Mapping Slavery in the North

Slavery in the North

Update: My friend and fellow local historian (and genealogist), Liz Loveland, reminds me that use of the census “obscures that people were illegally keeping people enslaved in free states.” In other words, reliance on the census points to a sharper transition between slavery and freedom than is warranted.

A map of slavery in the North that utilizes the 1790 census has been making the rounds on my twitter and Facebook feeds over the past few days. It is well worth examining and it certainly be used utilized to achieve a number of goals in the history classroom. The map is interactive and allows the user to explore local slave and non-white populations without losing sight of just how widespread and concentrated such populations were throughout the region at the end of the 18th century.

As much information as this map provides, however, it is a somewhat misleading. First, Maine was not a state in 1790. More interesting, however, is the status of Massachusetts as void of enslaved persons in 1790. It obscures the fact that the colony included somewhere around 5,000 slaves (or roughly 2.2% of the population by 1764) before a series of court cases gradually eroded the institution during the Revolution. The map does show the “free non-white” population in the state, but unless the teacher or user already knows that slavery existed in Massachusetts it is likely that the connection will not be made.

The narrative of slavery and emancipation has never been central to how Bay Staters understand its history. Between the Revolution and the Civil War this history was overshadowed by a new narrative that placed Massachusetts at the center of the creation of a new nation. If slavery was discussed at all, according to historian Margot Minardi, it was understood as benign and its end inevitable. The history of slavery in the North is still widely misunderstood or overlooked entirely, but we have seen some progress.

One such place where this change is taking place is at The Royall House & Slave Quarters in Medford, near Boston. Isaac Royall was the largest slaveowner in Massachusetts by the eve of the Revolution. The setting offers the opportunity to talk about the Royall family, the many enslaved persons who lived on the property and the broader story of slavery and racism in the North. I have been volunteering at Royall House for the past few months and hope to help out as a guide this summer.

Consider visiting if you live in the Boston area or if you are planning a trip to the city this summer.

Searching for Black Confederates: The Civil War’s Most Persistent Myth

“Levin’s study is the first of its kind to blueprint and then debunk the mythology of enslaved African Americans who allegedly served voluntarily in behalf of the Confederacy.”–Journal of Southern History

Purchase your copy today!

12 comments… add one
  • Ernesteen Johnson Jul 29, 2016 @ 8:24

    I’m a African american I hate to read about the offer things that was done to my ancestors in slavery an slavery is the reason I don’t know who I am I don’t know my true self I see an sometimes hear or see white people say I’m Italian I’m Germany I’m English I’m Irish etc. An know exactly where in these places they come from black people can’t do that an by getting a DNA it just gives u a generalisation an about where both of your gene donors are from we don’t have any names of our ancestors well I don’t it hurts to know that only one race of people did this to us an they always say forget about it you wasn’t in slavery but in actuality I was in slavery an well my gene pool was there an the after they say slavery was over it. wasn’t for black people the humiliation of slavery continued an still continue to this day an we black people know it won’t do any go to talk about slavery because the white people won’t see it from a black point of view because they haven’t had to live the life of a black person I’m so sorry they bought my ancestors into this cess pool of a nation with these evil people slavery is why we still hate white people but I don’t know why they hate black people because they got free labor off the backs of slave life became easy for white people when they imported black people from Africa we didn’t dehumanize them we never beat the shit out them we never stole their inventions we never did a dang thing to them that is why we say you only hate us because we aren’t in the same resesive skin they are in that’s the only reason if u hated us so much why didn’t you people leave us in Africa or where you found us an stay out of Africa stealing an robbing it of resources you people think the whole world belongs to you to destroy an kill I will stop here but I could go on I just wanted to say this because I jut wanted to express some ofmy hurts an pains about slavery an the affects it still have on black people

    • Forester Jul 30, 2016 @ 8:31

      That’s so sad. I am, personally, very sorry and apologetic. You (and all black people) have my absolute deepest sympathies. There is no excuse or justification for what happened. :_(

  • Woodrowfan May 7, 2016 @ 17:01

    I keep expecting some Southron to show up and proclaim that the same census didn’t show ANY slaves in Mississippi or Alabama but New England had them!! (yes, I know they were not states yet)

    Seriously, very interesting map. I love what you can do with maps online now. I used the one showing the US population by race in 2010 in class. You can really see the divisions in housing patterns that way.

