Colonial Slavery

“Many slave owners came to take greater interest in the lives (and general welfare) of American-born slaves –with whom they had sometimes grown up –than in those of newly purchased Africans who appeared strange and ‘savage.’ More important still, the growing number of blacks in America, the increased size of holdings, and the more equal sex ratios provided greater opportunities for finding spouses than had previously existed.  During the half century before the War for Independence, second- and third-generation American slaves built a new system of family relations to replace that shattered by the slave trade; basic family patterns that would persist through the antebellum period became established, patterns that resembled in broad outline those found among white Americans but that differed from them in important specifics.” –Peter Kolchin, American Slavery, p. 50

Primary Sources

Secondary Sources

  • The Slave Holder, Friends of John Dickinson Mansion [WEB]
  • Gary B. Nash and Jean R. Soderlund, Freedom By Degrees (1991) [GOOGLE BOOKS]

Cultural Sources

Slave Life at Mount Vernon (Fairfax Co Public Schools)

“Roots” (1977)

Research Guide: Slavery in Pennsylvania

This research guide offers digital tools for teachers and students to explore the history of slavery and abolition in Pennsylvania.

Pennsylvania County Slave Records

Pennsylvania Laws and Court Cases

Slavery and Northern Colleges

Letters and Diaries

Speeches and Anti-Slavery Conventions

Powell and Watts: A Continued Search

This week, I planned to focus on understanding more on Jim Powell and Sam Watts because I did not have much information on them.

I began by going to the Dickinson College Archives to inquire about treasurer files relating to employees. They were unable to find treasurer files from the 19th century, so they gave me faculty minutes instead. Unfortunately, but predictably, there was nothing in the faculty minutes that was even semi-related. I also asked if there were any files relating to Powell, Watts, or custodians in general beside the sources already in the drop file. This search also led to a dead end. Because I remembered seeing the “Corps of Hygiene” that provided information and pictures of the black custodians from the 1870s in a copy of the Microcosm, I decided to leaf through a few of the earlier Microcosm’s that have not yet been digitized. While I could not find anything similar to the “Corps of Hygiene,” I did find an interesting page relating to the

Faculty page that lists Spradley and Young as professors in the 1882 Microcosm. Courtesy of the Dickinson College Archives.

janitors in an 1882 Microcosm. Listed on the second page of the “Faculty” section, are “Henry Spradley, J. A. N., Adjunct Professor of Experimental Physics,” “Rev. Robert Young, A. M. E. C., Adjunct Professor in Dutch Scientific Course,” and their “Assistants” in West College (Shirley, Kurnel, and John) and East College (Bud, Bob, and Charlie). This most likely satirical piece may reveal six additional black janitors (the three from East College and the three from West College) to further research.

Drawing of “the Janitor” found in the 1881 Minutal. Courtesy of the Dickinson College Archives.

Next, I went to the Cumberland County Historical Archives to search through for references to Powell and Watts. Based on previous research and information from Professor Pinsker, I searched “Banty Jim,” “Jim Powell,” “James Powell,” “Pompey Jim,” “Sam Watts,” and Samuel Watts.” Using Watts’s search names, I only found a handful of articles that related to him. I also only found one article on Powell that I had not seen before. I then tried searching “Dickinson custodian(s),” “Dickinson janitor(s),” and “Dickinson employee(s).” Each of these searches came back with no results. does not allow advanced searches, so I could not search for “Dickinson” and “custodian,” which may have yielded some results.

I finished my research for the week at the Dickinson College Archives. I asked for information regarding either Watts or Powell and received a bound thesis written by John Alosi called Shadow of Freedom: Slavery in Post-Revolutionary Cumberland County, 1780-1810. The front cover has a picture

Cover of Alosi’s thesis featuring image of Powell. Courtesy of the Dickinson College Archives.

of Jim Powell, and a brief background of him appears in “On the Cover,” a page-long chapter that appears at the beginning of the thesis. The information in this chapter comes from the 1840 census. I also looked for references to slaves, former slaves, and slavery in the card catalogue, and with the help of an archivist, found a few letters by and to various members of the

Page about Powell from Alosi’s thesis. Courtesy of the Dickinson College Archives.

