Review: Michael Hait, Delaware Slave Claims Commission
Michael Hait, transcriber, Slave Claims Commission, 1864-1867, Volume One, Register of Claims of Delware Commission as kept by the Commission, Recd. A. G. C. May 24, 1865 (Hait Family History Research Services, www.haitfamilyresearch.com, 2010). Pp [iii] 32. Paper $9.99, e-book download $6.99.
Michael Hait has published what promises to be the first of fourteen interesting volumes of transcripts from records of claims by slave owners in Maryland, Kentucky, Missouri, Tennessee and West Virginia. These slavemasters claimed compensation for slaves they alleged to have owned who joined the U.S. Army during the Civil War. War Department General Order 329, issued October 3, 1863, authorized any loyal owner in Federal-controlled states whose slave joined the military service to be compensated up to $300 “for the service or labor of said slave.” To qualify for compensation slave owners had to apply to a special state commission and present proof of personal loyalty, proof of ownership of the claimed slave, proof that the slave had enlisted in the military, and a deed of manumission freeing the slave.
In his handsome 40-page booklet, Hait transcribes the entire “Register of Claims” documenting the 114 claims submitted in Delaware. He includes a well-written and informative introduction that describes the history of the Delaware Slave Claims Commission, its records, and the process for submitting claims. Hait includes two name indexes, one for “claimants” and one for “slaves.” The latter index is more accurately an index of “claimed slaves” since it does not index every slave named in the register; for example John H. Twiford’s claim for slave Joseph Smith is annotated, “Claim postponed for want of proof of descent from Henrietta the slave mentioned in the Bill of Sale” — but Henrietta is not indexed.
There are actually at most 106 owner-slave pairings among the 114 petitions, but some of the other eight petitions hint at intriguing stories. Two scoundrels tried to claim government compensation for men who were not slaves but were actually free apprentices (claims 27 and 103). Three other men claimed compensation for enlistees who were “not a slave or convict servant” – the term “convict servant” is new to me, but may refer to a practice of selling free persons of color, after conviction for crime, into servitude for a term of years. One claim was resubmitted with corrected information (claims 1 and 104), another was rejected because the claimant was not the legal owner and was disloyal (claim 102). Reasons that the commissioners denied claims included disloyalty, lack of documentation, death of claimants–and even the stubborn refusal by at least one claimant (claim 107) to execute manumission papers as late as March 1865!
By transcribing and publishing these little-known records, Hait significantly expands our reference library of the records of American slavery and the lives of slaves on the cusp of emancipation. Their historical and genealogical significance must be evaluated in a context much greater than the two hundred or so people named therein. For instance, by pairing last slave owners’ names with slaves’ names, this book offers yet another set of data into our ongoing exploration of how ex-slaves selected surnames and what names they chose. Thirty-two (30%) of these Delaware soon-to-be-ex-slaves shared a surname with their soon-to-be-ex-slave-owners; seventy-five (70%) did not. I have argued elsewhere that patterns of surname selection varied by region, with the northern-most slave states more likely to show mismatches between surnames of ex-slaves and surnames of last-ex-slave owners than states in the Deep South, and Delaware was certainly among the most unusual of antebellum U.S. slave states. Claim no. 75 raises the interesting problem of a slave who apparently enlisted under a different name (George H. Biddle) from the name by which his owner called him (George W. Davis) in his claim. Cases like this remind us that as early as 1865 freedpeople were choosing new identities different from the ones by which they had been known in slavery; such examples urge us to remain open-minded to very dynamic and varied possibilities when tracing freedpeople’s histories by researching surnames.