In 1799, a 40-year-old man named Aleck was working as a carpenter at Lexington Plantation on Mason Neck. Kate, a 50-year old woman with impaired vision, was working in the plantation’s main house.
Aleck and Kate might have been forgotten if their names had not been recorded in a will book at the Fairfax County courthouse. Both were slaves owned by George Mason V, son of the statesman George Mason of Gunston Hall, and their names were recorded in an inventory of his property.
A project now underway in the Fairfax Circuit Court Historic Records Center is making personal information about Aleck, Kate and thousands of other enslaved people more accessible by creating an index of slaves mentioned in the county’s will and deed books.
More than 10,000 references to slaves have been documented in the Fairfax Court Slavery Index, which is searchable by their names and the names of their owners, said Heather Bollinger, the records center’s archivist.
Bollinger said the idea for the project came from Georgia Brown, an undergraduate history major at George Mason University. When the clerk’s office hired Brown as an intern in January, she expressed an interest in working on a project involving slavery.
“These people are a mystery,” Brown said. “They’re not really written down anywhere. It’s just fun to discover [them].”
Maddy McCoy, a research historian for Carlyle House Historic Park in Alexandria, said the slavery index is the first of its kind in the country.
“Nobody has systematically gone through the will books and the deed books page by page and identified and extracted the names,” McCoy said. “That has never been done, to our knowledge.”
McCoy, who frequents the Fairfax records center, said people often come looking for information about their enslaved ancestors.
Probate records and deed books can be good sources of information, because the names of slaves were often recorded in property inventory lists, said Katrina Krempasky, manager of the Historic Records Center. But with scraps of information scattered through nearly 100 will and deed books between 1742 and 1870, it is hard for researchers to know where to start.
“It became clear that there needed to be some sort of systematic index as far as identifying enslaved individuals in the records,” McCoy said. That meant someone had to painstakingly go through each book.
Brown accepted the challenge. She began noting every mention of a slave in the books, and whether the slave’s name had been recorded. She combed all the will books from 1742 to 1870, reading more than 6,500 individual records, Krempasky said.
“As she did that, it became clear what a bounty of information was in there, and that they needed to be captured with more than just an index saying that they existed within the pages,” Krempasky said.
Some of the records listed the slaves’ occupations, their physical descriptions and, if they were sold, their value, Krempasky said. Brown and another George Mason University intern are now going through deed books to extract that information and write it on index cards. The cards are scanned and organized in files, Krempasky said.
The index is not intended to be a comprehensive list of everyone in Fairfax County, Bollinger said. Many slaves might never have been mentioned in the property records.
Even with the index, finding information about individual slaves is challenging, because most were identified in the records only by their first names. As a result, the most common names — George and Sarah — appear on more than 100 index cards, Bollinger said. Researchers can narrow their search by looking at other information recorded on the cards, such as dates, ages and the names of the slaveholders.
The indexing project is a massive undertaking that can only occur locally, at the ground level, McCoy said.
“It’s bringing so much information together, but you have to literally lay this foundation,” she said.
Barnes is a freelance writer.