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We continue to process more records from the Richmond City Hustings Court as a part of our NHPRC grant for Virginia Untold. As we do so, we are discovering documents that fall outside of our neatly established categories for record types for this project. One example is defined by various statements testifying to the free status of Black and multiracial individuals who were jailed as supposed enslaved “runaways” or because they were “going at large” without free papers. As we’ve been sharing, in 1793, the Virginia Legislature passed a law requiring all “free negroes and mulattoes” to be registered in their locality. In addition to recording their name and various details in a register book, the clerk was also to issue each free person a certificate with the same identifying information. The price of this “copy” was twenty-five cents.1 One could be jailed (and many were) if found traveling without this identification. Many of these individuals were likely commuting for work outside of the bounds of their registered locality.

When free people were jailed without documentation to prove their identity, they used their associations within the community to prove their free status. What resulted are letters, statements, and affidavits testifying to the character of these people who were not enslaved. For us, these letters paint a picture of connectivity between Black and white individuals within Richmond City and beyond. It also provides an even better understanding of just how many free people were wrongfully imprisoned.

Five separate individuals wrote on behalf of a man named William (Billy) Smith, who was apprehended for traveling without free papers and put into jail in March 1843. Many of the individuals, all of whom appear to be white men with some level of status within Albemarle County, repeated similar details regarding Smith’s character:

“I Richard Duke of the county and state aforesaid, do hereby certify, that a free negroe named Billy Smith who was put in Jail in the city of Richmond for the want of his free papers/ on or about the fifteenth Jul. is a free man. That the said negroe served his apprenticeship with Moses Peregog; who was in my employment as head Miller for eight or ten years. When the said negroe become free, he was employed by my neighbours, my self, and other, occasionally as a laborer; and on the ninth of this month he was employed by me as a hand on my Boat; my man cyrus head man. That in consequence of great negligence on the part of Moses Peregog his former Master; (who has left this County) and the great ignorance of the said negroe; he has not been registered; therefore his name is not to be found on record.”

Another witness, Frank Carr, wrote that Billy “had for several years as a wife, a negro woman belonging to Mr. Wm. W Minor a near neighbour of mine” and that “there is no doubt whatever, & it is well known throughout this entire neighbourhood, that the said Billy Smith’s claim to be free is clear & unquestionable.” Furthermore, John Minor, confirmed Billy’s service with Moses Peregog and mentioned that Billy “has a wife & children among my negroes…”

Officials must have determined this was sufficient evidence to let Smith go free. He was hired out as a free person to pay off his jail fees, a common occurrence in these situations. There are no indictment papers nor any explanation from the jail sergeant as to why or how Smith was apprehended; there are only two pages with a series of five separate statements of character. According to Richard Duke, Smith may not have been aware he needed to register as a free person. His former indenture holder, Moses Peregog, had failed to ensure that Smith was abiding by the 1793 law. He may have been traveling to Richmond City for work.

Some of these affidavits are meant to serve as a stand-in for free registration papers. For example, a man named Daniel Turner wrote a statement about David Rollins’s free status and then included a statement from the Clerk of Court in Caroline County, John Pendleton. Pendleton identified Rollins by his physical features: “a free boy of light complexion about five feet, three & three fourth inches high with a small dark mole under the right eye & a scar on the inside of the middle finger of the right hand…” Pendleton confirmed that Rollins had been registered in his office in Caroline County according to the Act of Assembly. Turner explained that Rollins should be released and allowed to “come up and get his free papers as I am told he has lost his.” Rollins was seventeen years old when he was jailed.

A similar situation happened to John Monroe. The clerk from Petersburg, D. M. Bernard, actually copied Monroe’s physical details from the entry in the 1819-1833 volume of the Petersburg City register. Bernard concluded the copied entry by adding “This certificate is furnished the Sergeant of the City of Richmond in whose custody the said John Monroe now is upon suspicion of being a run=away [sic] slave, and is to be destroyed as soon as the said John shall be discharged.”

Upon receipt of supporting documentation provided by Petersburg Hustings Court Clerk D. M. Bernard, Monroe was released from jail in Richmond and hired out to pay for his jail fees.

