Court records are our best sources for slave data
Last Friday I telephoned the Thomaston-Upson County Archives in Georgia to say “hello” and to catch up with news of recent accessions. Bonnie, the archivist’s assistant and chief collection arranger, described to me an exciting recent donation from the attic of a matriarch of a long-time resident family: forty cubic feet of material, some of it dating well back into the nineteenth century! Among the papers, Bonnie has found four slave bills of sale. Of course, I am itching to explore the treasures of that collection, especially looking for documents from the slavery and Reconstruction periods. But on reflection, my excitement over four bills of sale reminds me how rare are these “plantation records” or slave owners’ private papers, whether in archival collections or still hidden in private possession. So much of success in slavery research depends on serendipity that if we relied on these randomly-saved records alone we could be easily discouraged. On the other hand, Upson County court records publicly preserve, in a methodical way, personal information about 6,000 named slaves. As important as slave owners’ private papers may be (if preserved), our most fruitful sources remain the public records.