Monday, April 16, 2012

The District of Columbia Compensated Emancipation Act - Did You Remember?

D.C. Emancipation Celebration
Today, April 16th, 2012 is Patriot’s Day in Massachusetts.  It’s also the anniversary of the District of Columbia Compensated Emancipation Act, which pretty much nobody outside of D.C.’s boundaries ever heard of.  

You probably missed it.  However, that’s the reason why you don’t need to file your taxes today.

Everybody knows about the Emancipation Proclamation on January 1, 1863.   However, the earlier District of Columbia Emancipation Act, signed by President Lincoln on 16 April 1862, produced a number of records that genealogists need to know about.  

First of all, the Act freed all the slaves in the District of Columbia. In addition, it established an owners’ compensation schedule, as well as a way for them to apply for it.

The D.C. Emancipation Act provided slave-owners loyal to the Union with compensation of up to $300 for each of their freed slaves and also provided for the voluntary relocation of slaves to locations outside the United States, with each former slave choosing to emigrate entitled to a cash payment of $100.00. 

Slave owners seeking compensation had to swear an oath of allegiance to the United States.  

No oath of allegiance, no payment for you!

According to the National Archives and Records Administration website, over the nine month period following the signing of the Act, “…the Board of Commissioners appointed to administer the act approved 930 petitions, completely or in part, from former owners for the freedom of 2,989 former slaves”.

So, what’s a genealogist to do with this kind of information?

First off, a visit to the website being developed by the folks at the University of Nebraska – Lincoln is probably in order.  The website, called “Civil War Washington” and findable at contains transcripts of many of the applications for reimbursement, all of which come from “…Records of the Board of Commissioners for the Emancipation of Slaves in D.C.," National Archives and Records Administration, Record Group 217.6.5, Records of the Accounting Officers of the Department of the Treasury, 1775-1978, as part of the "Settled Treasury Accounts" series.

There are some petitions that have not yet been transcribed, but those that have provide a unique insight for genealogists, both for slave-owning families and the slaves themselves.  

In addition to detailed physical and character descriptions of slaves, the petitions often describe specifically how the owners acquired their slaves, thus providing evidence of purchases from other owners, or, in the case of some slave-owners, a line of descent from an earlier ancestor that may not be available elsewhere.

For example, on 6 May 1862, about 3 weeks after the Act went into effect, Lucy A. M. Counselman, of Montgomery County, Maryland filed for compensation for her freed slave Lucinda Martin, who had been living (and working as a slave) in Georgetown for the previous two years.  In the application for compensation, Lucinda Martin was described as “…A black woman, Five feet, Two inches high, named​ Lucinda Martin, large eyes, wide mouth.”   She further notes that “said woman was willed to me by my Grandfather (Samuel Counselman,) Six years since, which said will is Recorded in Rockville Maryland.” Valuable genealogical information that provides today’s researchers with additional information on the Counselman family.    

As for Lucinda Martin, her former owner noted that she was “…of the value of Eight hundred dollars in money [and that] said woman is a good housekeeper she has been living out, since a child.

While this petition seems – on the surface – straightforward, slavery itself was complicated. 

This becomes obvious if you search for Lucy Counselman in the 1860 census.  There she is, age 23, in District Four, Rockville, Maryland, in her father’s household.  At the very end of the family listing, we find listings for two free blacks:  Virginia (the family’s washerwoman) and William Martin. 

 Here’s the actual listing:

In addition, the slave schedules for District Four, Montgomery County Maryland, show that John Counselman, Lucy’s father, owned eight slaves.  A William Counselman of Rockville, Maryland also owned eight slaves, and Rachel, John, Marion and Charles Counselman of the same location each owned one slave.  No doubt a familial connection could be established with these various Counselman slaveowners, likely going back to Lucy’s grandfather Samuel Counselman.

So exactly how were Counselman household free blacks William and Virginia Martin related to Lucy’s slave Lucinda Martin of D.C.?  This information is unavailable.   Were the other eight slaves of John Counselman also surnamed “Martin?”  Again, this information is not available.

There’s still more to come on this UNL website, as more petitions get transcribed and uploaded.   

However, even as it stands, it’s a great illustration that (a.) not all slaves worked on plantations;  (b.) slaves were hired out by their owners and were therefore a source of income; and (c.)  slaves and slave-owners’ fates were inexorably intertwined. 

The genealogical information in slave records often pertains to the owners and slaves alike.

Check it out, even if you’re not tracing a slave or slave-owning family.

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