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Slavery within Pennsylvania                         CO ROINN Home Page

As a response to articles on line about the President's House in Philadelphia we combined some facts. We in the last year or so we have received many questions regarding slavery in Pennsylvania. To help alleviate some confusion created by these articles we are posting here what we have come to understand when specifically researching Pennsylvania families from Pennsylvania records for genealogical purposes. 

Yes there was a gradual abolition law enacted in 1780, which was meant to gradually abolish slavery within Pennsylvania. No it did not immediately free anyone. There are numerous accounts of slavery after 1780 throughout Pennsylvania including Philadelphia.

Contrary to the exact wording of the Act most interpreted practical applications of this law went like this. You had six months to register your enslaved in Pennsylvania. After the six months if the enslaved were not registered and they were over 28 they were free. If the enslaved were registered or not yet 28 years of age, they remained enslaved until they were 28 years old. If there were children born while they were enslaved the owners could register the children who then in turn were enslaved until they were 28. Many children of enslaved born to parents under 28 were registered and enslaved until they became 28. These registrations took place well into the 19th century.  In some families a 3rd and 4th generation was registered after gradual abolition in Pennsylvania. 

A listing of the free black heads of household for 1790 and 1800 can be found in Mother Northumberland County Pennsylvania. In 1790 there were only 459 families living independently from white families and headed by free blacks. In 1800 there were 700 families. Comparing 1790 to 1800 we find only 90 families, which are repeats. So by the year 1800 Pennsylvania had seen only 1,100 free black families 20 years after gradual abolition. 

These families are independent of indentured servants. In 1800 there were over 2,000 indentured servants in just Philadelphia County all races. It is unclear how many of these indentures were from births before enslaved individuals reached 28 because there are no slave registers for Philadelphia County. 

Oddly enough another figure that is often given is that by 1790 there were more than 2,000 free blacks in the city of Philadelphia. Yet in the townships of Philadelphia the federal census for 1790 has the following: Blockley 24 All other free persons (AOFP) and 4 slaves; Bristol 12 AOFP and 2 slaves; Bullskin 0; Byberry 9 AOFP and 3 slaves; Germantown 3 AOFP and 0 slaves; Kingsessing Town 54 AOFP and 7 slaves; Lower Dublin 0; Manor of Moreland 0; Mojamensing 27 AOFP and 6 slaves; Northern Liberties 303 AOFP and 89 slaves; Oxford 38 AOFP and 30 slaves; Philadelphia City 137 AOFP and 0 slaves; Roxborough 1 AOFP; Southwark 200 AOFP and 22 Slaves; Water Street Eastside 89 AOFP and 30 slaves. This is only a total of 897 individuals found as "all other free persons" and it is 193 enslaved individuals.   

When we look closely at local census records for Pennsylvania we can see African American families shifting in and out of independent status. In only extreme instances do we ever see children indentured or as a servant without a family member very near. It is often a grand parent sometimes an Aunt but most frequently parents who are found near the children. We see a delay in childbirth for women. We also see marriages or unions between older women and younger men. Where geographic separation was an emanating result of gradual abolition we often see second families in new locations. Post civil war we see those same families relocating and reuniting in the same areas. 

In the case of Hero Wade in Centre County who was General Potter’s enslaved and companion, we see that his children leave and he stays with his grandchildren. You only need to look at the dates to see that the grandchildren had been born before their parents were 28. That although technically they are enumerated as free within the white household they are not free to leave until they are 28. Hero was 40 years old in 1780. He was not registered and in turn would be free. He established himself independently from his former owner but remains in close proximity being identified by his former owners name. 

This is because his children were not established as free. Some of his grandchildren were born before their parents were 28 and they remained with or near their grandfather. At the time of his death Hero had relocated and was living with the descendants of his former owner. He was 72 years old. His grand son had established him self independently after he was 28 and his children were born free in Bellefonte Pennsylvania. Hero was not registered and was freed by gradual abolition but the onus of the act was implied and applied to two more generations of his family. 

For genealogical purposes, when we look at the census records in Pennsylvania it is not much different than looking at the census records in slave states where we see enslaved and free black in the same household. One member of the family may have freedom but they have not attained freedom for others. They are permitted to live with the freed individual but still work for the slave owner. Often we see the eldest member remaining as they continue to purchase and acquire freedom for the children and grand children. 

Many of the questions we have received about slavery in Pennsylvania are in reference to articles about George Washington’s enslaved population in Philadelphia. They are in response to interpretations of how George Washington could have “Legally” kept slaves at his Philadelphia president’s house. Of lately references used as explanation include a lot of conjecture and interpretation of a letter written during the time Washington was in Philadelphia. The letter appears to be the only primary data source used. Most of the references are interpretation of the numerous secondary data sources created from the papers of George Washington.

Seldom does anyone interpret or remember that Washington also owned land in Pennsylvania. He desired to farm that land. The agricultural system in place at Mt Vernon included the labor of enslaved persons in Virginia. If he were to make any improvement in Pennsylvania he would need to vary from his accepted practices within the laws of the commonwealth. He was unsuccessful at leasing the land in Pennsylvania. He needed the particulars of the law for this reason. After the Whiskey rebellion in the same area of Pennsylvania he did try to dispose of the property. On August 2, 1795 he gave power of attorney to James Ross of Pittsburgh to sell this land. In 1798 the year before his death, he was still in possession of property in Western Pennsylvania and corresponded with his nephew Robert Lewis

It is doubtful that any elaborate plan was needed on behalf of George Washington to keep his enslaved population enslaved while in Philadelphia. Pennsylvania CERTAINLY had an enslaved population long after the 1780 Gradual Abolition. The 1790 census for Philadelphia City, Philadelphia County, Pennsylvania reflects ZERO slaves. There are no surviving slave registers. Many other counties in Pennsylvania have slave registers. 

To make the assumption that because in 1790 no slaves are listed in Philadelphia that there was no slavery in Philadelphia because of gradual emancipation is just not a valid assumption. To think that an elaborate ruse was needed to skirt legality is not supported within the remainder of the commonwealth by facts. In the absence of Philadelphia slave registers we may never know the extent of the enslaved population in Philadelphia but we certainly only need look at the federal census records to know it existed “legally” well past 1780.


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