Field Trip, days 2-5: Southern Historical Association Annual Meeting

The Southern Historical Association meeting was fun for me; although as usual many interesting panel presentations were scheduled simultaneously.  For instance, Andrew Slap of East Tennessee State University gave a talk entitled “Reconstructing Lost Lives: African American Veterans During Reconstruction” that I did not get to hear because it was scheduled at the same time as another talk I was attending (I hate how they do that!).

Ed Baptist from Cornell gave an interesting talk, “A New Census of One Segment of the Internal Slave Trade: Natchez, 1825-1829.”  He used New Orleans notarial records, and a set of Natchez, Mississippi, notarial records that are privately owned.  The value of Louisiana notarial records to document slave sales is not news to historians or genealogists (see for example Walter Johnson’s 1999 book, Soul by Soul: Life Inside the Antebellum Slave Market), but the data set Baptist uses involves 1500 slaves transported in the interstate trade, and includes not just who the slaves were sold to in Louisiana and Mississippi, but also who the traders bought them from in the eastern states, mainly Virginia and Maryland.  This unusual information is due to state laws that required certificates of good character from the slaves’ old neighborhood.

I was pleased when Baptist mentioned that such records were important to link the identities of slaves from one place to another so that some biographical fragments could be assembled for individuals.  Historians seldom acknowledge that reconstructing individual slaves’ lives is an important project.  Baptist says he is trying to publish his data set online, but he is finding it “harder than it would seem.”

I was pleased to see the National Archives, Altanta Branch, presenting an exhibit among the booksellers in the grand ballroom at the meeting.   I picked up free copies (your tax dollars at work!) of three reference booklets or pamphlets I had not seen before:

(1)  Military Service records at the National Archives (Reference Information Paper 109).  This glossy, well-illustrated, 130-page booklet covers the myriad of record groups that could be useful to find former US (and Confederate) service members, including records that we usually don’t think of as service records, for example: Navy ships’ deck logs.

(2)  The African Slave Trade.  This 12-page publication of the National Archives, Southeast Region, lists and describes over a hundred case files from the records of US District Courts in the states of Alabama, Georgia, North Carolina, and South Carolina.  All the cases deal with the trans-Atlantic slave trade, mainly ships captured by federal authorities after the international ban on the African Slave Trade.  Some are cases involving other legal issues where the mention of slaves was incidental.  Curiously, the records from US District Court, Charleston, include four case files dating to 1717-1719–obviously predating the US court system.

There is a bizarre statement by the anonymous author of the Introduction to this leaflet on page 3:  “It is estimated that the total number of slaves brought into the U.S. illegally during the first half of the 19th century was approximately 1.2 million.”  No source is cited for this absurdly impossible number.  Actual illegal imports after 1808 can be estimated in the hundreds, maybe a couple of thousand at the most.   See my discussion of this topic using the census as an estimating tool:

(3) Description of Records Available [at the Altanta Branch] for Researching the Civil War.  This pamphlet is 36 pages, describing each record Group available at the Altanta Branch of the National Archives.

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