Slave project: 'Four feet high very healthy, and I consider her worth Three Hundred dollars'

2012-04-10T22:00:00Z 2015-10-08T10:46:06Z Slave project: 'Four feet high very healthy, and I consider her worth Three Hundred dollars'By PETER SALTER / Lincoln Journal Star
April 10, 2012 10:00 pm  • 

The slave owner sat down, 150 years ago, and took stock of his stock.

He described Mary as matter-of-factly as if he were describing his horse, or his plow, or a piece of his furniture.

Dark -- about 5 feet 1 inch in height. Stout healthy girl -- has not been confined to her bed a day since I have owned her, which has been upwards of seven years.

All of the other masters, too, in Washington, D.C., were busy that spring and early summer of 1862, assessing their slaves and assigning values to the lives of more than 3,000 other human beings.

They were filling out the paperwork for the Compensated Emancipation Act, the lesser-known forerunner to the Emancipation Proclamation that President Lincoln would sign eight months later, freeing millions of slaves and further dividing the country.

The first act was limited to the boundaries of Washington, D.C. And although it ordered slave owners there to free all of their slaves, it paid them something in return.

Harriet is an old woman but very hearty for her age ... Wm is in the prime of life in good health, a first rate gardener, house servant and waiter, and worth at least $1500 ... Sallie Soper, is sound & healthy I know of no moral, mental, or bodily infirmities ... Charlotte Fletcher, female aged 9 months. She is of black color and a healthy and lively infant, and only valued at $50.

Fifteen decades later, a team of University of Nebraska-Lincoln scholars and students is transcribing, analyzing and archiving the slave owners' petitions for compensation -- and putting them online.

"These documents are not very accessible for others to study," said English professor Ken Price. "I think we're making a major contribution just in making the raw material available."

The documents were scheduled to be unveiled Wednesday at a ceremony at the National Archives in Washington to mark the 150th anniversary of the Compensated Emancipation Act.

The UNL team has posted 200 of the 1,000 or so petitions on its Civil War Washington website ( -- an examination of life in the capital during the war. It hopes to post them all by next summer.

Transcribing the petitions can be sobering work. The slave owners recorded their slaves' age, size, complexion, health, skills and estimated value.

One person putting a price on another.

"They were mercenary. They viewed their slaves in monetary terms, their economic value. We get a look at their mentality that to us today, to me, is frightening," said history professor Ken Winkle, who traveled to Washington for Wednesday's commemoration.

Petitions described scars, hobbles, burns to the face -- signs of hard, brutal lives. One resonated with Winkle: A doctor wrote that one of his slaves often was  depressed, but he considered it of no consequence at all.

"It's not just the physical impact, it's the psychological impact, and the slave owners were oblivious to it."

Price was struck by a slave owner with eight or 10 slaves, who recorded their physical descriptions but could only guess at their ages.

A simple -- but chilling -- omission.

"Every single one of them was listed: about such and such an age," Price said. "Such a small thing like not knowing your age, it's astonishing."

But the UNL team sees tremendous value in its work, in the telling of a largely overlooked story.

Scholars studying slavery, emancipation, African-American history or the Civil War will benefit, Winkle said. As will students and teachers and the public and genealogists, tracing a family history of slavery or slave-ownership.

"There's so much to learn," Winkle said.

The Compensated Emancipation was viewed as an experiment that preceded the full emancipation months later. President Lincoln signed the D.C. act April 16, allotting an average of $300 per slave -- about a third of a slave's market value -- for a total of $900,000.

"There were so many opposed to emancipation that predicted so many horrible consequences that freeing a relatively small number of slaves ... with positive outcomes was a way to reduce people's fears," Winkle said.

The predicted race war never happened, he said. Nor did slave owners flee D.C. with their slaves. "It went completely smoothly."

Many of the former slaves thrived in Washington because of the demand for labor. Some joined the Army. Others moved to freedmen camps. But by 1870, 70 percent of D.C.'s freed slaves had moved, most of them to the north, Winkle said.

And the petitions -- in flowing and sometimes illegible script -- were put into storage, and later microfilmed, and later resurrected digitally in Nebraska.

That's one of the hallmarks of digital scholarship, Price said. Instead of a scholar reading and distilling all the evidence and then publishing the results and conclusions, something like the Civil War Washington project can publish, electronically, all of the evidence.

And readers can draw their own conclusions.

"You can quarrel with the morality of people compensating slave owners for owning another human being," Price said. "But one side effect is that it documented, in detail, a community, an entire community of African-Americans in one moment of time."

It's astonishing, he added, how recent that moment in time was.

Reach Peter Salter at 402-473-7254 or

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