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New online resource on slavery

February 6, 2012

A bond for the hire of three slaves, Fauquier County, Va., 1854. Source: Virginia Historical Society.

As an archaeologist of the historic period with a particular interest in the African American past, I’ve often experienced the sort of odd conflict that anyone who does this sort of research encounters. On the one hand, there’s the thrill that comes with poring over historical documents that reveal parts of the lives of long-ago, and in some cases, long-forgotten, people. Yet on the other, there’s a profound unease when you step back from the feeling of discovery and realize what it is you’re actually looking at. The historical record of chattel slavery is disturbing in that it is often so incredibly mundane, even banal.

To that end, an exciting new online resource recently went up that I expect will lead to many more people, both academics and what we often call “the interested public,” to experience this feeling of conflict. “Unknown No Longer,” a project of the Virginia Historical Society, is a searchable database of documents relating to more than 3,000 enslaved people, culled over a year from unpublished records in the society’s holdings. Read on after the break for more on why this is so important, and sometimes chilling.

This collection reveals the names and in some cases other personal details of large numbers of people who had been virtually absent from history. That’s the sort of line that researchers often use when discussing enslaved people, but it’s not really true. They were always in history, in the sense that records were kept that pertained to them. But so often, those records were not the sort that were enshrined in official history — books, published correspondence, accessible documents, statistics, and so on. “Unknown No Longer” is useful because it peeks beyond those official records into the sort of small-scale, private correspondences and agreements that so often did document the enslaved.

And in a very real way, that’s what’s so chilling about this. All pretenses to the (invented) image of the benevolent master aside, slavery was brutal, it was businesslike, it was transactional. A quick browse through this site reveals that. From a bond issued in January 1854, in which three slaves of one John Washington were hired out by one William Bispham, of Fauquier County, Virginia:

We also bind ourselves and our heirs to furnish the said slave with the usual Summer and Winter clothing; to treat them with humanity, and not to rehire them, and to return them to the said Washington on the 25th day of December 1854, furnished with good Winter Clothing and a hat and blanket.

For that deal, Bispham paid $20. And the three slaves? They’re listed as “Francis and his two children.”

Chilling, isn’t it? On the “Unknown No Longer” site, you can browse by document type (account, broadside, petition, will, etc.) or search by name. The best thing, to me, is that the records link to high-quality scans of the actual documents, which you can view or download.

I expect people will be culling through these documents, applying the records to address historical research questions. In future posts, I plan to write a bit about how one might use these sorts of documents to do just that. In the meantime, though, I’m busy simply browsing through this magnificent, through disturbing, new archive.

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