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On Sunday, March 2, the movie “Twelve Years a Slave” —based on the book of the same title by Solomon Northup—won the Academy Award for Best Picture.
The movie depicts many important themes in studies of American slavery, including kidnapping, runaway slaves, slave catchers, the complicated relationships between slaves and their masters, and punishment of slaves, to name just a few.
ProQuest History Vault Slavery and the Law offers invaluable insight for researchers via access to petitions to southern legislatures and county courts that candidly document the realities of slavery at the most local level.
To illustrate the type of documentation in Slavery and the Law, we have reproduced below five of the abstracts that are retrieved by a search on “kidnapping of free persons of color” in ProQuest History Vault. This search on “kidnapping of free persons of color” retrieves 89 results.
Here are the abstracts from five of these cases:
1. From Jefferson County, Kentucky, October 1833. George Winters claims that he is a free man of color, born to a free mother in Virginia. He has commenced an action at law for "trespass assault and battery and false imprisonment" against Joseph Dough. Dough, who claims him as a slave, is working him on board the steamboat Vermillion and is about to take him to Louisiana. Winters asks that Dough be restrained from removing him and that he be hired out "to service where he may also attend to the prosecution of his case."
2. From Washington, D.C., July 1835. Jones H. Jenkins states that he is a free person of color illegally confined in the Washington County Jail, charged with being a runaway slave for the second time. On the first occasion, Jenkins was able to produce his freedom papers and be released by order of the court. In this instance, he asserts that his freedom papers were taken from him. Jenkins asks for a writ of habeas corpus.
3. From Orleans Parish, Louisiana, February 1836. Sally Gaston, a free woman of color also called Sally De Passau, represents that her daughter, Catherine, is illegally held in slavery by J. P. Nesbit. Sally Gaston represents that she was born in Randolph County, Illinois, and "brought up in the family & under the charge of James Gaston." When she was about eight years of age, she was kidnapped, brought to New Orleans, and sold to William Cecil, late of Jefferson Parish. She now resides in St. Claire County, Illinois. Sally avers that since she was born free and is now free, her daughter must be "deemed" free. She therefore asks the court to declare Catherine free. She also asks that Catherine be sequestered by the sheriff and hired out to a person "in whom implicit confidence may be placed" until the court has decided the case.
4. From Floyd County, Kentucky, April 1852. Jerry Mayo, who is "a free child of Couller and never was a Slave," joins other free people of color, who all sue by George Mayo, their next friend, in charging that William McReynolds and Drewry B. Brown hold them as slaves. Mayo asks "that all the proper orders be made and the plaintiff[s] ... be set at liberty."
5. From Orleans Parish, Louisiana, September 1816. John Peck claims that he is a free mulatto illegally held as a slave. According to Peck, he was born in Baltimore, Maryland, to a free mulatto woman named Lidia Peck. In 1813, Dennis Darling of the Mississippi Territory, "pretending" to be his owner, "made a bill of sale of him to Abele & Shambleton of Pensacola," who then sold him to Burton & Gorham of New Orleans. Peck prays for his freedom and asks that Burton & Gorham be condemned to pay him one dollar for every day of his imprisonment. In a related document, a witness testifying for the defense states that he owned a runaway slave by the name of William "answering very much to the description of the person now claiming his freedom." According to the witness, William's parents, named Jim Young and Priscilla, were both slaves; the latter still his property. Since the witness's identification of John Peck as William is in direct contradiction to that of another witness who knew both John and his mother Lidia in Baltimore, this may have been a case of mistaken identity.
As these abstracts show, many other slaves had experiences that were similar to those of Solomon Northup. Slavery and the Law provides documentation on these and many other topics covered in “Twelve Years a Slave,” such as the slave trade, slave punishment, runaway slaves, and much more. For students interested in the studying slavery, the petitions in ProQuest History Vault’s Slavery and the Law are an incredible source.
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