This month Fold3.com is making their Danish West Indian records, called Slavery and Emancipation, free in honor of Black History Month. The collection is a digitization of NARA’s 11 roll microfilm publication M-1883 from College Park, MD. The collection is of interest for DWI historians and genealogists alike. There are some interesting items in this collection that I have found useful for my research and have helped me understand more of my family.
NARA Publication M1883 entitled “Selected Records of the Danish West Indies, 1672-1917: Essential Records concerning Slavery and Emancipation”, consists of records selected and microfilmed by Paul Rood at NARA in 2002. The records in this film are from the Record Group 55 (RG55) collection in College Park and are the first microfilms produced from the collection. The images are of very high quality and the digitization is first-rate. The collection is a sampling of RG55 records and is organized into several broad groups:
- 1848 Slave Revolt
- Emancipation and Beyond
- General Records
- Royal Blacks
- Slave Auctions
- Slave Loans
Not all of the records are broadly useful, and some are in Danish. Others, however, are very useful. In particular, the Census collection is very useful. I have researched them extensively and found a good bit of information there.
- 6 pages from the 1835 St Croix Census, the oldest census I know of, and 83 images from the 1847 Census missing from Ancestry.com’s collection (Ancestry has them indexed, but not images; the Ancestry images are from the documents in the Danish Royal Archives)
- Freedom Charters, a book listing Free Blacks, indicating dates of freedom and witnesses thereto
- Lists of Baptisms, Marriages, and Burials of the Black Inhabitants, 1820-41
- Register of Black Communicants 1819-1835, which appears to be a listing from the St Croix Lutheran Church
- Registers of Free Blacks (men, women, children), 1831-1832
The Registers of Free Blacks are of particular importance. There are books for Christiansted, Frederiksted, St Thomas, and St John. The Christiansted and Frederiksted registers refer to jurisdictional districts, not towns. That is, the Christiansted collection includes all free blacks living in town as well as any of the plantations that lie in the Christiansted jurisdiction (the east side). The picture above is from the Christiansted Register of Free Black Men showing several van Beverhoudts.
These books were created as a result of a special census conducted in 1831-1832 to register all freedmen in the DWI. This acts as a census of the entire free black population, 10 years earlier than the oldest complete census we have. Among other information, It lists persons by name, occupation, and freedom date (or freeborn). It also lists color. Since many people were of mixed race, they were classified according to degree of mixture: Black (child of two Africans), Mulatto (child of a black and a white), Mustice (child of a mulatto and a white), Sambo (child of a mulatto and an African). Although indicated, I’m not sure how accurate the mixture record is, but it shows that the degree of mixture was considered like in the American South. The registers are in Danish, but the names are easy to read.
The Freedom Charters: A Register of the Free Colored and the Documents Proving Their Status, 1815–30 are another interesting collection as they indicate not only slaves freed during that time, but slaves that had been freed prior as well. Often these documents indicate plantations or households the slaves were attached to, who freed them, and when. These records are in Danish.
The Emancipation Records include a small set of letters of emancipation often written in the hand of the slave owner. Since they were written by citizens and not the government, most of them are in English and are fairly legible. While there are few of them, they make for an interesting read.
Of particular interest is the collection entitled Lists of Slaveholders and Freed Slaves on St. Croix,1848–53. Since slavery was abolished in 1848, this lists all of the slaves freed and their owners. The books include indexes made at the time for page references.
Many people don’t realize that when slavery was abolished throughout the Caribbean, the governments paid compensation to the slave owners for their lost property. This is very like the Government paying homeowners for land when they wish to build a highway through a populated area. In order to handle the payments, the island government needed an accurate accounting of all slaves freed.
Most of the rest of the collection is of great interest to the historian, but limited interest to genealogists. There are, for example, a couple of collections that document the slave revolt of 1848 that triggered the emancipation. These records are almost entirely in Danish, however.
So, take some time this month and have a look at the collection on Fold3 while the records are free. After the month is over, these records are only viewable if you have a subscription or if you have access to NARA’s microfilms.