Utilizing the Registers of Free Blacks for the City of Staunton and Augusta County, Virginia 1803-1864
Problem: What important conclusions can be drawn from examining digital archives of primary source documents? What are the limitations of such sources? How might one utilize quantitative data to help answer qualitative historical questions?
To improve knowledge of the African-American experience and the daily lives of free blacks in the antebellum south.
To gather information on the similarities and differences in the lives of the roughly 90% of African-American who were enslaved and the 10% who were not.
To understand & start to develop some of the skills that practicing historians use when they examine primary sources to construct historical analyses and narratives.
Resources: (I have checked these links & they are working as of 10/23/17)
2 registers of free blacks in Augusta County, Virginia and a register of free blacks in the city of Staunton, Virginia- gathered as part of The Valley of the Shadow website-
The URL for the register’s home page is: http://valley.lib.virginia.edu/VoS/govdoc/free.html
You should enter the particular registers from this page- all 3 registers can be accessed from the above URL.
Nature of the WebSite: The Valley of the Shadow: Two Communities in the American Civil War is a massive historical archive of primary sources (letters, diaries, newspapers, court records, government documents, & military reports) documenting the history of 2 communities in the Great Valley of the Shenandoah: Franklin County, Pennsylvania and Augusta County, Virginia. Directed by noted University of Virginia historian (& now president of the University of Richmond) Edward Ayers, the project attempts to weave together the histories of these 2 places, separated by a few hundred miles and the Mason-Dixon Line. It is composed of 3 parts- before the war, the war itself, & the Reconstruction period.
The following exercise should be submitted as a 4-5 page analytical paper. Please give ample space to both the primary source documentation (Steps One & Two) as well as the conclusions you draw from the web-based information itself (Steps Three & Four).
Step One: Briefly examine the introductory pages of the Valley site- http://valley.vcdh.virginia.edu/. Get a feel for what the authors are trying to develop with this on-line project.
Then go to the Free Black registry page- http://valley.lib.virginia.edu/VoS/govdoc/free.html and examine the registries of the free African-Americans in the city and county. You will be gathering quantifiable evident form a register about the lives of free blacks, focusing on the categories listed below. After your overview, choose ONE REGISTER and ONE OF THE CATEGORIES listed below.
Born free/free born- What proportion of free African-Americans in this area were born free?
Emancipated- What proportion of free African-Americans in this area were emancipate or manumitted?
Racial background- Did free African-Americans in this area tend to be of mixed race or mulatto background?
Trade- What can you find out about the kinds of work free African-Americans did in this area? What were the predominant occupations?
Age and Gender- Were free African-Americans more likely to be old or young- male or female?
Choose one of the registers, counting information relevant to your category & recording the count. Concentrate on one register & only one of the categories listed above. If there is not enough material for that category &/or register, you may move on to other registers & categories.
Step Two: Consider what conclusions might be drawn about the categories & registers you chose- especially focusing on the lives of free African-Americans, based upon the information you discovered. Center your analysis on the following questions-
a). What kinds of information do the registers provide? What information could you find about the category you chose? What information seemed to be missing? What else would you want to know to help you answer your questions?
b) Who do you think created these registers in the 19th century (I’m not looking for you to find the 2000 era UVa grad students who transcribed them)? What were the registers used for? How might this affect the nature of the information they contain?
Step Three: What conclusions did you draw from your research into the websites? Discuss the process of working with this information. In what ways did you find the data revealing or problematic? What did you learn from using these documents on this topic?
Step Four: What did you learn about the notions of slavery and freedom from engaging with this material and this activity? Did the process raise important questions or encourage critical thinking and analysis? What issues did the exercise raise about the challenges historians face as they conduct research in primary sources and use other materials? What does it suggest about the kinds of conclusions that can be derived from sources of this type?
What are the most important advantages and disadvantages of examining primary sources such as these? How would such a process compare with only using secondary sources such as a textbook? Does the use of new media such as the Internet change the process in significant ways? What are the possibilities and pitfalls of using the Internet for historical research?
You may add the raw data from the registers that you used as an appendix to your paper if you wish.
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