2016 Slavery Research Process

by Mary T. Freeman

The faculty, students, and staff who have researched the historic connections between Columbia University and slavery have uncovered many valuable facts and archival sources that shed new light on this important topic. Nevertheless, they have also confronted significant challenges in their work, chief among them the difficulty of finding records of the experiences of individual enslaved people who were owned by affiliates of King’s and Columbia College. This page describes the research process, points out limitations of existing sources, and summarizes some of the findings related to individual slaves.

“[B]ut then his idea of a fugitive was only an idea of the letters that spell the word,—or at the most, the image of a little newspaper picture of a man with a stick and bundle with ‘Ran away from the subscriber’ under it. The magic of the real presence of distress,—the imploring human eye, the frail, trembling human hand, the despairing appeal of helpless agony,—these he had never tried. He had never thought that a fugitive might be a hapless mother, a defenceless child,—like that one which was now wearing his lost boy's little well-known cap...”

Harriet Beecher Stowe, Uncle Tom’s Cabin (1852)
Runaway slave poster

In this quotation, which describes the attitude of a United States senator towards the Fugitive Slave Law of 1850, Harriet Beecher Stowe captures some of the challenges faced by researchers in investigating the history of individual enslaved people. One of the goals of the Columbia University and Slavery project has been to identify individual slaves owned by Columbia affiliates and to determine whether slaves may have lived and worked on the original King’s College campus at Park Place. The archival sources that document this history are stubborn in their impulse to ignore, silence, and dehumanize enslaved people. In short, they transform human beings into numbers or leave them out altogether. In some ways, the archival absences around this topic are telling of the worldview of the elite merchants who largely founded and funded the early college. Still, any details the project uncovers about individual enslaved people are all the more precious for their scarcity.

Archival Sources

Delancey Runaway Ad

One reason for the limitations of primary sources documenting the history of slavery at Columbia is that the campus has moved twice in its 250-year existence. King’s College was originally located in what is now lower Manhattan at Park Place, overlooking the Hudson River. It remained there, renamed Columbia College in 1784, until 1856, when the trustees purchased the property of the Deaf and Dumb Asylum at 49th Street and Madison Avenue, near what is now Rockefeller Center. Finally, the college moved to its present-day location in Morningside Heights in 1897. Each time the college moved, a significant portion of its records were destroyed or lost. Therefore, the Columbia University Archives possesses only a limited selection of primary source materials pertaining to the founding and early development of King’s College and Columbia College.

In addition to the limitations of primary sources documenting the early history of the college, researchers who study the history of slavery often find that there is a more general lack of archival materials that document the lives and experiences of individual enslaved people. Most slaves were illiterate, and they lacked the resources to record details of their lives on paper. In eighteenth-century New York, only those people who occupied positions of social, political, economic power received a formal education. Elite merchants and their families had the ability to read and write, but few ordinary people were able to leave behind records of their thoughts and experiences. Historians of slavery must be creative in their use of the sources that do exist. This does not mean that they can speculate wildly, but researchers learn to read between the lines and against the grain of sources to find evidence of experiences of individual enslaved people. For this project, faculty, students, and staff have brought fresh interpretations to the materials available to them, and they continue to uncover previously unknown sources of information about slaves owned by people and families affiliated with King’s and Columbia College.

What type of records do exist, and how have researchers for this project used them?

Census Records

Census Record

The United States federal census began in 1790, and a census of the country’s population has been taken every ten years since then. Early census records document the number of slaves living in individual households, which has been helpful for ascertaining the extent of slaveholding among Columbians and their families. Census records have significant limitations, however. They offer an incomplete snapshot of households only once every ten years, and no records exist prior to 1790, almost fifty years after King’s College was founded. These records also came after the American Revolution, which resulted in the loss, confiscation, and sale of the property, including slaves, of many elite King’s College families. Finally, the census in this time period only lists the full name of the head of household; all dependents and slaves are listed only as numbers. This allows a researcher to get a general sense of the size of the household, but these records reveal very little information about individual enslaved people.

