One hundred and fifty years after the Civil War, it’s easy to look back and think, “The South had slavery. The North didn’t.”
While that may have been true just before the Civil War, each of the 13 colonies that later became states, including Pennsylvania, legally condoned enslavement at one time.
Differing opinions over whether humans should be enslaved or free in newly formed states as the nation expanded westward was one of the issues that led to the Civil War. Before 11 states seceded and formed the Confederate States of America, 34 states comprised the United States.
The Union started falling apart after the election of Abraham Lincoln as president, with South Carolina pulling out in December 1860. Tennessee was the last to leave the Union in June 1861. Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation, an executive order, on Jan. 1, 1863, meaning that states beyond Union control could no longer enslave humans, according to the Civil War Trust website.
Pennsylvania had passed an act of the Legislature in 1780 to gradually emancipate slaves. But slavery existed in Pennsylvania, by some counts as late as the 1840 census, just 21 years before the start of the start of the Civil War. Slavery had been an institution in Pennsylvania since its founding as a British colony in 1681, and William Penn, its founder, was a slave owner.
Dr. Thomas Mainwaring, chairman of the Washington & Jefferson College history department, noted that Virginia, home to Richmond, the capital of the Confederacy, was not a slave state from day one. Virginia, was, however, founded much earlier than Pennsylvania.
“Slavery did not exist when Virginia was founded as a colony in 1607,” Mainwaring said in an interview. Indentured servants rather than slaves provided the labor that fueled Great Britain’s American colonies. The voyage to North America from Europe was very expensive, so laborers and tradesmen entered into contracts to work from four to seven years to pay off the equivalent of the cost of a ticket to the New World. Toward the end of the 17th century, social change was afoot.
“Slavery was a very small presence in the 1670s in Virginia,” Mainwaring said. “At the same time, white indentured servitude basically faded out.
“Slavery was most intimately tied to the cultivation of sugar cane. What became the United States was really at the periphery of a huge system of slavery in Brazil or the Caribbean. Only about 6 or 7 percent of all slaves were sent to mainland North America.
“Over about four decades, the status of black people in Virginia gradually deteriorated. Their last names were disappearing. They were being kept in perpetuity as a quasiservants/slaves.”
Slavery came to Pa. from Va.
It’s significant to include Virginia in a discussion of slavery in Pennsylvania because both Virginia and Pennsylvania claimed this area. As settlers began streaming into the Upper Ohio Valley “in the late 1760s and early 1770s, it was not at all clear which colony’s claims would hold up. Virginians brought their slaves with them to what they called Yohogania County. Along with a smaller number of slave owners from Maryland and Pennsylvania, they gave what was to be Washington County one of the highest concentrations of slaves in Pennsylvania,” Mainwaring noted in a manuscript that he hopes to have published.
“David Bradford of Whiskey Rebellion fame, for example, arrived from Maryland and purchased slaves upon his arrival in the county. About 6 percent of white families in the county owned slaves in 1782, when the first registration of slaves took place,” Mainwaring wrote in the manuscript.
At the time, the county’s white population is estimated to have been about 16,000 people, so the 417 slaves in Washington County constituted about 4 percent of its population,” Mainwaring wrote in a what he described as an introduction and first chapter of a book on the underground railroad.
Ninety-nine years after Pennsylvania became a British colony, the Legislature passed an act to gradually emancipate all slaves within its boundaries. The boundaries, however, in 1780 weren’t firm. Once the dispute between Pennsylvania and Virginia was squared away, Washington County came into being.
Free at 28
In 1782, the General Assembly passed another act that said all residents of the county who owned slaves on Sept. 23, 1780, should register them because the earlier legislation provided that a person born in slavery prior to that year would remain a slave for the remainder of his or her life. Those who were born slaves on Sept. 23, 1780, or thereafter would remain slaves until they reached age 28.
To determine who would or wouldn’t eventually be eligible for emancipation, all slave owners were required to register their slaves in the courthouse.
“The reason the slave registry exists is because the 1780 law says all slave children must be registered with the county,” Mainwaring said.
“It was legal evidence someone attaining their 28th birthday should be set free. If somebody was not registered, this could be grounds for a lawsuit seeking freedom.”
In 1783, this more-massive-than-today Washington County, which at that time included Greene, Allegheny and Beaver counties, was home to 260 slaves. The largest concentration of slaves – 58 – was in Fallowfield Township, where the number of inhabitants totaled 2,857.
Slave record kept here
When local historian Earle R. Forrest was writing about this 80 years ago, he noted, “The slave record referred to was kept in the courthouse, but it disappeared long ago, just when cannot be said. When Boyd Crumrine wrote his History of Washington County, published in 1882, it was then in the courthouse, and he quotes it, but since then it has disappeared. (Forrest) has been informed that this slave record is still in existence, and for a number of years past has been kept in a safety deposit box in the Washington Trust Company.”
Nearly five years later, Forrest, when speaking to the Washington Kiwanis and Rotary clubs, reported that the old slave registry was being kept in the vault of the recorder’s office after being lost for almost 40 years. In December 1937, he reported that it was “recently unearthed, packed away in a box in the upper part of the courthouse, where it had rested ever since it was packed away when the old courthouse was torn down in 1898.”
Over the years, the slave registry again disappeared.
