Several years ago I began a project identifying African-American emancipation records in the traditional antebellum northern United States. It started while I was conducting research for one of my genealogy clients and found their Native American ancestors residing with black slaves in Rhode Island. As a professional genealogist, my curiosity was piqued, and I began searching for information about slavery in each of the northern States. I began a journey of discovery through genealogy that has led me to more fully understand real freedom, real emancipation.

Journey of Discovery

In the back of my mind I think I had known for a long time that slavery had existed in other states besides those in the American South, but I had no idea of the extent that slavery existed in all states prior to 1800. Common educational knowledge taught in elementary and high school levels and even in college, had portrayed slavery as a southern states social evil and that the North was the beacon of freedom that brought an end to this tragedy through the sacrifices of the Civil War.

Growing up in a western state, far away from the traditions of the post-Civil War East, I had not been exposed to the unspoken, forgotten past of that region from Maine to Maryland and Illinois to Massachusetts because of our national collective historical amnesia.

In my studies I learned about the introduction and beginnings of slavery in America in 1626 following the settlement of New York by the Dutch and by colonial officials in Massachusetts in 1630. I became aware of the massive slave trade conducted by American shipping fleets, first in Cape Cod, later in Rhode Island, and finally after the Atlantic slave trade was abolished by the U.S. government in 1808, the major role in this now illegal trade shifted to the New York Harbor, creating the foremost slave trafficking in the western hemisphere (an activity which continued until after the Civil War!)

In the process of this new education, I learned about the stirring of public opinion, during and following the American Revolution (1775-1781), in which people began to think and talk about the rights of freedom for all men. This discussion began with the rights of patriots to have a voice in their political concerns, but it grew to recognizing that black Americans were also people with equal rights to freedom.

Beginning with Vermont in 1777, each colony or state north of the Mason-Dixon Line (the Pennsylvania-Maryland border) began to pass laws leading to the emancipation of the Slaves.

I learned that most of the states began the abolition process with laws for “gradual emancipation.” This meant that if such a law was passed on March 25, 1783, that all slave children born after that date would be freed when they reached their 25th to 28th birthday. All other slaves were to remain in slavery until they died.

With this process, eventually as the younger slaves grew to their age of emancipation, and older slaves died off, slavery would come to an end in America.   The built-in delay served to provide support to the generally poor African Americans who had no means for support, and would also allow slave owners time to find different means to conduct their business affairs.

Once these new concepts were put into place by law, public views about freedom grew with great speed and interest. The culture of the northern states began to change dramatically regarding the rights of African Americans, and it hastened the general abolition of slavery, until practically all slavery had ceased in northern society by the Civil War.

A New Question

Because of my interest and training in genealogy, as I became aware of this history of slavery in the various northern states, a question came to mind. “If slaves were to be freed at the age of 28, how would people know the slave children had reached those crucial birthdates, unless records were kept regarding those individuals?”  

In December 2012 I published my initial findings in an article about the records I discovered as a result of that question: “Black Slavery Emancipation Research in the Northern States,” National Genealogical Society Quarterly Vol. 100, December 2012:293-304. I explained how town clerks and county clerks in Pennsylvania, New Jersey, New York, and throughout New England began keeping birth records of black slave children in the late 1700’s; in some cases nearly a century before such records were kept for other children.

I outlined the changes in law regarding the manumission of older slaves, and the legal requirements that came about for registering all African Americans, slave and free, in those days before the Civil War. My goal was to inform the descendants of those slaves, millions of free black Americans today, how to further discover their ancestors in America.

Emancipation Records in New York

As a result of this article, my wife Mary, and I determined to travel to the eastern states in 2013 and begin to verify and discover these and other records related to the emancipation of black slaves in the North. This past spring we began with a trip to New York, choosing one county to study the early records. We hope to make other trips in the near future to Pennsylvania and New Jersey to study their records as well those in Massachusetts. This will help establish new archives of family history records for African Americans seeking their ancestry.

In New York, we knew that laws were passed in 1788 to reduce the penalties placed on the manumitting or freeing of slaves by their owners. Prior to that time, a fee (or fine) of hundreds of pounds/dollars was required to be paid for each slave freed, in order to protect the community from the cost of public support for such newly freed people. In 1799, a gradual emancipation law was passed, freeing slave children born after that date at age 28 (or by 1827). Subsequent legislation opened the way for freedom for most New York black Americans by 1827, and eventually, technically abolished all slavery in that state by 1841.

