On June 11, 1793, a man named Peter apparently did not pay a cent to the slaveholder who filed this manumission – at any rate, the document does not mention any compensation. Its wording is likewise a bit different from the others I’ve looked at:
Know all Men by these Presents, that I … do hereby emancipate & make free Peter my Negro Servant, whom I lately bought of …, & I do hereby declare the said Peter to be a free Person, & I do hereby from henceforward forever give up & quit to him the S[ai]d Peter all the right I have or may have to his Services, & wish that he may henceforth be considered in the Same Situation, as those, who are born free.
We see here the slaveholder’s specific renunciation of any future claims on Peter’s labor, with the interesting twist that he gave those rights to Peter’s labor to Peter himself. It is a strange kind of thinking to regard a person’s labor as a thing separate from the person, which can be returned to him. I can only think that it reflects the formal legal view of enslaved people as laboring things – which makes the document’s use of the term “free Person” all the more interesting.
As I think I’ve mentioned before, it’s fairly common (especially in these later documents) for manumissions to state that the freed person won’t have any claim to support from the former slaveholder. We haven’t actually seen any of those yet, I think, but I’ll go into the legal details when we do. The part about Peter being “considered” the same as those “born free” may be an oddly-worded attempt at excluding the possibility of future claims for support. It is, I think, the fact that these documents were usually written up by people without expertise in the law that leads to so much revealing variation in the terms.
This document does not contain many clues to the direction of future research. I found three African-American men named Peter in the 1800 census: Peter (family of 4 – surnamed Johnson in the index, but that’s a mistake); Peter Porta (family of 2); and Peter Wilson (family of 7). I have no way of knowing which of these is the right man. He might even be none of them, if he chose to live in a white household as a free servant. The 1810 census is useless for this research, of course, since the New Haven marshal only put in first initials for everyone.
This is actually the outcome I expected for most of these manumitted people; the amount of information I’ve been able to dig up on the others I’ve looked at so far has surprised me. In this case there is quite a bit of information about the slaveholder, but that’s not who I’m writing about. Peter’s life as a free man (like his life as an enslaved man) will, it seems, have to remain a mystery to curious historians.
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