Project FAQs

If you don't see an answer to your question below, please feel free to contact us, and we'll get back to you as soon as we are able. Thank you for your patience.

Do you have all court petitions related to race and slavery available?
Unfortunately, we do not. The Project now holds 2,975 legislative petitions and approximately 14,512 county court petitions. The massive number of surviving relevant county court petitions, estimated to be more than a quarter of a million, is dispersed in state archives and county courthouses across the South. Due to their wide distribution, the cost of travel and photocopying, the limited time for collection, and, in certain counties, the large number of petitions that mention slaves, the then-editor, Dr. Loren Schweninger, adopted the following selection procedures:
  1. Every major geographical region within each state is represented. For example, in Virginia, counties were selected from Appalachia (Scott), Shenandoah Valley (Franklin, Frederick), Piedmont (Albemarle, Amherst, Caroline, Fluvanna, Goochland), as well as the more densely black-populated Southside and Tidewater counties, and cities such as Richmond, Lynchburg, Norfolk, and Petersburg. Each state follows the same pattern, with selected counties from each major geographical region.
  2. All accessible petitions written on behalf of or by slaves and on behalf of or by free blacks from the selected counties were included.
  3. All accessible petitions written by slaveholding white women seeking divorce or alimony from the selected counties were included.
  4. The guiding principle for the collection of all other county court petitions was to select, after a thorough canvass, documents that reflect and represent the scope of the county's holdings.
In all, as of 2021 the Project has collected 17,487 petitions (legislative and county court) representing about half of the counties (606 of 1,127 in 1860) in the fifteen southern states.
Do you have copies of the original petitions?
Unfortunately, we are not able to provide copies of the original documents online at this time. If you're interested in a specific PAR or set of documents, please do not hesitate to contact us with your request and we will work with you to get you the information you need.
What is a PAR (Petition Analysis Record) Number?
Each set of documents, including the petition and all the documents related to it, is uniquely identified by an eight-digit PAR (Petition Analysis Record) number. The first digit in the number identifies legislative (1) versus county court (2 or 3) petitions. The next two digits indicate the state where the petition was filed. The numbering is in state alphabetical sequence. Since only the fifteen slaveholding states and the District of Columbia are represented in the collection, the numbering is from "01" (Alabama) to "16" (Virginia). The next three numbers represent the last three numbers of the filing year. The last two digits are used to uniquely identify a petition among petitions filed in the same year and the same state. More information may be found within the data dictionary.
How accurate is the information presented on the web site?
All information about individuals, events, dates, and places used to create the Project was taken from petitions and related documents submitted with the filing and trying of civil cases submitted by various individuals. The accuracy of this information therefore depends entirely on the accurate recollection, telling, and recording of these individuals, events, dates, and placed by the various individuals involved in the trying of the cases, including petitioners, defendants, witnesses, lawyers, and public officials. In some cases, inconsistent information regarding an individual, an event, a date or a place was found in multiple documents. In such cases, a "best guess" was made based on cross-checking and comparative analysis of the multiple documents.
One specific area where inaccuracy or inconsistency may be detected by users relates to the color of individuals identified as being enslaved or free people of color. The color of an individual was originally assigned based on the following two criteria. If an individual was specifically described by his or her color, then that color was used. Examples: a person described as black or very dark was assigned the color "black;" a person described as mulatto, or copper, or yellow, or dark mulatto, or light mulatto was assigned the color "mulatto." if an individual's color was not specifically provided, that person would be assigned the color "black" by default.
Do you have definitions of the names, terms, and attributes you apply to the data elements that are being used or captured in the database?
Yes. Our data dictionary is a collection of elements, definitions, and attributes about data elements that are being used or captured in the project. It describes the meanings and purposes of data elements within the context of the project, and provides guidance on interpretation, accepted meanings and representation. The metadata included in the Data Dictionary can assist in defining the scope and characteristics of data elements, as well the rules for their usage and application. In the interest of interoperability and shareability, it is important that the same elements, attributes, and values are used consistently.
There are some people with a race/color designation of "black" on the web site but this isn’t specified in the original documents. Why?
When this project was originally undertaken by historians in the 1990s and early 2000s, if an individual's color was not specifically provided, that person would be assigned the color "black" by default. This is not how we would approach the assignment of race or color to an individual today, which would instead be noted as "unstated" or "unknown". Please be aware of this discrepancy in the data when conducting your research. More information may be found within the data dictionary.
Do you have a statement of ethics?
The Race & Slavery Petitions Project is a part of the larger Digital Library on American Slavery, which operates under this statement of ethics.