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Set Free: In all things to act and do as a free man

Image courtesy of Hon. John T. Frey, Clerk, Fairfax Circuit Court.

“All slaves are free.”

Our country celebrates those words on Juneteenth. It was June 19, 1865, when U. S. General Gordon Granger read aloud General Orders No. 3, “…in accordance with a proclamation from the Executive of the United States, all slaves are free.”

Federal troops had arrived in Galveston, Texas, to regain control of the state. Six months later, on December 6, 1865, Congress ratified the 13th Amendment to the Constitution, formally ending slavery in the United States.

Hundreds of enslaved African Americans living in Fairfax County were emancipated before December 1865. Slaves in Virginia could be manumitted [PJ1] by various legal means. The names of many of those freed women, men, and children are not lost to history. We learn about them through Deeds of Manumission – legal documents by which slave owners liberated their slaves. More than 100 Fairfax County Deeds of Manumission covering the period 1789 – 1861 are preserved at the Fairfax Circuit Court Historic Records Center. Each deed is unique and suggests relationships between the enslaved and those who freed them. Documents referenced below cite the Deed Book letter, number, and page; for example, B2:27-28.

Inspired by ideals of liberty and human rights following the American Revolution, Virginia’s 1782 Act to authorize the manumission of slaves enabled owners to liberate their slaves at will. The law required liberators to maintain those they freed who were aged, infirm, or more than 40 years old, males under 21 and females under 18 years of age.

Records show that on January 21, 1799, Allan Gunnell:

…being fully satisfied that it is contrary to our Bill of Rights, as well as to our principles and sentiments as a free people, and also contrary to Common Justice, to hold and keep in a State of Slavery, any part of our fellow Men, do for these reasons…Emancipate and discharge from Bondage… Negro Cokely and Negro Jenny to go out free immediately & if they choose to stay in my family, to have a Maintenance as long as they live. Negro John, an infant, son of the above-named Jenny to be free at twenty one. (B2:27-28)

Presley Gunnell freed Lett, aged 46, and Joseph, 30, on January 13, 1798, promising each maintenance for life if she or he chose to stay with Gunnell’s family (A2:119). Elizabeth Washington was “moved of consciousness and Religious duty & a desire to promote human happiness” when she wrote her Deed of Manumission in November 1809, wherein she named the women, men, and children she was emancipating (J2:398).

Numerous Deeds of Manumission place conditions under which a person would be freed. An enslaved person’s age was the most frequent factor. A male freed before the age of 21 would have become a minor ward of the court. Retaining a male slave until he was at least 21 and a female slave until she was at least 18 protected them from being sold, as many Deeds of Manumission stipulate. John Cartwright’s September 5, 1798, Deed of Manumission offers one example. He “being conscientiously concerned to give & grant to the Negroes now in my possession their Freedom and Liberty” immediately liberated Negro Jane, aged forty-one. Her four children would be freed once each reached the age of twenty-five. Phil, aged seventeen, would be free on January 1, 1806; Dinah, aged fifteen, would gain freedom on January 1, 1809; James, aged ten, would be liberated on January 1, 1815; and Joe, age eight, would be free on January 1, 1817 (B2:66-67).

A slave owner could manumit a person based on character or faithful or meritorious service to the owner and her or his family. John Gunnell emancipated Thomas Preston on March 11, 1841, for “his general good character and his faithful service to my father and others in my family he belonged to.” (F3:359) The previous year, Hugh Graham liberated Samuel Bell, age 68, “in consequence of his general good conduct, sobriety, industry and honesty, and for the further purpose of emigrating to the state of Pennsylvania, where his wife is now residing.” (F3:111) In May 1813, Isaac Clark, “a free man of colour,” purchased his wife Delia Clark from T. and Rebecca Winn for $50.00. Rebecca had requested the sale because Delia had “been her nurse in her infancy.” In January 1822, “for and in consideration of the love I have for my wife Delia Clark, as well as in consideration of her good and faithful conduct, and in consideration of one dollar to me in hand paid by the said Delia”, Isaac Clark emancipated Delia (U2:315-316).

A man might reach a self-purchase arrangement with his new owner whereby he would work, generate funds, and eventually buy his own freedom. Others earned freedom after working off their purchase price. William Hartshorne purchased “a Negro man named Simon” from John West on March 5, 1791. At that time, Simon and Hartshorne agreed that Simon would be freed after four and one-half years (T1:457). A 10-year-old boy named London had a substantial debt to pay Henry Toter. Toter’s Deed of Manumission of October 19, 1812, states that he would emancipate London, “but not till his service shall have paid for the purchase of him which I made which service I estimate to last till he shall be forty four years old” (M2:57).

Mothers and their children and, less frequently, entire families were manumitted together. William Hartshorne was committed to keep a family he emancipated intact. Hartshorne’s Deed of Manumission dated July 7, 1791, states that he had recently purchased Negro Robin, his wife Peggy, their three-year-old son Tavey, and infant daughter Sally from Robert B. Chew. At that time, he promised to free Robin and Peggy seven years later and each child at age 21 (T1:458). By December 1798, Robin and Peggy were emancipated and had two more daughters named Nellie and Anne. Rather than retaining ownership of Nellie and Anne until each was 21, Hartshorne released the girls “…being of a tender age…to the care of their Father and Mother, who have the full and absolute Authority over them, as may be exercised by any other free persons over their Children.” (B2:69).

Two Deeds of Manumission infer an enslaved person’s foreign place of birth. Richard Harrison’s Deed states that L’Amore, aged 27 in December 1790, “…was purchased in the Island of Martinique and imported by me to this state as a slave..” in 1778. L’Amore had behaved himself as an orderly, honest, and faithful servant and, “as an award for his Fidelity and good conduct,” Harrison emancipated L’Amore, giving him liberty “…in all things to act & do as a free man.” (T1:77-78) Dr. Thomas Triplett’s slave Caser may have been imported from Africa. In his Deed manumitting Caser, Triplett described Caser as “…aged about thirty years middle sized, & marked in the face on each cheek as africans frequently are.” (B2:245)

Each manumitted person began a new life under conditions that may have been unfamiliar. The amount of support, if any, that freed slaves received from their former owners is generally unknown. People emancipated in Fairfax County often joined communities that free African Americans had already established. From 1798 until 1861, all African Americans, both born free or emancipated, were required to periodically register with the County Court to certify that she or he was indeed free, could travel within the county, and could accept work. Fairfax County’s Registrations of Free Negroes include the names, descriptions, and lineage of many of the African Americans who were named in Deeds of Manumission.

A growing body of resources that document the history of African Americans in Fairfax County may be found at https://www.fairfaxcounty.gov/circuit/historic-records-center/black-history.

Author Heather Hembrey is the Assistant Collections Manager in the Archaeology and Collections Branch of the Fairfax County Park Authority.