Dickinson community regarding their position on slavery from Antebellum to Reconstruction Era. These letters, mostly concerning Dickinson presidents, should be able to provide a basic background on Dickinson’s ties to anti-slavery and pro-slavery, which will be helpful for my Dickinson and Carlisle background page. Finally, I searched through the presidents’ files and pulled documents that seemed like they might be related to black janitors/employees

Letter insisting on the firing of the janitor. Courtesy of the Dickinson College Archives.

at Dickinson. Here, I found a few letters that will also help to give background to Dickinson’s ties to slavery (particularly relating to the McClintock Riot). However, I found a letter from President W. Neill to the Dickinson College Trustees on September 28, 1826 to insist upon the removal of the janitor because he “has become so very negligent of his duty.” This letter may provide insight into when former slaves or free black men began serving as janitor at the college. It also may prove that the employment of black janitors began at least 16 years before the 1842 letter regarding the employment of former slaves was written to Robert Emory.

While I did not find much more on Powell and Watts than I already had, I found a few interesting sources to humanize them, a few more potential names to add to the list of black janitors at Dickinson College, and background information on Dickinson’s complicated relationship with slavery.

Research Journal: Enslaved Labor and the Founding of Dickinson

Expanding off a previous research journal post, I continued searching the Dickinson College archives for references to slave labor in the construction of the first two college buildings. The Board of Trustees Papers (RG 1/1) are where Georgetown University’s Cory Young first discovered a mention of “Black James, Mr. Holmes’ Negro” who was paid 15 shillings for work on the college on July 26, 1799.

I first wanted to follow up on John Holmes, who as a slave owner was more likely to generate records than the bondsman James. To do so, I used the record group’s finding aid, available online. There, each series within the group is broken down into boxes and then folders, with brief descriptions of their contents. Looking through the finding aid for Series 6, (the Financial Affairs records) I found a folder labeled “Bill of John Holmes for expenses incurred while collecting subscriptions in Baltimore.” True to the description, the folder contained a bill submitted on April 16, 1799, listing Holmes’ expenses on a trip collecting subscriptions to fund the new college’s construction. The first slip showed Holmes’ request to be reimbursed for “2 Horses” and “36 Gallons of Oats,” but on the second slip the otherwise mundane document assumed a new light. Tallying the expenses, Holmes also sought reimbursement “for Jem and two horses for Sixteen Days,” almost certainly the same “Black James” who would appear again, just three months later, in the financial ledger already discovered by Cory Young. [1]

John Holmes’ bill for expenses, April 16, 1799. (Dickinson College Archives & Special Collections)

Holmes asks to be reimbursed for “Jem and two horses for Sixteen Days” (Dickinson College Archives & Special Collections)

This record suggests that James, the slave of John Holmes, accompanied his master to Baltimore, and that Holmes billed the college for James’s time. It is an indication that enslaved people were hired out to Dickinson College not just within the limits of Carlisle, but also in the course of larger fundraising efforts. [2]

These records, from 1799, pertain to New College, the initial college building constructed between 1798-1803. As it neared completion, however, the structure burned in early 1803, and a new fundraising campaign was launched to build what is today know as West College, or Old West. I sought to broaden the scope of my research by looking into contracts arranged for the building of West College, and see if any enslaved labor was used in its construction.

