The antique documents were tied up by a ribbon and kept in an old safe for years, first in the general stores that Danny Dyer’s family ran in Accokeek, Md., and later in his house nearby.

He wasn’t certain what they were. “Deed of Manumission,” many of them said, and they named dozens of men, women and children. Unsure what manumission was, he looked it up. It was the act of freeing a slave.

“Good God,” he thought.

What Dyer had in his safe in Prince George’s County was a trove of paperwork that recorded the freeing of scores of slaves, many belonging to Maryland’s first families, decades before the Civil War.

The papers showed that some slaves were granted freedom that did not take effect for 20 years. Others were freed by purchasing themselves. Still others were freed outright.


One of several manumission papers that are on display at the Surratt House Museum in Clinton, Md. Charles Beall had this particular document drawn up to legally free his wife, Henny. (Photo by Linda Davidson/The Washington Post) (Linda Davidson/The Washington Post)

A 6-year-old slave, Pheby Ann Tyler, was bought by her father, John, of Washington, for $70. A slave woman and her children were manumitted by her husband, who had probably bought them to set them free.

A sampling of the documents, which Dyer lent for study to the Surratt House Museum in Clinton, has been put on display this month at the museum’s visitors center. They have never been made public before.

“The collection to me is absolutely mind-boggling,” said the museum’s director, Laurie Verge.

Colleen Walter Puterbaugh, the Surratt House research librarian who has studied and transcribed the 30 documents, said, “We immediately knew that it was really a treasure. . . . [The papers tell] a story. It’s only the first layer of that story. And it really hints at a lot more drama going on.”

One deed was executed on Oct. 23, 1838, by a wealthy widow, Elizabeth W. Snowden. Her in-laws had built Montpelier, a grand Georgian mansion in Laurel, and owned thousands of acres in Prince George’s County.

For generations, the Snowdens were known in the area for their elegant home by the Patuxent River and for their hospitality. George Washington lodged there several times. So did first ladies Martha Washington and Abigail Adams.

At one point in the early 1800s, the family owned 141 slaves.

Elizabeth Snowden’s husband, Nicholas, died in 1831, at age 41, leaving her with 12 children and a large plantation, according to records provided by Montpelier.

An inventory taken after his death listed about 60 slaves, mainly by their first names, ages, and monetary value, along with horses, cattle, sheep, corn, tobacco, potatoes, a “pleasure sleigh” and 23 champagne glasses.

Seven years later, Elizabeth, a native of Philadelphia who noted that “natural freedom is the right of all men,” freed 30 slaves, according to Dyer’s documents.

But for most of them, the freedom was effective only in the future.

She ordered Henny, 43, freed in 1839; Hazel, 41, freed in 1840; and their four children freed over the next 20 years.

Their child Let, then 9, would not be free until 1851, when he was 22. Nace, then 11, would not be free until 1853, when he was 26. Daughter Ann Elizabeth, 5, would remain a slave until 1855, when she was 22.

And daughter Sarah Jane, then 1, would stay a slave until 1859 — two decades after her father got his freedom.

Snowden did the same for all the slaves she freed, except for Fanny Ridgely and her two children, Rebecca, 6, and Ellen, 2, whom she set free immediately.

It’s not clear why Snowden freed Henny and Hazel but kept their children in bondage for years.

Fourteen of those kept enslaved were children ages 10 and under. There were four other mothers whose children’s freedom did not take effect until after theirs did — in some cases, for 15 or 20 years.

Puterbaugh, the research librarian, theorizes that Snowden may have meant well in keeping the children in slavery.

Many manumission laws discouraged masters from freeing slaves who couldn’t take care of themselves. The aim was not to be benevolent, but to protect communities from the burden of caring for them.

“It may have been more for their safekeeping than for any monetary gain,” Puterbaugh said in an email. “For the most part, the girls were freed when they reached the age of 22 and the boys when they reached 26 . . . [perhaps] considered the age of maturation at the time.”

Jenny Bourne, an economics historian at Carleton College, agreed.

“Relatively altruistic owners might not free young children until they could support themselves,” she said in an email.

Stanley Engerman, historian and professor of economics at the University of Rochester, added: “The argument was made that slaves were ruined by slavery, and you needed a period of apprenticeship to educate [them] for freedom.”


A photo from the early 1900s shows the Accokeek post office and store owned by the Dyer family. The store held a safe which contained the manumission papers of some enslaved men, women and children held n Prince George’s County between 1796 and 1853. (Photo courtesy Danny Dyer)
Set aside and forgotten

The huge safe had been in the Dyer country store/gas station/post office in Accokeek as far back as the horse-and-buggy days.

The store, on Livingston Road, was a local gathering place and makeshift repository. “It was the only game in town,” Dyer said. “At the time, there was nothing around.”

When it moved across the street in 1947, the safe moved with it. Then, when the Dyers got out of the store business, the safe moved into his house next door.

Dyer, 74, a retired executive assistant with the state and county governments, was given the combination by his late father, and he started studying the contents after his parents died in the 1980s.

There were, among many other things, land deeds, records of the sale of horses and cows, and the manumission papers, which span the years 1781 to 1858.

The safe appears to have served as a kind of safe-deposit box in rural Maryland, and Dyer thinks such documents were put there in connection with a great-grandfather’s job as a sheriff in the county.

“I have no idea how long they’ve been in there,” he said in an interview at Surratt House recently. “My father didn’t seem to know. He said, ‘Well, they were just here. They’ve always been here.’ ”

As Dyer examined the handwritten documents, he was puzzled: “I started looking, and said, ‘What is this? What the hell is manumission?’ I didn’t know what it was. So I looked it up.”

He realized the papers’ historic and emotional value, but he wasn’t sure what to do with them. He did a little research. But then years went by, family events came, and the issue of the papers fell into the background, Dyer said.

Recently, his son began dating a daughter of Laurie Verge, the director of the Surratt House Museum. The elder Dyer and Verge had gone to high school together.

“I thought this might be a chance to find out a little bit more about these things,” he said.

A year and a half ago, he brought his papers to the museum.

They now reside in a gray archival box in the museum’s James O. Hall Research Center, where they will stay for the foreseeable future.

The stories they tell are part of American history.

On Aug. 31, 1818, a Prince George’s County slave named Nathan, 31 years old and of good “bodily strength,” bought himself from his owner, a widow, Ann Berry. The price: $220 — thousands of dollars in today’s money.

On Oct. 1, 1806, Aaron Jones, 35, purchased himself under a different arrangement.

His owner, Ann Sprigg, priced him high — $400 — but set up an installment plan: For his freedom, Jones would pay Sprigg $100 each year for four years.

Sprigg charged no interest.