  • Gregg Kimball May 6, 2016 @ 17:35

    Vermont wasn’t a state until 1791. Are you arguing that the data for Massachusetts is incorrect? If it is, how many slaves were in the state based on the 1790 Census?

    • Kevin Levin May 7, 2016 @ 1:35

      If it is, how many slaves were in the state based on the 1790 Census?

      Hi Gregg. Nice to hear from you. I don’t know how to answer that question. A number of historians have argued, including Minardi, that it is likely that residents of the state were not being entirely honest with census takers.

      • Liz Loveland May 7, 2016 @ 5:15

        The fact that the census was self-reported is exactly why genealogists are taught to be wary of any information on it unless also having additional documentation that supports it. I can’t even count the number of errors I’ve found on censuses in my many years of doing historical and genealogical research, and it can be difficult or impossible to determine whether they are deliberate or unintentional.

        • Kevin Levin May 7, 2016 @ 5:18

          Hi Liz,

          Thanks for the follow up. One thing that I don’t quite understand is if the state legislature never officially abolished slavery in Massachusetts at this time than what, if anything, prevented the ownership of another person?

          • Liz Loveland May 7, 2016 @ 5:27

            I’ve heard several scholars argue over the past few years that it became increasingly socially unacceptable and so fewer and fewer people owned slaves. On the other hand, if it’s considered socially unacceptable it could also be a reason to lie to the enumerator. Since many historians simply state that there were no enslaved people in Massachusetts after 1783, it’s been pretty hard for me to try to determine how many there actually were, much less where they were living.

            In my recent research in area records about slavery, I’ve found a number of bills of sale out of the area in the 1760’s and 1770’s in addition to some manumissions. Many of the enslaved people were being sold to the South or the West Indies. So it seems possible that many people thought the end of slavery here was coming soon and what they chose to do depended on some mixture of their personal beliefs and their economic interests. But that is my speculation.

            Wendy Warren’s book on area people of color and area involvement in slavery is due out soon (, and I’ve heard very good things about it from a few different historians, so hopefully it will provide some clarity on this subject.

            • Kevin Levin May 7, 2016 @ 5:34

              It also makes me wonder how many slaves were hired out beyond the borders of Massachusetts at this time. Regardless, this is still a much more complex and interesting narrative than what you can glean from the map. Thanks again.

              • Liz Loveland May 7, 2016 @ 6:30

                Agreed, and renting out is even harder to document than sales and manumissions. As far as I am aware, no one has tried to comprehensively track renting out of the area (or renting out at all, for that matter) for Massachusetts in the mid- to late 18th c. If someone knows of research on this, please let us know!

                I should clarify that when I said “illegally” what I was most thinking of was Vermont, where the 1777 Constitution prohibited owning adults, yet people continued to do so anyway. Vermont’s first federal census (included on the map) wasn’t taken until they went from an independent republic to a state in 1791. Harvey Amani Whitfield’s book on this issue in Vermont is excellent and I find this quote from it generally helpful to keep in mind researching Northern slavery in its later years: “The legal reality of ending slavery did not always reflect social reality. The end of Vermont slavery was contested, contingent, complicated, and messy.”

  • Patrick Jennings May 6, 2016 @ 16:50


    The Boston National Historical Park has a series of programs on slavery in Boston to compliment the work of Boston African American NHS. The ranger talks at Bunker Hill often include a segment about “Patriots of Color” and discuss the presence of slaves at many of the early, defining battles of the American Revolution. These make great additions to a visit to Royall House.

    • Kevin Levin May 6, 2016 @ 16:53

      Absolutely. I’ve made the rounds over the past few years. There are many creative programs that address these issues at NPS sites here in Boston. Thanks.

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