African American Heritage

Records that pertain to American Slavery and the International Slave Trade

IV. Judicial Records


The following is information found in the records of the National Archives and Records Administration. It identifies the record group and series, with brief descriptions and locations. It does not provide actual documents. Some of the records are microfilmed, and have been noted.

For further insight, see Walter B. Hill Jr.'s Prologue article on this topic.



RG 21 Records of District Courts of the United States

U.S. District and Circuit Courts were created by an act of Congress in 1789. Originally the District Courts had exclusive jurisdiction in civil cases involving admiralty and maritime matters, Circuit Courts were given appellate and original jurisdiction in certain cases. The United States was originally divided into seven circuits but with expansion there are currently eleven judicial circuits, and each State is assigned to one of the circuits. Each State has at least one district court, which is the trial court having general Federal jurisdiction. The records of District Courts are located in the records centers throughout the nation. They are arranged geographically by name of District or Circuit court, and thereafter by type of record.

This would include dockets; indexes; minutes; judgments and decrees; final records; and equity, civil, criminal, and admiralty case papers.

Among the records of U.S. District and Circuit Courts are case files that concern admiralty and criminal matters pertaining to the slave trade and that generally involve proceedings relating to seizure, condemnation, and sale of vessels engaged in the slave trade or criminal cases that pertain to charges of outfitting slave ships and to the service of the masters and crew aboard.

Records of the U.S. Circuit Court for the District of Columbia Relating to Slaves, 1851 - 1863

Records pertaining to all slavery cases in the District of Columbia covering the period from 1820 to 1863 were maintained by the Circuit Court. They include case papers that relate to fugitive slaves (1851 - 1863), manumission papers (1857 - 1863), papers that pertain to slave's purchase of their freedom, slaves freed by wills, petitions of slaves based on the July 12, 1863 act (12 Stat. 538) that allowed them to file schedules if their owners had neglected to file according to the April 16,1863 act (12 Stat. 376), and emancipation papers based on the April 16, 1863 act. See Microfilm Publication M433.

Habeas Corpus Case Records, 1820 - 1863, of the U.S. Circuit Court for the District of Columbia, 1820 - 1863

Records that relate to orders to produce a prisoner and show cause for capture and detention. Among these records is a series of papers that relate to fugitive slaves, 1853 -1863, due to the enactment of the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850. The Act allowed claimants to recover fugitives by applying to federal judges and commissioners to establish ownership. Slave owners routinely used writs to reclaim runaway slaves. The records include the actual writs, petitions for writs, return of writs, orders of the Court, and other papers filed in habeas corpus proceedings. See microfilm Publication M434.

Records of the U.S. Circuit Court, Southern District of New York

Criminal Records
  1. Case Files, 1790 - 1912, Among files are case pertaining to those engaging in the slave trade, Entry 67, Preliminary Inventory #116 (see Microfilm Publication M885)

Records of the Clerk of the Court, Records of the U.S. District Court, Southern District of New York, Records Relating to Fugitive Slaves, 1837 - 1860 ( see Microfilm Publication M938)

  1. Records of United States Commissioners, Entry 218, Preliminary Inventory #116
  2. Records Relating to Fugitive Slaves, 1837 - 1860
  3. Records of the Clerk of the Court, 1746 - 1932

Admiralty Case Files, 1790 - 1912, U.S. District Court, Southern District of New York, Entry 83, Preliminary Inventory #116 (see Microfilm Publication M919) Cases include those engaging in the slave trade.

Criminal Records, U.S. District Court, Southern District of New York Case Files, 1845 - 68, among the case files are papers relating to those fitting out ships to engage in the slave trade, Entry 195, Preliminary Inventory #116

Records of the U.S. Circuit Court, Eastern District of Pennsylvania

  1. Correspondence, 1795 - 1850 Discussions relating to the fugitive slave law of 1850
  2. Habeas Corpus Records, Case Files, 1848 - 1860 Arrest of fugitive slaves
  3. Criminal Records, Case Files, 1791 - 1883 Relating to those engaging in the slave trade and harboring fugitive slaves
  4. Fugitive Slave Records, Case Files, 1850 - 1860 Claimants of fugitive slaves applying to Federal judges and commissioners for warrants for the arrest of fugitive slaves
Records of the U.S. Circuit Court, District of Maryland, 1795 - 1860
  1. Criminal Case Files, 1795 - 1860, relating to slave trade and harboring fugitive Slaves, Microfilm Publication M1010
RG 267 Records of the Supreme Court of the United States

The Supreme Court was created by an act of September 24, 1789, provided for in Article lll, Section 1, of the Constitution. The Supreme Court had jurisdiction where a State acted as a party, with cases involving admiralty and maritime jurisdiction, and cases involving ambassadors, consuls, and other public ministers. Various statues conferred appellate jurisdiction.

Among Appellate case Files, 1792-1952, are a number of cases that relate to the enforcement of slave laws, jurisdiction in admiralty matters, and related questions. Documents in the case file will vary and include such items as transcripts of proceedings, the mandate of the court, statements of indictment by lower courts, documents submitted as evidence, interrogatories, and petitions and appeals to the court.

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