Using the same finding aid, I noticed a file named “Contracts for goods and services, including a partial list of contractors.” Inside was a handwritten list of contractors whom the college had hired, as well as the material they were to supply. I referenced the names against those of slave owners appearing in the Cumberland County Slave Returns to see which of the suppliers owned slaves. While at least three of the contractors had registered slaves in 1780, it proved more difficult to verify whether or not they still owned slaves some 23 years later. There was one exception: Charles McClure, a farmer from neighboring Middleton township, who had served as a Trustee of the college since 1794. McClure, who had agreed to deliver 3,000 bushels of sand for the building of West College, had previously registered seven slaves in 1780, and more recently the birth of a “Negro Child named Grace” in 1802. [3]

Charles McClure registers 7 slaves in October 1780. (Cumberland County Archives)

Charles McClure registers another slave birth in 1802, shortly before he was contracted to work on Old West. (Cumberland County Archives)

While McClure’s slave registrations are far from definitive proof that enslaved labor was used to deliver materials for the building of West College, it does show that the college hired a local slaveholder to supply materials. What remains to be seen is if any more definitive connections between the construction of Old West and slave labor can be made.



[1] Bill of John Holmes, April 16, 1799, RG 1/1 Board of Trustees Papers, Series 6.4.33, Dickinson College Archives & Special Collections.

[2] As noted in my previous post, a man named William Holmes registered a “Negroe boy named Jim” in October 1780. Georgetown University’s Cory Young has found that William Holmes died within several years of registering “Jim,” sometime prior to August 1785. (See Estate Advertisement, Carlisle Gazette, August 17, 1785, Readex Early American Newspapers Database). It is possible that “Jim” went from William Holmes to his brother, John Holmes. Regardless, what remains clear is that by 1799, John Holmes owned an enslaved man of working age known alternatively as “James” or “Jem.”

[3] Contracts for Goods and Services, West College 1803, RG 1/1 Board of Trustees Papers, Series 5.4.4, Dickinson College Archives & Special Collections; Carla Christiansen, “Samuel Postlethwaite: Trader, Patriot, Gentleman of Early Carlisle,” Cumberland County History, 31 (2014): 34.

Samuel Watts

After discovering information on Sam Watts in the Dickinson janitorial drop file, I began to wonder if Samuel Water was a misspelling of Samuel Watts. Professor Pinsker and Dickinson College Archivist Jim Gerencser confirmed my suspicions. I returned to and researched for “Samuel Watts.” The search yielded nine results for multiple people named Samuel Watts. Knowing he worked at Dickinson in the 1870s, I disregarded all entries that marked the birth year after 1870. Because all the other people called Samuel Watts were born after 1880, I was left with two sources that applied to the correct Samuel Watts. The first is the 1860 census and the second is the 1870 census.

According to the 1860 census, Sam Watts was born in Virginia in about 1836. This implies he would have been a slave during his childhood. By 1860, he had moved to Carlisle and worked as a waiter. He was married to Martha Watts who was a 22 Pennsylvanian born washerwoman. Their children were Agnes (7), Laura (3), and Cecilia (3 months).

This is the 1860 census of Samuel Watts in Carlisle, PA. Courtesy of

According to the 1870 census, Sam Watts was born in Maryland in about 1832. This would still imply he was a slave for his life but makes him about four years older. By 1870, he was employed as a college janitor. He was still married to Martha Watts, but she is listed as only 26 years old by the 1870 census when she should have been about 32 based on the 1860 census. Their children were Agnes (14), Laura (12), Henry (8), and Nelson (3).

This is the 1870 census of Samuel Watts in Carlisle, PA. Courtesy of

While I do not know which census is correct (if either) regarding Sam Watts’s birth year or birthplace or Martha’s birth year, it is very likely that Sam Watts was previously a slave. Both Virginia and Maryland likely would have enslaved him. A slavery status might also explain why his birth year is uncertain by a span of four full years. The census records also reveal that he became a janitor at Dickinson sometime between 1860 and 1870.

Research Journal: The Charity School, 1787

In order to properly explain the relationship between slavery and the founding of Dickinson, I needed to provide context about slavery in Cumberland County during the college’s formative years. To do so, I turned to the Early American Newspapers database (Readex), made available via the Waidner Spahr library. Using the advanced search option, I entered “Negro” in on of the search bars (“Negro” is often used in place of “slave” in runaway advertisements) and set the place of publication as Carlisle. Most of the ensuing results were from the Carlisle Gazette, a paper established around 1785 that served as the town’s main organ during the period of Dickinson College’s founding.

