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Cool court record database

Today is the last day of the weeklong Institute for Genealogy and Historical Research at Samford University in Birmingham. It’s a short day, for wrapups and student presentations and handing out “you survived!” certificates. It’s always bittersweet: you’re always glad to be getting home, glad to be back in your own bed, but you’re always so sad to leave the camaraderie and learning behind.

And oh what learning…

Dr. Deborah Abbott explains the Digital Library

Yesterday, here at The Legal Genealogist, I thought I’d died and gone to heaven with a new (to me) court record database that was spotlighted by Dr. Deborah Abbott, a retired college professor and long-time genealogist. It’s called the Digital Library on American Slavery and it describes itself as “a cooperative venture between the Race and Slavery Petitions Project and the Electronic Resources and Information Technology Department of University Libraries at The University of North Carolina at Greensboro.”1

Now you may be sitting there thinking that slavery isn’t an issue that you’re interested in, you have no slaveholding ancestors and no enslaved ancestors, so why should you care about this bunch of records?

Lemme tell ya… Debbie Abbott sure opened my eyes: it’s because it’s absolutely chock full of leads and clues to thousands and thousands of people — white and African American alike — who lived in the American south between 1775 and 1867. Read what the site says about its records for yourself:

The Digital Library contains detailed information on about 150,000 individuals, including slaves, free people of color, and whites. These data have been painstakingly extracted from 2,975 legislative petitions and 14,512 county court petitions, and from a wide range of related documents, including wills, inventories, deeds, bills of sale, depositions, court proceedings, amended petitions, among others. Buried in these documents are the names and other data on roughly 80,000 individual slaves, 8,000 free people of color, and 62,000 whites, both slave owners and non-slave owners.2

Yes, it’s true that all of the records have something to do with slavery. But, as Debbie Abbott notes, what they’re really about is helping us tell our family’s stories.

Here’s one example.

On the site, indexed as Petition 10181801, is this abstract, from Alabama around 1818: “Slave owner David Norris seeks to emancipate his slave Nancy, who saved his life when he was about to be killed “by the hostile Indians” in the Missouri Territory.”3

You’re not gonna tell me you don’t want to know THAT story, are you? I didn’t think so. I’m not related to Norris or Nancy and don’t even have kin who were in the Missouri Territory and that one grabbed me.

The site then tells you the original is held in the Alabama Department of Archives and History, Montgomery, in the records of the Alabama (Territory) General Assembly, Petitions 1817-1818. And every one of the records represented by one of these abstracts is on microfilm — 151 reels — and the microfilm is widely available in public and university libraries.4

I didn’t have time yesterday to try to get this petition, but you know me better than to think I’m going to leave the story hanging…

Here’s the text of a law passed in 1818 by the General Assembly of the Alabama Territory:

Be it enacted by the Legislative Council and House of Representatives of the Alabama Territory, in General Assembly convened, That David Norris be, and he is hereby authorised to manumit, and set free, his negro woman slave Nancy, so soon as the said David Norris shall have executed to the chief Justice of the Orphans Court of Monroe county, and his successors in office, a bond with sufficient security, to be approved by the said Orphans court, conditioned, that the said female slave Nancy, shall never become chargeable to the Alabama Territory or any county or town therein.5

Sigh… I think Debbie Abbott may be The Legal Genealogist‘s new BFF. Now… wonder if we can get the story behind the petition…


  1. Search the Petitions,” Digital Library on American Slavery ( : accessed 14 Jun 2012).
  2. About the Digital Library,” Digital Library on American Slavery ( : accessed 14 Jun 2012).
  3. Petition 10181801 Details,” Digital Library on American Slavery ( : accessed 14 Jun 2012).
  4. How to Obtain Copies of Petitions,” Digital Library on American Slavery ( : accessed 14 Jun 2012).
  5. Acts Passed at the Second Session of the First General Assembly of the Alabama Territory (St. Stephens, A.T. : 1818); reprint (Washington, D.C. : T.H. Cole, 1912), 33-34; digital images, Google Books ( : accessed 14 Jun 2012) (emphasis added).
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