometimes be found collected together, or may be scattered amongst the
loose papers of each term of Superior Court. In Upson County, there are
12 inquests into the deaths of slaves, out of a total of about 30 inquests
from the period 1825-65. Historians of slavery, however, should read
all inquests, regardless of whether the deceased was slave or free,
as one of the following examples from Upson County will show:
Inquest into the death of Joseph McKindley, held on October 6, 1848.
Deceased's sons, George M. and Robert McKindley, describe how they and their
deceased father had been chasing Joseph McKindley's runaway slave man, Toby,
with dogs. Peter, another of the father's slaves, discovered McKindley lying
dead near a fence, apparently "from the fatigue of the day's labour."
Inquests into the deaths of Anabella, a Negro girl the property of Curran
Rogers; Patrick, a Negro boy the property of James Andrews; and Mariah,
a Negro girl the property of Levi D. Dickinson, held February 12-13, 1854.
On Sunday, February 12, the three deceased plus Tom, property of William
Crawford, and Fed, property of L. D. Dickinson, were out socializing. As
they crossed Potato Creek in a small boat, a strong current swamped the
boat. The boat sank, and the three unfortunate young people drowned.
Minutes of Inferior Court Meeting for County Purposes contain
entries concerning guardianships of free persons of color, licenses for
men of color to preach, and other interesting but miscellaneous transactions
concerning slaves and free persons of color. The following examples come
from Upson County:
Minutes of Inferior Court [Meeting for County Purposes, 1825-1853], p.
173 (May Term 1839) "It having been shewn to our satisfaction that
Gilbert a man of Colour belonging to Henry Hartsfield of Upson County is
of good moral character & that the church to which he belongs is willing
for him to exercise as an exhorter in the Baptist church, & that three
ordained ministers of said church have certifized to the same according
to law - Ordered that the said Gilbert have license to Exhort as aforesaid
in said church at such places as may be in accordance with the Law."
Minutes of Inferior Court Meeting for County Purposes [1853-1868], p.
97, "It appearing to the court that Mrs. Martha J. Smoot wife of Robert
Smoot prompted by humanity, having taken care of and fed & clothed an
aged, helpless and infirm Colored Woman, named Henny, formerly the property
of C. H. Jones, but left by him in said county without any means; It is
ordered and adjudged by this Court that the County Treasurer pay Martha
J. Smoot the sum of Thirty Dollars, out of any money in his hands not otherwise
appropriated..." March 2, 1858.
Attachments may be found in the Minutes, and among the loose records,
of Inferior Court and Superior Court. An attachment was a court order (from
any JP, Judge of Superior Court, or Justice of Inferior Court) issued to
the sheriff, at the instigation of a creditor, to attach, or take control
of, the property of a debtor. The creditor had to swear that he feared the
debtor would remove or dispose of his assets out of the county, thereby
jeopardizing the creditor's ability to collect the debt. Somewhat in the
manner of a fifa, the sheriff would seize some property and write
a description of the property on the back of the attachment. When an attachment
was carried to judgment, it was generally recorded in the court's Minute
Book, but where an attachment was dismissed by the court, or settled out
of court, it was not recorded. These unrecorded attachments will only be
found if the loose papers of Inferior and Superior Courts have been preserved.
The following is an example of an unrecorded attachment from the loose records
of Upson County Inferior Court:
(sworn before JP on February 12, 1842, returnable to next term of Inferior
Court) Jordan Lyon vs. George P. Cannon; "I have levied the within
attachment upon... [land, houses, and various household goods, and] one
Negro woman by the name of Jude about fifty years old... The within attachment
was levied by me this day at forty five minuts past Eight Oclock (P.M.)
February 12, 1842 [signed] C.C. Stanford"
Legal Notices in Newspapers were required to be published before
certain actions could be taken, such as before an administrator could sell
slaves belonging to an estate (see probate records), or before a sheriff
could sell private property at public auction (see fifas). Sometimes,
notices of sales give details about certain slaves which are not recorded
elsewhere Sheriffs, coroners, and clerks of the Court of Ordinary were required
to publish in a newspaper of their county, or, if the county had no newspaper,
in a nearby newspaper which had large circulation in their county. Making
matters more complicated for the researcher, administrators of estates were
not limited to advertising estate sales in any particular newspaper, as
long as it was published in Georgia. As early as 1839, a law required Clerks
of the Court of Ordinary to maintain a file of newspapers in which their
legal notices appeared, but rarely has a complete collection of these newspapers
survived in local courthouses. Sometimes it is even difficult to know in
which newspapers the county's early legal advertisements appeared This subject
is worthy of close attention by local historians. The University of Georgia
publishes a list of newspaper holdings known to exist within the state,
and most are available for purchase on microfilm from the University's Georgia
It is important to remember that, in the case of sheriff's sales, just
because the sheriff advertised a slave for sale, did not mean that the slave
was sold. Execution dockets and fifas suggest that the majority of
slaves seized to satisfy debts were saved from the auction block because
their owners found some other means to satisfy the creditors.