Immediately, I found a record that tied Dickinson College even closer to slavery. It was a June 1787 notice placed by Trustee John Montgomery, one of the key figures in the college’s founding. He sought to sell a “strong, healthy Negro Wench, and a female Child six months old,” along with “two negro Boys, one about six and the other about four years old.” [1] Prospective buyers would have paid close attention to the ages of the enslaved children, knowing that those born after March 1, 1780, would eventually gain their freedom when they turned 28. Still, until then, the three children Montgomery had put up for sale could be sold legally within state lines and treated in the same way as those who were slaves for life.

Dickinson Trustee John Montgomery advertises four enslaved people for sale. (Carlisle Gazette, July 25, 1787, Readex Early American Newspapers Database)

Pennsylvania’s 1780 Gradual Abolition law, and the oftentimes muddied status of bondsmen in places like Cumberland County, led to considerable confusion. In late 1796, a man named James was arrested “on suspicion of being a Runaway” and housed in the Carlisle jail. “The negro says that he was not recorded,” read the notice, an indication that local African-Americans were using the Gradual Abolition law and its strict requirements on registration to their advantage. [2]

Beyond glimpses into local slavery, I had also hoped to find reference to the school for enslaved children founded around 1788, which I wrote about in a previous post. The school was intended to offer a Christian education for the children of “those people laboring under the unfortunate condition of slavery” in Carlisle and the surrounding region. [3] Remembering that one of the pledges on the school’s founding document, held in the Dickinson College Archives, came from the firm Kline and Reynolds (the printers of the Gazette), I speculated that they may have mentioned the school in their paper.

Modifying the search terms to “School,” with the place set as Carlisle and specifying the year as 1788, I found a specific mention to the school, which the editors of the Gazette referred to as the Charity School. It described a meeting of the subscribers, in which “it was agreed to set aside that part of the original plan, which respects the negroes.” This decision may reflect the second document contained in the Dickinson archives, where the school was shifted from a weekday school to an exclusively Sunday evening school, evidently geared more towards the poor white children than those of slaves. “It is hoped that many parents, unable to educate their children themselves,” read the notice in the Gazette, “will embrace this opportunity of obtaining the aid of the benevolent.” [4]

Notice of the founding of the Charity School. (Carlisle Gazette, November 28, 1787, Readex Early American Newspapers Database)

Now armed with a name, I added the term “Charity” to “School,” and removed the date restriction. With these new terms, I found what I had originally sought—a notice of the school’s founding. The Charity School began in November 1787, “intended for the purpose of instructing poor persons in reading, who are engaged during the week in the business of their employers or masters,” and was held initially on Sunday evenings at the Court House. During its inaugural session, 23 “scholars” were addressed by Dickinson College president Dr. Charles Nisbet, who encouraged them to “acquire a knowledge of the Holy Scriptures, imbue the precepts of the Savior of mankind, and converse as it were with his Holy Apostles[.]” [5] Using the same terms, I found yet another allusion to the Charity School in January 1789, announcing that the “subscribers” (those who had pledged money to sustain it) were to meet at Dickinson College, tying Dickinson even closer to the school. [6] What remains to be discerned is why the school’s subscribers (many of whom were Dickinson Trustees) decided to “set aside that part of the original plan, which respects the negroes,” and what that can tell us about the complicated relationship Dickinson’s founders had to slavery.



