When looking at racial issues today in the United States, it’s important to look back in history to see where we were, where we’ve come, and where we need to go. One aspect of the history of enslavement of African Americans that may not be well known is that it existed legally in the northern states until almost the time of the civil war.
Slavery was an accepted source of labor in Pennsylvania from the 1600s, starting in the Philadelphia area and spreading westward as colonists moved farther and farther out looking for land and economic opportunities. Although the scope was on a smaller scale than in the south, with most owners holding only a few enslaved people, heavily restrictive laws and physical violence also existed in Pennsylvania. During the War of Independence, abolitionists in the state advocated for an end to slavery in keeping with revolutionary ideals of liberty and equality.
In March of 1780, Pennsylvania passed what is considered the first abolition law in the western hemisphere. Unfortunately, the law was not as final and absolute as the later Emancipation Proclamation. Entitled The Gradual Abolition Act of 1780, it kept current slaves living in the state in bondage, as long as their owners annually registered them with authorities. Children born to enslaved mothers would be considered indentured servants until they reached the age of 28, when they would be granted their freedom. The importation of enslaved people from other states was banned, but a loophole was created that allowed non-state residents to bring in slaves for periods of no longer than six months. This exception was used by President George Washington, who brought his servants to Philadelphia when the city was the new nation’s capital. He had his slaves periodically brought back and forth from Virginia, timed so that they never remained in Pennsylvania long enough to gain emancipation.
Because of these provisions, slavery in the state lingered well into the 1840s, with people of African ancestry still held either as slaves or as indentured servants. Some of these people resisted their continued bondage, and were involved in court actions challenging their status.
On my mother’s side of the family tree, my 5th great-grandfather was John DeCamp (c. 1743-1778). Born of a Huguenot family that moved progressively west, from New York City to New Jersey to Pennsylvania, John had settled in western Pennsylvania by the 1770s, now part of Westmoreland County. The area was still officially part of Virginia up to that time, a state with a strong slave holding tradition. His wife Susannah (maiden name may have been Gray) and their children lived with him there until his death in 1778. Susannah remarried less than a year later to Nehemiah Stokely, a first lieutenant in a local revolutionary war regiment. Nehemiah died in 1792, and Susannah stayed with her children in the area of Sewickley and North Huntingdon, Westmoreland County, collecting a widow’s pension for her second husband’s military service.
The time period of these events, from 1780 to the early 1800s, coincides with gradual abolition of slavery in Pennsylvania, and the involvement of my 5th great-grandmother Susannah Decamp Stokely has been documented in government records. In 1780, the state’s slave registry was compiled under the requirements of the abolition act. In Westmoreland County, there was a listing for the household of John DeCamp and Nehemiah Stokely (John’s estate was passing to Nehemiah). There were seven enslaved people enumerated: Syres (male age 35), Nan (female age 40), Melsey (female age 14), Prince (male age 6), Nance (female age 4), Pegg (female age 1 year 11 months), and Frank (female age 10 months). In the 1790 United States census, Nehemiah Stokely owned 5 slaves, while in the 1800 census, Susannah is listed as “widow Stokely”, head of a household with 5 slaves, and by 1810 she was living with 2 slaves.
In a Pennsylvania Supreme Court case of 1815, the plaintiff, identified as “Negro Peggy”, claimed free status, because she wasn’t registered in a second slave registry created in 1782. The additional registry was allowed for the Pennsylvania counties of Westmoreland and Washington, due to confusion about which state governed residents living along the newly drawn Virginia/Pennsylvania state line. The court ruled that because Peggy was listed in the 1780 registry, she didn’t have to also appear in the 1782 version, so she was deemed still a slave.
In the Supreme Court records of 1821, a suit was brought by Susannah claiming the services of a “negro girl named Nance”, daughter of “Milley, a coloured woman”. The court found that Nance should be considered free, as her mother Milley was free at the time of Nance’s birth. The woman Milley may have been the same “Melsey” in the 1780 registry; a “defect in the registry” is cited as a factor in the dispute.
Slavery remained legal in parts of the north nearly up until the time that the civil war completely and finally ended it. Its lingering affects today are one of the issues our nation continues to face.
- Slavery and the Slave Trade by James Gigantino, The Encycyclopedia of Greater Philadelphia 2012, Rutgers University
- Pennsylvania officially abolished slavery in 1780. But many black Philadelphians were in bondage long after that, by Cassie Owens 2019, The Philadelphia Inquirer
- Gradual Abolition Act of 1780, George Washington’s Mount Vernon, mountvernon.org 2020
- Old and New Westmoreland by John N. Boucher, Vol. 1, The American Historical Society 1918
- Reports of cases adjudged in the Supreme Court of Pennsylvania: 1815 -1816, Thomas Sergeant 1851
- Reports of cases adjudged in the Supreme Court of Pennsylvania, Vol. 13, Thomas Sergeant and William Rawle 1846