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Questions to ask

So The Legal Genealogist was out in St. Louis yesterday for the Midwestern African-American Genealogy Institute.

It was the second annual institute, and my time first there… and it was a joy.

MAAGI2What a great group of people — instructors, students, all first-rate. Active minds and willing hearts make for an unbeatable combination, especially when folks have helping hands reaching out for each other … and for their family’s truth.

The Institute offers four tracks: Fundamental Methods & Strategies for African American Research, coordinated by Shelley Murphy; Technology and Social Media, coordinated by Bernice Bennett; Pre & Post Emancipation Records, coordinated by Janis Minor Forté; and Genealogy as a Profession, coordinated by Angela Y. Walton-Raji. Instructors included folks like Thomas MacEntee of Illinois, Nicka Smith of California, and yours truly.

(You’ll see some of us in this photo: (L-R) Nicka Smith, me, Bernice Bennett, Shelley Murphy, and Thomas MacEntee.)

I was honored to be chosen to lead two sessions: one on public records and the law; and the other on slavery and the law. And there are two key lessons I hope the students took away from those sessions.

1. Always ask why.

When we come across that record, and we’re trying to figure it out, we need to always ask why it was created. In so many cases, the reason it was created was because of the law.

Case in point: in 1827, Martha Prater executed a bond in Gallatin County, Illinois. She did so, she said, to be faithful to the will of her late husband who had directed that all of his slaves be freed at the time of his death. So, she said:

I Martha Prater of the County of Gallatin and State of Illinois am held and firmly bound … in the penal sum of Twenty Three thousand Dollars… The condition … is that … Martha Prater has this day emancipated and set at liberty … negro or mulatto slaves… Now if none of the … slaves shall become hereafter a charge on the said County of Gallatin or on any other County in this State to which they may hereafter go & settle, then the above bond to be void, otherwise to be and remain in full force and virtue.1

The bond is a wonderful document for African American research because it lists, by name and age, each of the 23 slaves she had freed, and their relationships to each other. Now you might expect to find that information in the deed emancipating the slaves. But in a bond?

Why was the bond even executed?

It was because of the law. Northern states weren’t friendly to slave emancipations. There was a fear of freedmen becoming public charges or, worse, turning to vagrancy or crime.

So by 1819 Illinois had passed a law. Anyone who brought slaves into Illinois and emancipated them there “shall give a bond to the county commissioners of the county where such slave or slaves are emancipating, in the penalty of one thousand dollars, conditioned that such person so emancipated by him, shall not become a charge on any county in this state…”2

2. Always ask what.

The flip side of the coin is when we find the law — something we come across in a statute book or in our reading. We need to ask ourselves what records might have been created because of that law.

Case in point: New Jersey in 1804 was the very last of the Northern states to abolish slavery. It didn’t free the slaves of the Garden State all at once but, instead, through a gradual process. It provided that any child born to slaves after 4 July 1804 would be free but would remain the servant of the mother’s owner until age 25 if male and age 21 if female.3

Which raises the obvious question: how was anyone to know when one of these free children reached the age to be free of service?

The law answered that question: it required that the person to whom the child would owe service had to register the child’s birth. And that, of course, means records. Those lovely amazing birth certificates now so carefully preserved by, and some of which are available in digital format from, the New Jersey State Archives.4

If you have the record, ask why it was created. If you have the law, ask what records would have been created because of it.

Lessons from the road.


  1. Gallatin County, Illinois, Slave Register 1: 72-75, Prater bond (1827); Illinois State Archives, Springfield; FHL microfilm.
  2. “An Act Respecting Free Negros,” in Laws … of the State of Illinois … 1819 (Kaskaskia: p.p., 1819), 354-355; digital images, Google Books ( : accessed 9 July 2014).
  3. “An Act for the gradual Abolition of Slavery,” in The Public Laws of the State of New-Jersey: Since the Revision … in 1800 (Trenton : p.p., 1805), 27; digital images, Google Books ( : accessed 9 July 2014).
  4. See Judy G. Russell, “Born free,” The Legal Genealogist, posted 21 May 2014 ( : accessed 9 July 2014).
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