  1. “To be Sold,” Carlisle Gazette, July 25, 1787, Readex Early American Newspapers Database.
  2. “Committed,” Carlisle Gazette, February 15, 1797, Readex Early American Newspapers Database.
  3. List of Subscribers, c. 1788. O-Original-1788-1, Dickinson College Archives & Special Collections, Carlisle, Pa.
  4. Carlisle Gazette, June 4, 1788, Readex Early American Newspapers Database.
  5. Carlisle Gazette, November 28, 1787, Readex Early American Newspapers Database.
  6. Carlisle Gazette, January 7, 1789, Readex Early American Newspapers Database.

Archival Research on Pinkney, Spradley, and Powell

After completing cursory searches on google and discovering Spahr’s recollections of Noah Pinkney, I continued my research by going to the Dickinson College Archives. I began by searching the card catalog but was unable to find anything relating to Noah Pinkney, Henry Spradley, Jim Powell, Samuel Water, Odd Fellows, or even Spahr.

Letter to Robert Emory on September 23, 1842 against the employment of African Americans at Dickinson College. Courtesy of the Dickinson College Archives.

I then began looking through the card catalog for Dickinson College presidents’ records after Cooper Wingert discovered a letter written to the college’s president in 1842 regarding the employment of African Americans. This means that African Americans were employed at Dickinson as early, if not earlier than, 1842. Unfortunately, this cursory search into presidential files did not result in anything relating to former slaves who were employed.

I then specifically asked the archivists if they had any files on these four former slaves. While there was nothing on Jim Powell or Samuel Water, there was a drop file on Noah Pinkney, a file of images of Pinkney, a front page of The Dickinsonian with the news coverage on Henry Spradley’s funeral, and a first edition copy of Boyd Spahr’s Dickinson Doings. Within Pinkney’s drop file was an article from the Dickinson Alumnus in 1923 about Pinkney’s death, an ad for Pinkney’s ice cream in the Literary Monthly, a few Dickinsonian and Microcosm entries on memories of him, and letters regarding his plaque from the 1960s and 1970s.

After researching in the Dickinson College Archives, I went to the Cumberland County Archives. When I asked if they had any information on these four former slaves, they said I would probably have the most luck researching newspaper articles for more information. They recently subscribed to, so I began combing through newspaper articles for mention of these men. I had, by far, the most success with Noah Pinkney. Pinkney’s articles included everything from ads for his oysters, information on his fine for selling ice cream on Dickinson College’s property, and ads his new place of business when he moved. There was also quite a bit of information on his daily life in the “Personals” section, in which he was commonly mentioned for his involvement in his church.

In addition to researching Noah Pinkney in, I also researched Henry Spradley, who also appeared often. His articles were mostly relating to his death and his appointment as a trustee of the A. M. E. Zion church. However, most significantly was a short article that stated not only that Spradley was remembered in a church service at Dickinson but that he was also important enough to the community that committees were created to draft resolutions on his death.

A search on Jim Powell on resulted in only a handful of articles. The majority of these articles were students’ memories of him as “the little, old colored man who used to amuse people on the streets by making funny faces.” At the same time, he was remembered as being “a Cumberland County Slave” and “who drank croton oil.” A search of Samuel Water revealed no matches.

After this research in the archives, I turned to census searches on This yielded me with quite a bit of information on Pinkney, Spradley, and Powell. There are no records of Samuel Water.

In my search of Noah Pinkney, I came across quite a bit of information that cooroborates Spahr’s recollections of Pinkney. I came across a Microcosm entry on him as well as a Dickinsonian article that claimed him the first to get Dickinson students interested in oyster sandwiches.

Pinkney sells oysters. Courtesy of

Beyond this, I found a Veterans Schedules record from 1890, a death certificate, and Find a Grave entry. These pieces of information stated that his middle name started with an H and that he was born Dec. 31, 1845 in Maryland, was a Civil War veteran, died Aug. 6, 1923, and was buried in the Lincoln Cemetery in Carlisle (Memorial ID number: 152658657). I also found a census from 1910 and a census from 1920. However, in these censuses, there are quite a few interesting changes. In the 1910 census, he was married to Carrie Pinkney, a woman born in Virginia, who was unemployed, was 53 years old, could read and write, and whom he was married to for 35 years. In the 1920 census, Pinkney was married to Nannie J Pinkney who was born around 1880 in Pennsylvania and who could read and write. Both women were supposedly unemployed. Because Spahr’s recollections were published in 1900, the woman who was known as Aunt Pinkney or Aunt Noah would have been Carrie. Another change between the censuses was that despite Pinkney’s listing as employed as a restaurant keeper and as the owner of his house, in 1910 his house was “free,” whereas in 1920, it was mortgaged.

