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In 1780, the Pennsylvania State Assembly passed one of the first attempts in the country to abolish slavery. While the act did not provide for the immediate emancipation of all slaves living in the Commonwealth, it did call for the gradual abolition of slavery within the boundaries of Pennsylvania. As part of the act, slave owners were required to annually register their slaves, failure to do so would result in the slave being granted their freedom. The act prohibited additional importation of slaves into Pennsylvania. All slaves held in Pennsylvania and born prior to 1780 were to remain slaves for their entire lives as long as their owners complied with registering them every year. Children born to female slaves would be technically classified as ‘indentured servants’ and made to serve their mother’s owner until the age of 28. Unfortunately, no slave registers appear to have survived the intervening centuries for Franklin County; however, the first 1780 register for Cumberland County does exist and has details concerning slaves and owners from just Franklin County. The information there includes names, ages, and locations.
Estate Papers often provide the names of slaves owned by a particular individual. Estate papers include wills, administration accounts, inventories, and vendue lists. A will often will list the name of a slave and who they will be bequeathed to when the slave owner passes away. The will sometimes also provides instructions for a slave’s freedom or other stipulations pertaining to the slave’s future after the owner’s death. Some administration accounts also provide slave names and other information pertaining to slaves. An inventory will usually list the number of slaves in an owner’s estate and may include additional information such as names, ages, relations, and conditions for freedom. The vendue list provides the results of the owner’s estate sale and records who purchased the slave. Estate papers are available from the beginning of the county in 1784 on forward. Additionally, there are wills from before the formation of Franklin County when the county was a part of Cumberland County. A comprehensive search still needs to be made of Cumberland and Lancaster County estate papers and those areas which constitute Franklin County to ascertain additional information concerning slavery in the county.
In some instances, an owner would have traveled to the Register’s office to register the manumission of one of their slaves. These manumissions would often include any terms or conditions for the slave’s freedom. They may include additional information such as age of the slave, the date of their expected freedom, and past and current owners. Slave owners would also register the sale of slaves or the transfer of a slave from one person to another. Manumission and deed records date from the beginning of the county in 1784. A comprehensive search still needs to be made of Cumberland and Lancaster County register records and those areas which constitute Franklin County to ascertain additional information concerning slavery in the county.
Tax records often provide the name of the owner and any taxable goods of that person including the number of slaves and servants they paid taxes on for that year. Owners did not pay taxes on all their slaves but it looks like only adult slaves and not young or elderly slaves. Tax records provide a good base on who were slave owners and when in the County’s history and that information was then used to cross-reference their estate papers for any references to the slave’s names. County tax records are available online from 1784 to 1807. Tax records after 1807 are available at the State Archives in Harrisburg. These may include additional references to slavery in the county. The Cumberland County Archives has made available all of their tax records online and are available on their website.
There are additional resources available on the Franklin County Archives website that can also assist in your research.
Our getting started page provides a helpful list of all the different kinds of records available in the county and explains the type of information.
Lists other historical organizations and libraries around the area that help preserve, maintain, and present Franklin County's history and offer other valuable information.