Documenting the World of Outlander #3: The Records of Enslaved Persons

[This post was written by Alison Thurman and Josh Hager, Reference Archivists]

This blog is intended as a “bonus feature” for fans of Outlander who want to explore the world of Jamie and Claire through original documents housed at the State Archives of North Carolina. SPOILERS for the second episode of Season 4!

Outlander, the hit series from Starz, has officially arrived in colonial North Carolina. This season, Jamie and Claire will traverse the state from Wilmington to the mountains. The State Archives of North Carolina will join them on this journey as we showcase documents that provide a window into their world. Welcome to our biweekly series, Documenting the World of Outlander, wherein each new entry in our series will focus on one topic that appears on screen in Outlander.

This week, we tackle the most tragic aspect of the colony to which Jamie and Claire have migrated—slavery. In the second episode of Season 2, Jamie and Claire arrive at River Run, a plantation in Cross Creek (modern day Fayetteville) owned by Jamie’s aunt, Jocasta. At first, Jamie intends on manumitting the over 120 enslaved persons owned by Jocasta when he inherits River Run, but he finds out that granting sweeping manumission is rather difficult in North Carolina. The most tragic moments of this episode arrive when Jamie and Claire become involved in a dispute where an enslaved man named Rufus struck his overseer. Rufus is “sentenced” to death without a trial. Jamie and Claire try to rescue Rufus from his unjust fate, but their rescue attempt becomes moot when white residents of River Run fatally assault Rufus. This episode captures a part of the tragedy that was the institution of slavery in colonial North Carolina. In this entry, we want to show where in our records you can find out more about enslaved persons and their stories.

Before we begin in earnest, we want to make a quick caveat. In most official, i.e. government-created, archival records both in North Carolina and elsewhere in the US, the experiences of enslaved persons show up through what slaveowners and people in positions of power documented about those enslaved persons. It is one of the many tragic elements of the institution of slavery that the stories of so many people are lost to history because enslaved persons, lacking the legal designation of personhood, could not create their own official records. The existence of diaries, letters, and other writings from enslaved and formerly enslaved persons provide a rare but immeasurably valuable counterbalance on the preponderance of the archival record.

We will examine records from State Agency collections that speak to the experiences of enslaved persons. The County Records hold a great deal of material as well, but we’ll save those records for another spotlight down the road. We’ll first focus on the North Carolina General Assembly. Jamie’s frustration that manumission was difficult in North Carolina stems from strict laws passed by the General Assembly to prevent the practice of anti-slavery persons from buying enslaved persons expressly to then free all of them. The General Assembly did occasionally consider petitions for manumission from slaveowners, particularly if an enslaved person (in the eyes of the slaveowner) demonstrated merit through extraordinary actions. One of the earliest examples of such a petition in the General Assembly Session Records appears after statehood in the 1790 session, wherein George Merrick of New Hanover County asked for permission to manumit Richard, Dolly, and Nathan. The result of the petition is unknown, but at least one member of the House of Commons wrote to the Speaker to express his opposition to manumission. If Jamie and Claire had tried to manumit the enslaved persons at River Run, the petition included here would have represented the start of a cumbersome process designed to bury the applicants and enslaved persons in a bureaucratic rigamarole and ultimately deter the applicant from proceeding any further.

General Assembly Session Records

General Assembly Session Records. Session of November-December 1790. Box 3. Senate Bill. Bill to Permit George Merrick to Emancipate Certain Slaves (Petition and Messages only). November 22.

If you would like to examine the early General Assembly records for yourself, you’re in luck. All the surviving General Assembly Session Records from 1709 through 1799 are now available on our Digital Collections site. Among the collection you’ll find other petitions for manumission as well as laws relating to slavery, claims for monetary value from owners looking to redress a financial grievance involving enslaved persons, and other miscellaneous records relating to enslaved persons. These records are not typically catalogued at the name level, so we encourage you to browse through the records to see if you find any items that interest you.

Looking beyond the General Assembly records, there are several other state agency record groups where you can find further documentation of enslaved persons. In the District Superior Court Record Group, for example, you can find estate files from large land owners that often contain listings of enslaved persons as part of the inventory of the decedent’s property. We will focus here on a rarely-utilized portion of the Secretary of State Record Group—the records of the Magistrates and Freeholders Court. The records of this court consist of only one box and spans from 1740 to 1789. The Magistrates and Freeholders Court had the explicit function of trying enslaved persons in capital cases. Far from a trial by jury, a legal right first afforded to enslaved persons in 1791, the Magistrates and Freeholders Court consisted of several slaveowners who acted as judges of guilt and handed down death sentences as a matter of course. As Outlander demonstrated, not all enslaved persons suspected of a “crime” went before the Magistrates and Freeholders Court; some slaveowners conducted summary executions without any legal actions, although taking the law into their own hands was not technically legal. In the example provided below, John MacKenzie of New Hanover County has taken an enslaved person named Peter to the Magistrates and Freeholders Court on charges of burglary on March 15, 1757. Peter was found guilty and sentenced to hang. Note that the relatively sparse record of this hearing also demonstrates that the Magistrates and Freeholders made sure to compensate Mr. MacKenzie eighty pounds for the loss of property.

Secretary of State

Secretary of State Record Group. Series XVIII: Recordkeeping, Courts, Box 1. Magistrates and Freeholders Courts, 1740-1789. Sentencing of Peter of New Hanover County, March 15, 1757.

Jamie and Claire are repulsed by what transpires at River Run with just cause, as the historical record demonstrates the horrible situations that enslaved persons faced every day in Colonial North Carolina and up until emancipation in 1865. While Jamie and Claire left River Run and embarked further into the colony, their experiences with slavery would persist with them throughout the course of their adventures in the colony. We should also keep this context in mind when experiencing the ups and downs of Colonial North Carolina over the course of their story.

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