The Price of Freedom: Life in Berks County After the Emancipation Act

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From the Berks History Center Research Library Manuscript Collection

In 1780, Pennsylvania passed a gradual emancipation act. The act marked the start of the decline of slavery in the state. Still, the act’s specifics were more gradual than immediate, which created a system that allowed slavery to persist in this state. There were slaves in Berks County just like many other places in the state. Like elsewhere these enslaved people struggled to gain that freedom.

In 1796, an eight year old African American girl named Margaret was sold to Thomas Boyd for the sum of forty pounds. More than likely, Margaret worked as a domestic servant taking care of her master’s house. What is striking about Margaret’s case was that slaves were, in 1780, not allowed to be imported into the state and everyone born in Pennsylvania after 1780 was not to be considered a slave but indentured. Despite these regulations, Margaret was clearly considered a slave by Boyd in this document.

After many years of unsanctioned enslavement, Margaret gained her freedom in 1816. But, the bill of sale suggests that she did so at a steep price. The bill states that between 1816 and 1819 Margaret paid $117.75 for her freedom. This cost her almost three times her original sale price in 1796. Like so many others, Margaret bought freedom at an inflated price when she should have already been free. All enslaved people were supposed to be freed at the age of 28 in Pennsylvania. In 1816, Margaret reached the age of 28. This document clearly shows the extent to which black Americans went to better their lives in a society that constantly attempted to cripple their advancement.     

Written by guest blogger, Sean Anderson as part of a project funded by the National Endowment for Humanities entitled: Metadata, Marketing, and a Local Archive: Creating Popular Interest from Archival Sources at the Berks History Center Research Library.

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A Cure for a Cut: PA Dutch Folk Medicine

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When we think about Halloween today, witches are one of the iconic figures of the holiday. Part of that image is the boiling cauldron, where the witch makes preparations for her spells and conjures up many of her evil potions. While the image of the witch is often viewed as frightening, real-life folk medicine has a long history in Berks County.

Often called “Pow-Wow,” this practice can resemble our modern conceptions of witchcraft. What if you lived in Berks County or another Pennsylvania Dutch area and you accidentally cut yourself? A document in the Berks History Center collection, and written in Pennsylvania Dutch, offers an answer. It reads:  “press the thumb on the wound and say that I should not die and the wound should not bleed, nor swell, nor fester until the mother of God bears her second son, until all the water flows up the mountain.” With this little “spell,” and a bit of pressure on the wound, the bleeding was supposed to stop. The BHC Library contains other documents on Pennsylvania Dutch folk medicine and folk religion.

Written by guest blogger, Sean Anderson as part of a project funded by the National Endowment for Humanities entitled: Metadata, Marketing, and a Local Archive: Creating Popular Interest from Archival Sources at the Berks History Center Research Library.

 

The Hexerai Letter: Supernatural or Super Strange?

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With Halloween approaching it may be interesting to explore some of the more supernatural beliefs found in Berks County. The manuscript collection at the Berks History Center Research Library holds a remarkable illustrated document from 1816 that fits this theme.

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Written mostly in Pennsylvania German, the letter prophesied that terrible events were about to occur based on the political news of the day. Called the Hexerai letter, its most striking feature is a myriad of hand drawn pictures inside. The author drew in vivid detail blood red moons, arch angels, demons, a mysterious clock, and a rendition of the day of judgment. One picture, in particular, tells the document’s story. The picture shows a devil with the number 666 written under its eyes and the name Jackson emblazoned across its forehead. That devil is General Andrew Jackson, who the author thought would soon bring doom upon the country. Produced during a time exploding with religious revival and emerging political individuality and expression, this document has much to offer researchers of the early nineteenth century.

Written by guest blogger, Sean Anderson as part of a project funded by the National Endowment for Humanities entitled: Metadata, Marketing, and a Local Archive: Creating Popular Interest from Archival Sources at the Berks History Center Research Library.

 

Welcome Guest Blogger: Sean Anderson

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Just in time for American Archives Month, the Berks History Center welcomes guest blogger, Sean Anderson. Sean will be contributing to the Berks History Center’s blog as part of a project funded by the National Endowment for Humanities entitled: Metadata, Marketing, and a Local Archive: Creating Popular Interest from Archival Sources at the Berks History Center Research Library.

Sean Anderson grew up in New Tripoli, PA and now lives in Schuylkill Haven, PA. He is currently enrolled in a Ph.D. program in History at Lehigh University in Bethlehem, PA where he is focusing on the cultural history of the French Caribbean in the later eighteenth and early nineteenth century (slavery, colonialism, rebellion, revolution). In particular, he is researching the impact that the Creole religion (Vodou) had on the formation of the Haitian Revolution in 1789. Sean’s research methodology includes looking at the religious rituals, dances, and fashion of enslaved people, which will be the topic of his dissertation. Sean also holds a B.A. in Anthropology from Muhlenberg College and an M.A in History from Lehigh University.

Sean’s project involves creating creative content from the BHC Research Library in order to entice people to visit the History Center. For the last couple months, Sean has been using the archival materials at the Berks History Center to develop the content for his BHC blog articles.  All of his blog posts are based on specific documents found in the BHC Research Library’s archival collections. Sean’s blog articles can be found here on the BHC blog page, Keeper of Berks County’s History Mysteries, and the BHC’s social media pages including facebook, Twitter, and instagram. Follow the Berks History Center @berkshistory on social media.

Sean said, “The project is a way for me to learn more about the local history of the area while using my knowledge of Atlantic History to connect that local history to broader Atlantic and U.S. historical processes.”

In addition to spending most of his time working on his dissertation, Sean plays quite a bit of soccer in various men’s leagues in the Lehigh Valley. He also works part-time as a sound technician, plays guitar, and, in a former life, worked as a brewer.