During our trip to New York, we confirmed that slave birth records were recorded in town clerk’s minutes, and that manumissions were recorded in both town clerk and county clerk’s records. We discovered the recording of slave abandonments, wherein slave owners, as they realized that slave children born under their roof would be eligible to be set free, began to free these enslaved children to their already manumitted parents. We found registrations of African Americans were recorded in Inferior court minutes and in probate minutes as well. What excitement we felt as we learned that genealogically valuable records were to be kept of each action.

But we also discovered that in many cases, the early town records, which had been stored in the clerks’ homes in early time, were lost to fires and other disasters. Town clerks, historians, genealogists and others have promised they will continue the search for these now identified records. Most of these previously forgotten records have not been microfilmed or digitized, something that is needed in order to preserve these precious documents that contain the historical identities of a major segment of American society.

Small Miracles

As we traveled from one archive to another in search of records and information, we were met with curiosity and skepticism by governmental officials and librarians who were unfamiliar with the documents we were seeking. But small miracles preceded us in our search. In one historical museum we presented our mission to the caretakers of the collections, who were doubtful at first, but then after discovering early tax lists in the minutes of the county board of supervisors, and finding abstracts of slave births and manumissions in their historical publications, their skepticism changed to the excitement of newfound historical treasures.

Prior to our arrival, they had been bequeathed boxes of genealogy and history books, documents and research gathered by a local genealogist, that just happened to have in its uncatalogued state, the very information we had come to New York to locate.

In another library, after learning of the loss of early town records, we were told by the consultant that she had never heard of slavery in that area; but her assistant recalled that while teaching school in New York City a few years ago, a course on “New York (City) Slavery” was conducted in the schools, and she just happened to have the teacher’s manual in her locker at the library on that day of our visit. We weren’t allowed to copy any of the manual at that time, but shortly afterward we learned that the course and manual had been published on-line and was available for free!

Remarkably, the day before we left for our trip to New York, a county official called us to mention that a special seminar called “Interpreting Northern States Slavery” was being held in the county next to where we would be visiting, and it just happened to be taking place on the week we were there. We contacted the necessary officials and were able to attend the seminar, sitting on the front row for the entire day… meeting like-minded educators and government officials, and setting the stage for new and valuable contacts for our African American new archives.

A Visit to the House of the Lord

Our research trip to New York came to an end on a Sunday. Before driving back to JFK Airport for our trip home to Salt Lake City, we decided to attend church services at the small LDS Branch in the area where we stayed. The congregation consisted of fifty to sixty adults, counting missionaries, and a few children. About one half of the participants in the sacrament meeting were African-Americans with the rest coming from multiple-ethnic backgrounds. One of the speakers, a middle-aged father with tattoos peeking out from under his shirt, stood and spoke about faith and the challenges of losing his job; seeking new employment and supplementing his education in the process through an LDS on-line college program. Everyone was dressed neatly, and a few colorfully, in their Sunday best.

For us, this experience was close to cultural shock. As Mormons with heritage stretching back many generations to the founding fathers of the Church, we were being reminded that we came from only “one” experience; and Heavenly Father’s family includes people of all experiences. As the meetings progressed through Sunday School, and Priesthood/Relief Society, the members of this branch shared their expressions in sometimes “salty” words and phrases, and they sang the hymns with enthusiasm. The brother who had spoken in sacrament meeting turned out to be the quorum leader and his wife, who was equally illustrated, was the Relief Society President. Their conversion experiences were shared, and the beauty and power of their testimonies of the Gospel reminded us that in the House of the Lord, we are all His Children. And He wants freedom for us all.

We were also reminded that these people were seeking out their ancestors as well; but they needed to know how to do it and what records would help them set their families free. Our goal to discover new records about African Americans came into sharper focus. In order to create “a record worthy of all acceptation” there needs to be records. We felt that the Lord was asking us personally to help locate those records so the real emancipation of souls could take place. All the way home we pondered our experiences in New York, and marveled at how events came together. This journey of discovery brought into focus the truth of eternal freedom through the gift of the gospel for the living and the dead in the House of the Lord.

James W. Petty, AG, CG, is the Board-Certified and Accredited Professional Genealogist, “Climbing the Family Tree Professionally, Since 1969”. He is President of HEIRLINES Family History & Genealogy, Inc. (, the “Salt Lake City, Utah BBB Accredited Business” trusted professional genealogy research services firm, providing US and International genealogical and historical research for a world-wide clientele.

For Heirlines-Quality professional genealogy services, resources, and products including expert family tree research, LDS family history assistance, and answers to genealogy questions, please see Jim’s website and his blog Heirlines: We professionally identify and document ancestry and kinship relationships and verify and certify the family tree with Certified Family Trees and Certified Forensic Genealogy Solutions. We’re ready when you’re ready!