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Using Records about Slavery in the Southern Historical Collection: Key Terms

This tutorial is meant to orient and direct users to materials that document the history of slavery in the Southern Historical Collection in Wilson Special Collections Library.

Key Terms for Document Types

Over the past 90 years, Wilson Library's archivists have used a variety of terms to identify various document types that contain information about enslaved people. Some collection finding aids use general language such as "slave record" or "slave ledger" while other language is more specific such as "doctor bills for slaves." These terms are useful to look for when scanning the finding aids of big collections. You can also use them to conduct "ctrl-f" or "command-f" search on the finding aid page. The gallery of images below provides examples of different types of documents and where to find them in the collections. Be sure to search for the alternative terms that are suggested as well. 

slave list with names of enslaved people and values

Slave list

Also search for: slave ledger

An example of a "slave list" taken from the Cameron Family Papers, folder 1975 in subseries 2.1.1. Notice that there are only first names listed -- a clue hinting that this is a list of enslaved people. The corresponding values appear to be the price of shoes. Provisions for clothing and shoes are typical documents you may find associated with enslaved people on plantations. 

list of birth dates for enslaved people named

Slave birth record

Also search for: volumes. Items can be identified in the finding aid in a variety of ways including: "slave birth record" or "volumes recording slave births" or "record of slave births." 

This particular example from the Robert Walker Wither Papers was identified in the finding aid with its original language: "negro birth record" that was included as part of Volume 2: 1823-1953.

bill of sale for enslaved woman Diana & Susan & Sarah

Slave bill of sale

Also search for: slave bills of sale

An example of a bill of sale transferring enslaved woman Diana and her two children Susan and Sarah from seller James Lynch to buyer Thomas Leagre for $650. Series 1, folder 311 of Preston Davie Collection

image of indenture document for enslaved people Ellen & Arnold

Indenture or Deed

An indenture of an enslaved person is similar to a bill of sale. In this example from the Nealia Pickens and Jesse Graves Papers, enslaved individuals Ellen and Arnold were bequeathed from George Faust to his daughter, Mary Graves. 

image of legal will dividing property of enslaved people


In her legal will, Catherine McLucas McArthur bequeaths her property, which includes the people she enslaved, to her children. The last paragraph begins, "And I also give and bequeath to the said Samuel a negro boy named Frank and a negro girl named Effy." From the McArthur Family Papers, continued on image two. 

second image of a legal will dividing up property of enslaved people

Will (continued)

In image two of her will, Catherine McLucas McArthur continues by explaining which child will receive her enslaved people. Note that about half way down the page she asks that "only the first offspring of said Caty to be equally divided between my three grandchildren..." From the McArthur Family Papers

image of inventory that lists names of enslaved people with values


This inventory of enslaved people owned by John Horlbeck is taken from the Horlbeck Family Book. The list continues to the next page. 

Also search for: valuation or division of slaves. An example can be found in the Benjamin Franklin Little Papers.

image 2 of inventory that lists names of enslaved people with values

Inventory (continued)

"Negroes, continued" from the Horlbeck Family Book.

page of a plantation journal that has notes and the name of an enslaved man

Plantation Journal

Also search for: plantation daybook

This example comes from page four of the Ben Sparkman Plantation Journal. The "Billy" referred to on the right side of the page was likely an enslaved person that Sparkman sent to load his flat on Tuesday morning. Style, layout, and content of plantation journals and daybooks can vary. See the digitized folder to view the entire journal. Each page looks a little different, some with narrative text, others with figures and tables. 

image of account book from Robert A Jones collection

Account book

Also search for: ledger book

Account books and ledgers can often reveal information about enslaved people. For example, page 59 of the Robert A. Jones Account Book indicates that Jones paid cash to "negroes for their cotton." Additionally, some of the names that appear without a surname, like "Jemmy", may represent enslaved individuals or free people of color. It is difficult to know for sure without familiarizing ourselves with the entire collection and knowing the context in which Jones is writing.

