The papers reveal a past of local slave trading and slaveholding. In the years following the Revolutionary War, some of the region’s most prominent leaders were slaveholders: Isaac Craig, John and Presley Neville, John McKee—names that live on to identify the area’s towns and streets.
The documents, as you will see in the links to the right, are written in highly embellished penmanship and a flowery prose style. They are faded, with the occasional ink splotch or scratched out word. The revelations in these accounts, together with other such documentation as slave registries, census records, history books, and slaves’ own writings, unlock a forgotten history of the Pittsburgh region.
Outright manumissions are rare here, but freedom in these papers sometimes comes in other forms. For instance, Peter Cosco was set free in 1790 by his slaveholder John McKee, but only by self-purchase—that is, he paid McKee £100 to buy his own freedom.
Other manumissions are not quite what they seem. In many cases, the child of a slave is manumitted by a slaveholder. Minutes later the young person is indentured, sometimes to a different slaveholder, until the age of 28. Some indenture documents stipulate that the servant should get limited instruction. Other rules: the servant must be taught a skill, must follow the master’s wishes, and must not marry or beget children during indenture.
Free Black people still faced danger. Many appeared in court to ask for a Certificate of Freedom. The claimant had to prove that he/she was born free or had been previously freed. If the court was satisfied, it would issue a certificate with a minute description of the person including skin shades, hair texture, and body scars. Freedom papers were essential for freedmen who wanted to travel, particularly those working on the rivers.
Almost half of the 55 records in these papers originated in states south of the Mason-Dixon Line, especially Virginia, Kentucky, and Maryland. Pennsylvania, as a border state, was a battleground in the fight between slavery and freedom. For an escaped slave, crossing the Mason- Dixon Line into Pennsylvania seemed to be liberating. But it would be many decades after the first of the 55 records was filed before slavery disappeared from Western Pennsylvania.
Freedom papers and certificates of freedom were documents declaring the free status of Blacks. These papers were important because “free people of color” lived with the constant fear of being kidnapped and sold into slavery. Freedom Papers proved the free status of a person and served as a legal affidavit. Manumissions and emancipations were legal documents that made official the act of setting a Black person free from slavery by a living or deceased slaveholder.
It was prudent for Blacks to file papers attesting to their free status with the county deeds office in order
to protect them from slave catchers and kidnappers. Antebellum America, including Western Pennsylvania, was hostile territory for a person of African descent. There are records of Blacks being held in local jails because they were suspected of being fugitive slaves. As was stated earlier, Black slaves were perceived as property that, just like other goods, could be bought and sold, stolen or lost.
Filing with the deeds office protected African Americans from the loss, theft, or destruction of original documents, as in all-too-frequent situations where slave catchers confiscated or destroyed freedom papers to force free men and women into lives of bondage. Some free men had to have an affidavit that testified to their free status.
If they lacked an affidavit, their friends would have to file such an affidavit after the free men in question had been confined. One such affidavit was sworn on behalf of James Cooper on Nov. 29, 1803. At that time, Cooper was confined in the “Common Jail of Allegheny on Suspicion of being a Slave from Canady” (Canada), placed there by John Wilkins, chief burgess of Pittsburgh. Three witnesses testified on Cooper’s behalf, and two of them “offered to bring forward four or five Others to prove that the said Cooper committed (upon God knows what ground) by Justice Wilkins is a free man.” It is not known whether the affidavit was reason enough to free James Cooper from the jail of Judge Wilkins. But this affidavit does seem to indicate that there were not only personal friends, but also a sympathetic network, perhaps an abolitionist group, willing to support the freedom of at least that Black man.
Amos Sisco of Washington County was a free Black man who, as the certificate of freedom says, was “about descending the Ohio river on a Steamboat in the Capacity of a Cook.” Sisco needed his certificate to protect his movements because in 1837, the year the certificate was signed and recorded, the Underground Railroad movement was active, and the waterways and rivers were used often as transport for fugitive slaves.
Jesse Turner of Southampton County, Va., was registered in that county’s court on Aug. 18, 1829, as a free man of color. A record of the filing was made in the Allegheny County deed books on Sept. 6, 1848. Turner probably moved to Allegheny County in 1848 and needed to file his certificate attesting to his free status. Given the harsh reprisals against African Americans that followed Nat Turner’s 1831 revolt in Southampton County, Jesse Turner would probably have had a difficult time obtaining his certificate there after the revolt. It is even possible that Jesse Turner had been enslaved by the same Southampton County slaveholders, Benjamin Turner and his son Samuel, who had enslaved Nat Turner and his mother.
In some cases, African Americans participated in the benign purchase and sale of family members. In this regard, the freedom papers of Julia Mason recorded by the County on Oct. 1, 1851, constitute an illuminating record. Mason was freed by her husband, Robert Mason, who purchased her from G. W. Baker of Winchester, Va., for the sum of $600. Julia was 35 years old at the time, and, as it was just a year after the passage of the Fugitive Slave Act, Robert Mason was careful to record the manumission of his wife with the deeds office. Since Robert Mason was a free African American, this document records a Black person participating in the slave economy, but for the honorable purpose of freeing his wife from bondage.
The documents titled Indentures referred to that clause of the Gradual Abolition Act that called for those born of slave mothers after March 1, 1780, to serve 28 years as indentured servants. One such indenture that raises a number of questions is that of the 6-year-old slave girl Sally. Sally was a slave for life to Thomas Woods of Ohio County, Va., who manumitted her in 1825 to serve until age 28 as an indentured servant to Pittsburgh attorney John McKee (not to be confused with McKeesport founder John McKee).
Sally, “having no parents living in the State of Pennsylvania,” arrived in the Commonwealth to serve a term of 22 years as an indentured servant. We don’t know whether Sally served the full term of this contract. The peculiar thing is that a 6-year-old was contracting herself as an indenture, apprenticed “to learn the Art and mystery of a house Servant and Cook.” Two members of the Pittsburgh Bar approved this transaction, Pittsburgh aldermen Thomas Enochs and Magnus Murray, the man who would later serve two terms as the city’s mayor.
In 1793, the same John McKee who had founded McKeesport and freed Peter Cosco indentured a young woman named Kut, the daughter of an enslaved woman named Negro Suck. The indenture was for 12.5 years and states that Kut “shall faithfully serve his [McKee’s] lawful commands, cheerfully obey; she shall not contract matrimony &c &c, nor do anything detrimental to her said Master’s interests; she shall not commit fornication nor frequent taverns, cards, dice nor any unlawful games.”
It appears by the statements made in this document that some perception of the surrounding community made a Black girl prey to the vices of society. This record also suggests Blacks’ preservation of their African roots through their choice of names. Taking another look at the indenture of Kut and her mother Suck, we see a name with West African cultural connections: Suck appears to be derived from the Wolof female name Sukey. The Wolof were native to West Africa’s Guinea and Senegambia region. Sukey was a common name among Creole slaves in Louisiana, as was the common Creole name Kut, sometimes spelled Quite.