Slave documents available for researchers

October 26, 2012|Linda Irvin-Craig
  • Janina Wiles has been working for more than a year on cataloging thousands of official, hand-written original documents.
Submitted photo

Special to The Herald-Mail

For a change of pace from extolling the accomplishments of the Washington County Historical Society over its 100-year history, this month's column focuses on a current effort to enhance the offerings in the society's research library.

A significant collection of slave documents from Washington County has been indexed and catalogued. That collection is now available for serious researchers in the Simms Jamieson Memorial Library, which is in the lower level of the Miller House at 135 W. Washington St., downtown Hagerstown. The Miller House has two front doors: The upper one is to the house museum; the lower door to the left opens to the offices and library.

Many other records from the late 1700s to the early 1900s are yet to be completed as part of a project of cataloging thousands of official, hand-written original documents turned over to the Washington County Historical Society by the local courthouse.

Janina Wiles, who has been working on this project for more than a year, said she has enjoyed the challenges of reading the old script, where the "s" and "f" often appear the same, and deciphering the words and names for the index.  First sorting into categories, she then catalogued by name and date. She is now working to create a computerized database that will allow easy access. Each document has been placed in an acid-free sleeve for protection and some of the documents are extremely fragile.

"The manumission and slave certifications number 125 and together with all the Bills of Sale of slaves, fill an entire flat document file drawer," Wiles said. 

She calls this work her "big adventure." Two documents that go together caught her interest early on. She was impressed that Samuel W. Jones, through a bill of sale, purchased a slave from John T. Ankeney for $50 on Dec. 21, 1850, and then drew up manumission for this Jane Cosey on the same day.

"I have also found the release of very small children, several months to three years of age as separate documents," she said.

Spelling rules and punctuation were often nonexistent, and both were the stepchildren of stiff, formal and repetitious language in the execution of early legal documents, thus creating many challenges in transcribing the contents.

The document below believed to be from the Sharpsburg area was chosen for its brevity and simplicity for this reprinting. Edited a little with appropriate punctuation, but not spelling corrections, it is by far not the earliest record of slave manumission in Washington County. The earliest record is for Adam Ott who gave freedom to his "Negro Cloe" on Dec. 13, 1794.

"Know all men by these presents that I, Simeon Poffenberger of Washington County, & State of Maryland, have for and in consideration of my good will towards my Negroe Man Ned, manumated and from the date of these presents do liberate and set him free from my servitude, disclaiming ever hereafter having any right to services from him as my Slave and that he may enjoy his freedom undisturbed by me, my Heirs, Executors, Administrators or Assigns and for full assurance of perpetuating that freedom I do hereby warrant and defend his freedom. In witness whereof, I have hereunto set my hand and affixed my Seal this 30th day of July in the year of our Lord, Eighteen Hundred and Three."  Signed by Simeon Poffenberger and witnessed by John Good and George Smith.

With the following certification: "Washington County, Int. on the 30th day of July 1803 came Simeon Poffenberger before the Subscribers, two of the Justices of the Peace for the County aforesaid, and acknowledged the within Instrument of Writing to be his act and Deed for the purposes therein mentioned."  Again, signed by John Good and George Smith.

Most of the manumission documents fall into the period between 1820 and 1840. Many contained a planning period that provided from the slaveholder to the released person an accumulation of small monetary assets and allowed the subject some time to prepare for the huge change that would affect his or her life.

Wiles came into this project after it had been attempted by several students working on their Student Service Learning Hours toward graduation requirements. She took the information, reorganized the project and has corrected some early errors. 

Wiles has been working with staff to advance the project, which sat languishing for several years, as part of mentoring her on her journey to a better job. 

As a single mother with two small children, one of whom has major health issues, Janina continues to impress us. Our budget has been so impacted by the economic downturn of recent years that her determination to serve us well, while learning for her own benefit, makes her presence invaluable.  

She walks halfway across town each day that she can be here and I have observed her develop a sincere and fierce dedication to the preservation of local history. She reacts protectively with instruction about handling the documents, when other volunteers have come to assist.

In addition to the slave documents, this project will also address having old deeds, mortgages and bills of sales accessible for researchers.  Library patrons come from all over the United States throughout the year and from local surrounds to research their personal genealogy. Recent visitor logs show the origin of patrons as being from Muscatine, Iowa; Boreman, Mont.; Geneva, Fla.; Seguin, Texas; and St. Louis.

The library also offers research help, for a fee, to those who cannot come here to study on their own. Al Werking, a well-known genealogist, continues to provide his expert skills to this venture.

Visitors have also come to research questions like: Why did Nathaniel Rochester, founder of Hagerstown's first bank, leave Hagerstown shortly thereafter to found the city of Rochester, N.Y.? That is a question that our records didn't answer and neither did those in New York. And, local historians and authors use the document and photographic collection resources to prepare manuscripts, historical maps and markers.

Materials for this project were purchased with a grant from the Mary K. Bowman Historical and Fine Arts Fund, managed by the Community Foundation of Washington County.

The Jamieson Library is open 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. daily, Tuesday through Friday.  Call 301-797-8782 or visit for additional information. Donations are accepted for the use of the library and its collections.

Linda Irvin-Craig is executive director of the Washington County Historical Society. For more information, call 301-797-8782 or go to

Submitted photos

Janina Wiles has been working for more than a year on cataloging thousands of official, hand-written original documents.

This is one example of the documents Wiles has been cataloging.

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