image of a diary page written by Margaret Grimball


An example of a diary page from the Margaret Ann Meta Morris Grimball Diary. On December 29, [1861] she wrote that among other things she did that day, she "went to see about the Carpenters working at the negro houses, where they are now mending chimneys, white washing..." Even short references such as this can help to build a fuller picture of plantation life and the enslaved community who lived there.

image of tax list

Tax list

Property owners were taxed for their enslaved people, just as they were for other property owned. These documents can often be an important source of information. Taken from subseries 2.4, folder 2117 of the Cameron Family Papers

physician ledger with names of patients and medicines

Doctor bill for slave

Also search for: physician's ledger. 

This page is taken from Mathew Cary Whitaker's physician's ledger included in the Matthew Cary Whitaker Papers. Whitaker was a physician in Halifax County, NC. He kept this ledger of his visits to patients which included enslaved people. The example page begins, "to visit negro Mary" on June 21, 1837. The text that follows is likely a treatment or medicine he prescribed. 

image of a letter written by enslaved man James Burwell

Slave letter

Also see: Voices of the Enslaved LibGuide

This letter written by James Burwell to his enslaver George Burwell is from the George W. Burwell Papers. It continues on page two. 

image 2 of a letter written by enslaved man James Burwell

Slave letter (continued)

Page two of the letter written by James Burwell, an enslaved man. See the Voices of the Enslaved LibGuide for links to more letters written by enslaved people in the SHC.

Sharecropping contract

Also search for: sharecropping agreement; tenant agreement; tenant contract

This example taken from the A. H. Arrington Papers, subseries 3.1.2, folder 42 includes two agreements on one page. In the first, Abram Arrington agrees that he and his wife Mary Ann will work on A. H. Arrington's farm for one year for $230. In the second, Connor Arrington agrees that he and his wife Gill Ann and their sons Daniel and Washington will work on A. H. Arrington's farm for one year. In return Arrington will pay each family member a different sum. 

Jailer's Bill

Those who owned enslaved people were responsible for paying for their expenses, including fees for apprehending a person who had run away and jailing them, as documented here in this example of a jailer's bill from the Singleton Family Papers. The jailer charged Richard Singleton for "apprehending a negro by the name of Moses, a runaway." Dated March 14, 1827.

Runaway slave notice

Search for term: runaway slave OR fugitive slave which will pull up both advertisements and notices.

William Page wrote this reward notice likely to be published in a local newspaper. It begins, "Six Hundred Dollars Reward -- Rant away from the subscriber's plantation on Colonel's Island, near Brunswick Glynn County in June 1816 Two Negro men." Dated May 20, 1819 from the William Page Papers. See page two for more.

Runaway slave notice (continued)

William Page continues his notice with a description of the enslaved men: "Bacchus is an African about forty year's old..."  Taken from the William Page papers.

printed announcement of sale of 150 enslaved people

Advertisement for sale of slaves

Search for other terms: "slave sale" or "sale of slaves"

This announcement from the Singleton Family Papers advertises the sale of 150 enslaved people owned by W. E. Richardson, a member of the Singleton family. Note that many of the advertisements or other documents listing slave sales in the SHC are handwritten, unlike this one.

image of a letter that describes an enslaved man who ran away


In this March 1849 letter addressed to "Aunt Lucy," a relative describes an enslaved man named Henry who ran away: "Henry his oldest man ran away from him - and was gone five or six weeks." The author continues to describe Henry and his actions in detail, and continues onto the next page. The letter is from the William Dunlap Simons Papers.

image 2 of a letter that describes an enslaved man who ran away

Correspondence (continued)

On page 2, the author continues to discuss fugitive enslaved man Henry. Note that there is also a page three of this letter (that does not reference Henry) not included here but can be found in the digitized images of the finding aid: William Dunlap Simons Papers.