John Mack - Newtown Supervisor
The Slaves of Bucks County, 1783 - 1830

The Slaves of Bucks County, 1783 - 1830

On May 4, 2021, Doylestown Township passed a resolution that designates June 19th as "Juneteenth Freedom Day" (read “Doylestown Township Passes Juneteenth Freedom Day Resolution”). This is in recognition of the date in 1865 that Union soldiers arrived in Galveston, Texas and enforced President Lincoln's Emancipation Proclamation order, freeing the slaves in Texas two and a half years after it was first decreed.

I was told by Kevin Antoine, Chief Diversity Equity Inclusion Officer at Bucks County Community College and Chair of the Newtown Township Human Relations Commission, that down south where he grew up, he and other black people celebrated June 19th as their equivalent of the 4th of July.

On June 19, 2019, PA Governor Wolf signed legislation that designates June 19 as “Juneteenth National Freedom Day” in Pennsylvania. So why the Doylestown resolution?

Most importantly, the Doylestown resolution offers a bit of local history. It states, for example, that the last people legally enslaved in Bucks County were freed from slavery in Doylestown Township in 1824 only to be transitioned into “indentured servitude for decades longer.”

Questions

This was a bit of history I did not know about until I read the resolution. But I had questions: Were slaves “freed” in other townships prior to and after 1824? Who owned slaves in Bucks County? Where did they live in Bucks County? How many slaves did they own?

I got some answers to my questions from the “Register of Slaves” in Bucks County from 1783-1830. The register was maintained by Bucks County, Pennsylvania, Office of the Prothonotary and was published as part of the University of Pennsylvania History Commons (source: Wright, Robert E., "Slaves in Bucks County, Pennsylvania," 01/01/97 - 01/01/97. 6. Philadelphia, PA: McNeil Center for Early American Studies [distributor], 2015. http://repository.upenn.edu).

It is interesting to note that Pennsylvania “abolished” slavery in 1780, but it was an “Act for the Gradual Abolition of Slavery,” which allowed the institution to survive, in various guises, for decades. Hence, the Register of Slaves documents the ownership of slaves in Bucks County through at least 1830. In fact, the last enslaved Pennsylvanians wouldn’t be freed until 1847. And let’s not even talk about indentured servitude!

The Bucks County Register of Slaves includes the name, occupation, and township of an estimated 179 enslavers as well as the name, gender, and age of an estimated 514 persons enslaved in Bucks County, Pennsylvania, in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries (1783-1830). Obviously, there were many more slave owners and slaves BEFORE this record was started in 1783.

Sample Page from the Register of Slaves in Bucks County. See the entire register embedded at the end of this post or download the PDF file.

The first thing I looked at was the names of slave owners. Was there anyone in the list who is famous in Bucks County or whose name is enshrined somehow?

Who Owned Slaves in Bucks County?

We have all read of the controversy of naming military bases after Confederates and statues of slave owners being torn down in the south, but what about the north? Recently the NY Times reported on a new campaign called Slavers of New York, which is aiming to call out — and eventually map — the history of slavery in New York City. The effort highlights the streets, subway stations and neighborhoods named after enslavers. Coming from NYC, I know these areas well: Nostrand Avenue, Boerum Hill, Lefferts Gardens, and others.

There are several Lefferts in the Register of Slaves in Bucks County: two Arthurs (Bensalem and Northampton), one Peter (Newtown) and one Leffert (Northampton). I don’t know if these slave owners were related to whomever Lefferts Gardens is named after in NYC.

Another name that stuck out was Thomas Yardley, a Farmer in Lower Makefield, who owned 9 slaves (see Sample Page). The Wikipedia entry for Yardley PA states that William Yardley founded Yardley, PA, and a Thomas Yardley was his nephew. Is this the same person as the slave owner Thomas Yardley in the register? During the American Civil War, Yardley was a station for the Underground Railroad.

I next looked to see if there were any slave owners in Newtown and I found 9 who owned 16 slaves (see below). According to W. W. Davis' History of Bucks County, there were 23 slaves registered in Newtown (read “Newtown and Slavery”).

Newtown slave owners found in the Register of Slaves

The majority of slave owners in Bucks County were farmers. I count 78 farmers in the register. Perhaps at the time these farmers were referred to a “planter aristocrats," which is what the Pennridge School District called southern slave owners (read “Did Pennridge 'Planter Artistocrat' lesson sanitize slavery?”).

Pennridge HS assignment asked freshmen to “imagine” what is was like to be
a member of the “Planter Aristocrat” class in the south.
List of Bucks County Slave Owners

The following is a list I created from the Register of Slaves. I grouped together the data from the same slave owner to calculate the total number of slaves that person owned. You can also download the PDF file.

Posted on 21 May 2021, 01:41 - Category: Discrimination

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