Satisfyingly, I was able to confirm that Bernard accurately copied this information from a real register entry. I found Monroe’s name in two separate entries in the Petersburg “Register of Free Negroes and Mulattoes” volumes. Bernard first recorded Monroe in 1820 with his mother, Venus Hogan, and his three siblings, Nancy Ampey, Betsy Bolling, and Wyatt Sykes.2 Bernard included a note in the margin to also see entry number 1933. Monroe had registered a second time in 1831 and the details from this entry align nearly verbatim with the language Bernard wrote in the letter testifying to Monroe’s free status:

“John Monroe (son of Venus) a free boy of color was this day duly registered according to law, and is of the following description to wit: 5 feet six inches high, about 19 years old—dark brown complexion has a speck [on] his right eye—and a scar on his upper lip—was born free as appears by a former registry in this office.”3

In addition to confirming that Monroe was in fact a free man living in Petersburg, this entry also provides the name of his mother and several siblings, along with other genealogical information that can aid researchers in searching for his life story. This is one of the ultimate goals of Virginia Untold—making more records available in order tell a fuller story of someone’s life. We are still working to get the Petersburg registers fully indexed through our crowd-sourcing transcription platform From the Page so they can be available for searching through Virginia Untold.

Some free individuals, like Robert Goldman, were charged as “runaways”—enslaved people attempting to escape slavery. Goldman was committed to a jail in Goochland County, but he was actually from Richmond. In some way or another, he got word to William Miller, who wrote on his behalf asking that he be released and “a copy of this order be delivered to him for the purpose of authorising him to return with safety to the said City of Richmond.” Goldman must have been successful; in order for this document to show up in the Richmond City Hustings Court papers, after being released from jail, Goldman should have carried this statement to the clerk of court in Richmond, who filed it among his records and wrote Goldman a new registration document.

Free man Robert Goldman was wrongfully jailed as an enslaved person for attempting escape.

A boy named Jim may have been jailed on purpose by the man for whom he was working. John Dougherty tried to come to his aid by writing to the jailor in Richmond City all the way from Carlisle, Kentucky:

“I am induced to write to you on the subject of the within named boy as Wm Smedly is not at home; and I am one of the Family Conexion I deem it but Justice to the Boy to say that he hired him silfe to Jeremiah Orear to drive hogs to your place; and Orear has not returned yet and from present information I am induced to believe that he Orear may have had a hand in putting him to Jail as he has surfed his Bills of Exchange to be protested and I am indorsed to the amount of $2500 for him; you will sir by giving me information [[struck]: in any way] by letter confer a favor on you.” 

The letter is not dated, nor is any other information provided. In some cases, like that of Jim’s, we don’t know the outcome for these individuals.

The clerk wrote on the outside of the letter, ``Jim - certificate concerning freedom`` but no other details as to whether Jim was released or given registration papers.

These documents have challenged us to think outside of the [archival] box when it comes to processing and digitizing documents for Virginia Untold. In many ways, the letters serve as records of free status. Are they technically “Free Negro Registrations?” Many do not contain the identifying characteristics inherent to most free registration documents, i.e., name, height, complexion, emancipation status, etc. Can we file them as jail reports? If so, how do we distinguish between those who were jailed as enslaved people and those who were free? What would you do if you were responsible for categorizing these documents?

Consider that these letters represent just a small fraction of free Black and multiracial individuals who were put into a jail. It’s interesting to note that this sample does not include statements written on behalf of free Black or multiracial women. We are looking forward to processing a new record type in the coming year: jail reports, which provide a fuller understanding of the lengths to which Richmond City went to criminalize the act of “going at large.” These short lists compiled by the City Sergeant include names of both men and women. Some of these witness statements and jail reports will be on display in an upcoming exhibition for Black History Month, featuring a variety of records found in the Richmond City Hustings Court. More details about this exhibition will be posted in the coming month!

These documents are a part of the Richmond (City) Ended Causes, 1800-1840. These records are currently closed for processing, scanning, indexing, and transcription, a project made possible through a National Historical Publications and Records Commission (NHPRC) grant. NHPRC provides advice and recommendations for the National Archives grants program. An announcement will be made when these records are added to the Virginia Untold project.


  1. Samuel Shepherd, ed., The Statutes at Large of Virginia, From October Session 1792, to December Session 1806, Inclusive, in Three Volumes, (New Series,) Being a Continuation of Hening (Richmond, Virginia: Samuel Shepherd, 1835), 1:238.
  2. (link to this document on From the Page transcription platform, accessed on 29 November 2022, but subject to be taken down once transcribed).
  3. (link to this document on From the Page transcription platform, accessed on 29 November 2022, but subject to be taken down once transcribed).


Register of Free Negroes and Mulattoes, 1819-1833, Petersburg City Circuit Court Records, Library of Virginia, Richmond, Va.

Shepherd, Samuel ed. The Statutes at Large of Virginia, From October Session 1792, to December Session 1806, Inclusive, in Three Volumes, (New Series,) Being a Continuation of Hening (Richmond, Virginia: Samuel Shepherd, 1835).

Lydia Neuroth

Project Manager - Virginia Untold

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