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In 1783 Stuart George Dallas and his wife Elizabeth, formerly of the island of Jamaica, filed a manumission contract in Philadelphia for enslaved 12-year-old Samuel “Sammy” Stephens. George Bryan of Pennsylvania’s Supreme Court ordered a writ of habeas corpus for Samuel Stephens to be brought before him on July 1, 1786. The manumission contract, pictured here, is preserved in the Pennsylvania State Archives in the collection of the Supreme Court of Pennsylvania, Writs of Habeas Corpus for Black Slaves and Indentured Servants, 1784–1787 (RG-33.119).

Manumission is a term for the formal process by which enslavers give freedom to those whom they have enslaved. In the antebellum American South, manumission was rare, particularly after the importation of enslaved Africans was banned in the United States in 1808. Five states below the Mason–Dixon Line even outlawed manumission in the antebellum period. Numerous enslaved people, however, were freed when manumission was directed in the will of a slaveholder. George Washington used this method of manumission in his will, which stated that all the enslaved people he owned outright would be freed at the time of his wife Martha’s death.

Slavery came early in the history of Pennsylvania. Africans enslaved by Swedish and Dutch settlers arrived on the Delaware River waterfront as early as 1639. In 1767, however, the commonwealth abolished the importation of enslaved Africans. By that time, clergy of different denominations began to urge slaveholders in their congregations to manumit those they had enslaved. On March 1, 1780, the General Assembly passed An Act for the Gradual Abolition of Slavery, and many enslaved people in Pennsylvania were freed in the two decades following the American Revolutionary War. There is no documentation of enslaved people in Pennsylvania after 1847.

Stuart and Elizabeth Dallas were both born in Kingston, Jamaica. Stuart was the brother of Alexander J. Dallas, later secretary of the treasury under President James Madison. The Dallas family had deep roots in Jamaica. Stuart’s father, Robert Charles Dallas, was a physician and sugar plantation owner with approximately 900 acres of land and 91 enslaved people. In 1783 Alexander and his wife Arabella Barlow moved to Philadelphia because Arabella was experiencing health problems in Jamaica. It is presumed that Stuart and Elizabeth Dallas decided to accompany his brother and sister-in-law when they moved to Philadelphia, bringing Samuel Stephens with them. In doing so they would have run up against Pennsylvania’s 1780 Act for the Gradual Abolition of Slavery, which included a clause calling for the manumission of enslaved people who were brought into the commonwealth by nonresidents after six months of continued residency. This would have necessitated the freeing of Samuel Stephens or sending him to a slaveholding state or back to Jamaica. The reason listed on the document manumitting Samuel Stephens is rather vague, stating that he was freed “for diverse good causes and considerations in there unto moving.”

 

Richard C. Saylor is an archivist for the Pennsylvania State Archives and author of the award-winning book Soldiers to Governors and numerous articles on military, political and sports history.