Runaway slaves who were caught could be lodged in the county jail by
their captors until their owners came to claim them. The captors received
a reward, and the sheriff received fees for keeping the slave in jail. Runaway
slaves held by the sheriff were required to be advertised in a Georgia newspaper
- and, in a peculiar Georgia law, between 1832 and 1850, all runaways throughout
the state had to be advertised in a Milledgeville newspaper, regardless
of where else they might be advertised. The following example of an advertisement
for a runaway comes from the Macon Telegraph, August 21, 1833:
"Brought to jail by John D. Pitts, Jailor, a Negro man, named Jesse,
claims to belong to Matthias Mock of Upson Co., 30 yrs, dark complexion."
Tax Digests before 1865 do not name any slaves, but provide valuable
data about how many slaves a particular owner possessed. Tax law beginning
in 1804 required each white male over the age of 21 to pay 31 1/4 cents
per year poll tax, and to pay the same amount on each slave under age 60.
Beginning in 1826, white males 60 years and older were exempt from poll
tax. Through 1849, it was common practice for tax collectors to combine,
as a single "number of poll," the poll owed by the male slaveowner
and the number of poll due on his slaves. Therefore, it becomes necessary
to know the age of the male taxpayer to determine the number of slaves under
age 60 (if the taxpayer was under age 60, the number of taxable slaves is
number of poll minus one; if over age 60, poll equals taxable slaves). White
women did not pay a poll tax, therefore, in the case of a woman taxpayer,
the number of poll equals the number of slaves under age 60. In 1850, poll
tax on white adult males was reduced to 25 cents, but tax on slaves remained
at 31 1/4; therefore, tax digests beginning with 1850 had separate columns
for poll and slaves.
IX. The Case for Loose Papers
In the preceding sections, I have given examples of information about
slaves and slavery culled from unrecorded loose court papers such as coroners'
inquests, interrogatories, fifas and unprosecuted cases. There are
many more types of loose records, which have no direct connection to slavery,
but which offer evidence of the society and local communities in which slavery
existed - among these could be listed county election returns and poor school
records. If the unbound 19th century court papers of each Georgia county
were located, sorted, arranged, and properly preserved, the rewards (in
terms of historical information) would be great. This is my last example:
On July 21, 1849, Burwell W. Jackson of Upson County signed a bond to
be appointed guardian of "Jim Cousins, Ellis Cousins, Jack Cousins,
Rebecca Cousins & Frances Cousins free persons of color." Four
months later, the Clerk of the Court of Ordinary, William A. Cobb, duly
recorded the bond in Bond Record B, p.16, then neatly folded the loose bond
and other papers into thirds, and placed them in his files. For all anyone
knew, the contents of Bond Book B were the only information available at
the courthouse about the Cousins family. One hundred and thirty-eight years
later, as I was sorting and arranging the loose records of Inferior Court
at the Thomaston-Upson Archives, I opened Burwell Jackson's folded bond,
and out fell two scraps of paper. The first said:
"James Cozens is 60 years old, six feet high, yellow
was born in Georgia. resides in Upson. occupation farmer.
Andrew Jackson Cozens is 16 years old, five feet six inches
yellow, was born in Geo. Farmer, resides in Upson
Rebecca Cozens, 50, 5 ft. 6 in. yellow, born in Geo.
Resides in Upson. Spinster. [a person who spins thread and yarn]
[dated] 16 June 1849"
The second paper said:
"Andrew Jackson Cozens was born the
2nd day of September 1833
Eveline Frances Cozens was born the
25th day of September 1838"
For somebody, somewhere, fragments of information like this may be the
missing piece in a family puzzle. For another researcher, papers like this
may provide details to help make a county history come alive, to shine the
historian's light on obscure or forgotten persons who deserve a rightful
place as past participants in our shared heritage.