home | many pasts | evidence | www.history | blackboard | reference
talking history | syllabi | students | teachers | puzzle | about us
search: go!
advanced search - go!

Utilizing the Registers of Free Blacks For the City of Staunton and Augusta County, Virginia, 1803–1864

by Carl Schulkin

This activity is designed to teach the process of analyzing primary sources and enrich students’ knowledge of the daily lives of free African Americans in the antebellum South.


What important conclusions can be drawn from examining sets of very brief primary source documents? What are the limitations of such sources? How does one utilize quantitative data in an effort to answer qualitative historical questions? What other sources of information are needed in order to place a set of primary source documents in its proper historical context?


1) to have students go through the process that practicing historians go through when they use primary sources to construct an historical narrative or analysis;

2) to enrich students' knowledge of the daily lives of free African Americans in the antebellum South and help them to appreciate the similarities and differences between the roughly ten percent of African Americans who were free and the nearly ninety percent who were enslaved.


Two registers of free blacks in Augusta County, Virginia and a register of free blacks in the city of Staunton, Virginia, all of which have been transcribed and reproduced as part of The Valley of the Shadow Web Site.

The URLs of the registers are: http://jefferson.village.Virginia.EDU/vshadow2/govdoc/fblack.early.html, (substitute fblack.late.html and fblack2.html respectively, for later registers).


"The Valley of the Shadow: Living the Civil War in Pennsylvania and Virginia" is a massive historical compilation documenting the history of two communities in the Great Valley of the United States: Franklin County, Pennsylvania and Augusta County, Virginia. Directed by noted historian Edward L. Ayers of the University of Virginia, the project attempts to weave together the histories of these two places, separated by a few hundred miles and the Mason-Dixon Line. At the time the following exercise was developed, "The Valley of the Shadow" project had completed only the first of three installments, covering the late 1850s and early 1860s, focusing on the years between John Brown’s raid in October 1859 and the beginning of the Civil War in April 1861. The second and third installments will discuss the war itself and the effects of Emancipation and Reconstruction. At present, the Web Site is divided into three major parts: "The Impending Crisis," which tells the story of the major national political events between October 1859 and April 1861 while paying attention to local events and responses; "The Communities," which focuses on the cities of Chambersburg and Staunton and contains information regarding such topics as Daily Life, Family and Gender, Religion and Race Relations; and "The Sources," an archive of Government Documents, Newspapers, Images, Rosters and Personal Papers. The following exercise utilizes only a tiny fraction of the Government Documents section of this vast archive.


Step 1) In pairs, choose ONE of the three registers of free blacks, which you will search and count for one or more of the following categories: (5 minutes)

trade (including apprentice and journeyman) neighboring states born free/free born emancipated/manumitted mulatto

Step 2) Work together searching one of the registers and recording your count(s): (30 minutes)

Concentrate initially on only one of the five topics suggested above. Move on to a second topic only after you have completely exhausted the possibilities relating to the first in the time allotted. Keep in mind that finding only a few references or no references to a particular term or topic may be just as significant as uncovering numerous references.

Searching Tips: Always try to use the fewest possible letters that are unique to the phrase or term you are searching for. For example, use "manum" instead of "manumitted." Conduct related searches using synonyms. For example, count instances of both "emancipated" and "manumitted" individuals. Finally, in utilizing the "find" function of Netscape, close the find dialogue box after the first hit and then strike the F3 key to find each subsequent instance. When you receive the message "search string not found," make sure to use the "find" function to locate a string at the very beginning of the register (for example, "Part One") before beginning another search. Otherwise your subsequent search will find only those instances in the remainder of the register; it will not search the entire register.

Step 3) With your partner, discuss what significant hypothesis (hypotheses) you can formulate on the basis of the data in the register you examined. To focus your discussion consider the following questions: (15 minutes)

a) Is the data in this register consistent with what you know about free African Americans in other parts of the United States in the period 1803–1864?

b) Where the data is sparse or absent from the register entirely, is it more likely that the data reflects a lack of activity on the part of African Americans or a lack of interest in collecting such data on the part of the government?

Step 4) Meet with others doing this activity to share information and discuss the activity. (45 minutes)

a) Share and compare your findings with others who did this activity. How are your hypotheses similar and different? How would you explain the differences?

b) Questions to consider for follow-up discussion:

i) What did you learn about how historians conduct research in primary sources from doing this exercise? How do historians draw conclusions and construct a narrative from sources of this type?

ii) What are the most important advantages and disadvantages of examining primary sources such as these in comparison with secondary sources such as a textbook or other historical accounts?

Source: Carl Shulkin, Pembroke Hill School