Estate Records

Image of an Estate Record

Wills and estate inventories can be a valuable source of information about the slaves held by individual families affiliated with King’s and Columbia. These documents were produced to record the property held by a particular individual at the time they were created, and enslaved people are recorded as part of this property. They often record the name and age of individual slaves, and wills may provide instructions for how these slaves are to be divided among family members after their owner’s death. Sometimes, slaveholders made specific provisions for valued slaves, requesting that family members should not be separated from one another or that certain individuals should be granted their freedom upon their master’s death, or after a certain number of years have elapsed. Of course, it is not always possible to know whether surviving family members followed these instructions.

Estate inventories often record a monetary value alongside each enslaved person’s name and age. These documents can be useful to historians in showing how slaves were assigned economic value based on their age, physical attributes, and abilities. Still, these documents offer little insight into the experiences of the individuals they catalog.

Records of Sale

Lefferts Slave Purchase

Records of slave sales are another significant source of information about slaves owned by King’s and Columbia College affiliates. Often, slave sales and purchases took place through informal social connections. Most early Columbians were members of elite mercantile families that were connected by ties of marriage, business, and politics. In many instances, one slaveholder would write to another seeking to buy or sell a slave, conducting their household business through informal correspondence networks.

In other instances, transactions were recorded with formal bills of sale. Similar to estate inventories, these documents often catalog slaves by name, age, and price. Sometimes they also mention particular skills possessed by the enslaved person, such as cooking, and they often attest to the slave’s physical health at the time of the sale. Few of these formal records survive for slaves owned by Columbians.

Advertisements for Fugitive Slaves

DePeyster Runaway Ad

Advertisements for runaway slaves, usually posted by slaveholders in newspapers, are one of the richest sources of information that exist about slaves owned by people affiliated with King’s and Columbia College. Research so far has uncovered dozens of these advertisements placed by the governors, students, and other affiliates of the college. Often, these records give more information beyond the name and age of the person in question. Clothing, physical appearance, skills, and personality are often included in a brief description.

Researchers should keep in mind that these advertisements were written from the slave owner’s perspective, so they must be read critically. Nevertheless, while slaveholders placed these ads with the purpose of reclaiming their lost property, for historians, they resonate with additional dimensions of meaning. Running away was one of the most extreme options for enslaved people to resist their conditions. It was not practicable for many, especially those with children or those who were elderly or physically disabled. Those who did escape faced the constant threats of recapture and reprisal for their disobedience. Individual slaves weighed the conditions of their master’s household against these risks and restraints. The runaway ads placed by Columbians suggest the wide extent of slaveholding among early King’s and Columbia affiliates, testify to the brutal conditions faced by enslaved people, and show sparks of individual resistance to the institution of slavery.

Were there slaves on campus?

James Barclay Sale

The lack of archival records has made it difficult to answer this question definitively. The original King’s College building was small, and it only housed a few students. Most students lived off campus, in private residences or boarding houses nearby, and it is likely that they employed household slaves to perform domestic chores. Several of the early college presidents, including the first president of King’s, Samuel Johnson, owned slaves. Johnson resided in the college building, so it is likely that his domestic slaves lived there with him.

We know of at least one enslaved individual who lived and worked at the Park Place campus for a time. George Washington’s stepson, John Parke Custis, enrolled at the college in May 1773. Custis had previously attended the College of William and Mary in Virginia, where he displayed a lack of self-discipline in his studies. Joe, a slave, accompanied Custis to King’s, where he lived in Custis’s suite of rooms in the college. Custis only lived at King’s for four months. In September 1773, he returned home to Virginia to marry. Joe disappears from the historical record after 1774, so it remains unknown if he ever gained his freedom.

In addition to this documented case, it is not unlikely that more enslaved people worked as domestic servants at the original Park Place campus. Many King’s and Columbia students grew up in wealthy slaveholding households, and went on to own slaves after their time spent at the college. Additionally, King’s and Columbia students would have interacted with slavery in New York on a daily basis as they walked through city streets around the campus. Columbia has always identified itself as inseparable from the city surrounding its campus, and this instance is no different. Just as slavery was ubiquitous in eighteenth-century New York City, slavery was also a key feature of daily life in the founding and development of Columbia.


Thai Jones describes the archival research process