When looking up Henry Spradley, I found two City Directory entries (one from 1882 and one from 1887), a Veterans Burial Card, and Find a Grave entry. Through these sources, I learned that his full name was Henry William Spradley and that he was born in 1833 in Winchester City, Virginia, died Apr. 8, 1897, and was buried in the Lincoln Cemetery in Carlisle (Memorial ID number: 130193369).

Carlisle City Directory in 1882. Courtesy of

According to the bio from the Find a Grave page, he was known in military letters and enlistment as Henry Williams, supposedly to hide his slave status. There were two census records of Spradley: one in 1870 and one in 1880. According to the 1870 census, he was a stone maison who was unable to write. He lived with his wife Mima (36 years old, also from Virginia, and unable to read or write) and their three children: Elizabeth (12 years old, born in Virginia, unable to write but attended school), William (nine years old, born in Virginia, and attended school), and Emma (eight months old, born in Pennsylvania). Between the 1870 and 1880 censuses, the family moved from the Carlisle West Ward to 24 West Main Street. In the 1880 census, Spradley was now listed as not being able to read or write and was broadly categorized as a laborer. His wife was still occupied with “Keeping Home” but their children living with them were Elizabeth who was 22, unmarried, and now unable to read or write and Sherly who was six and could read and write but had not attended school yet.

In looking up information on Jim Powell, there was nothing. However, under James Powell, which was most likely his full name, there was a 1910 census. At the time, he was 68 years old, meaning he would have been born around 1848. He lived on North West Street, had been married for 20 years, was born in Virginia, was a wage earner and laborer on a farm, owned his home and did not mortgage it, and could not read or write. His wife, known only on the census as James Powell, was 65 years old, had one child, and was born in Virginia. She did housework for a private family for which she received wages. She could not read or write either.

From these searches so far, I have uncovered descriptions, birth years, and memories of them for all but Samuel Water. Because I now have a better picture of Noah Pinkney and Henry Spradley, my next steps are to continue to look into them more closely. I will do this by searching for information from the A. M. E. Zion church and the Odd Fellows. However, my information on Jim Powell is lacking and I have yet to find anything so far on Samuel Water, so I plan to search for them next in the Dickinson College Archives to see if they and Spradley appear in the Dickinson College janitor file.


Since drafting this post, I have gone back to the Dickinson College Archives to look through the drop file on custodians at Dickinson. There is still nothing on Samuel Water, but I did find a “Sam” Watts who was a janitor in the 1870s. It seems likely that they are one and the same. I will further look into him at the Cumberland County archives. I also found four main other custodians who were employed as janitors in the 1870s. It seems likely that one or more of them appeared in that picture with Noah Pinkney. I also learned from the drop file that the janitor’s job was to keep vendors like Noah Pinkney from selling on Dickinson property. This rule could explain Pinkney’s fine for selling on the property. I also found a file on the Odd Fellows in personal files of James M. Cook. Between the two pocket book constitutions of the organization, there are two listings for two different Spahr men who were most likely related to Boyd Spahr. In the constitution, one of the first requirements even into the 1920s was that members must be white men over 21 years old. I plan to continue to search for the Odd Fellows at the Cumberland County archives as well as to look into membership at the A. M. E. Zion church. I will also try to find more information on “Sam” Watts. Finally, I will try to identify the picture described in Spahr’s recollection and the janitors who appear in the Noah Pinkney picture.