Fast-forward to the 1970s, when Washington County Recorder of Deeds Olga Woodward was cleaning an unused, walk-in vault in the courthouse “when she uncovered two tattered books which contained proof that slavery once flourished in Western Pennsylvania,” according to the Washington & Jefferson College News August 1977 edition.
“They were the Court Record of Yohogania County, Va., 1776-1781 and the Negro Register of Washington County 1782-1851.” The college publication in 1977 notes that Woodward received permission from the county records committee and the Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission to donate the registries to the W&J archive.
Another discovery related to the history of slavery in Washington County surfaced in the 1930s.
Earle Forrest wrote in The Observer 80 years ago this month a story bearing the headline, “Paper tells of slave selling here in 1825.”
Although the story was not accompanied by a photograph, Forrest told of a document found among the papers of “Miss Anna Quail, who died within the past year at the Quail Homestead a few miles north of Washington on the Hill Church Road. The paper had first belonged to John Hoge, one of the original proprietors of Washington and an ancestor of Miss Quail.”
Strabane Township, in the center of the county and the municipality containing what was to become the City of Washingotn, was an early stronghold of slavery, Mainwaring noted in his manuscript. “There, 19 owners held 52 people in bondage. Many prominent men of the early town such as William Hoge and Absalom Baird owned slaves. Hoge and his brother, John, permanently influenced racial patterns in Washington by giving their slaves lots in the area of East Walnut Street and North Lincoln Street, an area that remains predominantly black today.”
Washington County had slave sale
The old document Forrest wrote about was a notice of a public sale of a slave and her child in Washington, to be held on March 30, 1825. This slave and her child were the property of John Hoge, who with his brother, William, sons of David Hoge, were founders of Washington in 1781.
According to Forrest, the old notice reads: “PUBLIC SALE. Will be sold at the House of John Flemming in Washington on Wednesday next at two o’clock in the afternoon the unexpired time of a mullatto woman named Margaret & her child Lucinda also a mullatto late the property of John Hoge, Esqr. (deceased).
Margaret was born on the 15th of November 1803 & Lucinda on the 24th of April 1824. The terms of the sale are a credit of four months by a note with approved security requested. The said Margaret and Lucinda will not be separated but sold to the same person and no warrantee of any kind will be given.”
The auctioneer was John Dagg.
On the back of the old paper is the title, “Terms of Sale of Peggy & her Child,” which lists that 21-year-old Margaret and her 11-month-old baby sold for $80.
That there were no last names listed was typical of the times. If slaves were referred to by a last name, it would likely be that of their owner.
We know more about the person who hosted the sale and the auctioneer than we know about the “mullatto woman” and her child.
John Flemming was the proprietor of the Philadelphia and Kentucky Inn which stood on the site of the Washington Trust Building. According to Forrest, the inn was one of the town’s principal hotels.
Dagg ran a tavern known as “The Sign of the Rising Sun” on Main Street, which Forrest described as a popular hostelry among the wagoners on the National Pike. He died in 1860.
Forrest, in reporting on the discovery of the document regarding Margaret and Luncinda, wove the history of Pennsylvania’s gradual emancipation law into his story.
“From this it will be seen that the slave girl Margaret still had seven years to serve before she would become automatically emancipated, while her baby daughter, Lucinda, would have 28 years.
And although U.S. Census records last record slaves in Pennsylvania in 1840, Forrest had a different view.
“Probably the last slave in Washington County was Hannah Kelley, who died in Cross Creek township, Jan. 31, 1863, at the extreme age of 110 years,” he wrote. “She was brought from Africa when about 3 years old and sold in Virginia from the slave ship. She was afterwards bought by one John Elliott, a merchant in Pittsburgh, and sold by his administrators to a John Gardner, with whose family she remained until the death of Mrs. Gardner in 1820.
“According to this record Hannah Kelley was brought to Virginia about 1756, the year following Braddock’s defeat and therefore she would not become free under the Pennsylvania law of 1780.”
“If you were born before 1780 you were really unlucky,” Mainwaring said. “You were considered a slave for life.”
Mainwaring notes that half of the county’s slaves lived in the eastern townships along the Monongahela River. Fallowfield featured the most slaveholders – 28 – as well as the largest slaveholdings in the county. The residents collectively owned 109 slaves – 26 percent of all the slaves in the county.
Slavery lingers in a free county
“Slavery’s presence thus lingered a long time in a supposedly ‘free’ county north of the Mason-Dixon Line. Although technically the children born after 1780 to slaves were servants, not slaves, they were being sold as if they were slaves,” Mainwaring wrote, and cited an advertisement that appeared 203 years ago this month in the Washington Reporter: “For Sale a Frame House, two stories high with a kitchen and three excellent lots, in the town of West-Boston, Washington County, Pa. Also, a stout healthy negro wench, fourteen years of age, a servant till 28. For terms enquire of Isaiah Steen.”
Mainwaring notes, “Slaves were likely to have been put to use clearing land, planting crops, building houses and barns and to help to provide for the necessities of life. Slavery continued to exist in Washington County not because labor was needed to cultivate large plantations, but rather to provide domestic or farm help.”
Pennsylvania finally outlawed slavery in the 1840s, so there was no longer a category of “slave” in U.S. Census records in 1850 and thereafter.