Quakers & Slavery: 50 shades of grey and then some

Researching my earliest African-descended ancestors and family in America has taken a decidedly left-field turn. Once again a foray into genealogy research has made me revise my knowledge of another aspect of American history. The subject matter? Quakers and slavery in the Colonial period and pre Civil war period.

I’m fairly certain that my high school history lessons mirrored those taught in any American high school in the 1980’s. We were given facts. Those facts were presented as facts without an invitation for critical thinking. The facts, in and of themselves, were never presented as right or wrong, good or bad. There was rarely any context. And there certainly weren’t any grey areas. History is a human affair. It’s not the pristine and sanitized subject that can be found in any classroom. It’s human, which is as nice a way as I can say that history is a dirty and messy affair.

If I’ve learned anything from studying the historical context of my ancestors, I know that history is rife with grey areas – a notion that sits uncomfortably with the American psyche. Since my return to these shores, I have re-learned that my fellow countrymen and women like things to be simple and straightforward. Black and white. Right or wrong. History is anything but. In this I hold an unapologetically non-American world view. Other regions around the globe thrive on tackling grey areas. It is the stuff of proper debates, whether political, in pubs, working men’s clubs or around the dinner table. And yes, I miss it.

There are at least 50 shades of grey when it comes to the history of slavery in America. It’s part and parcel of why Americans doggedly refuse to discuss it. There’s no established framework for having these conversations. Slavery only happened in the southern states? Wrong. The New England and Mid-Atlantic States abolished slavery after winning the American Revolutionary War? You might think that, but would actually be wrong (slavery in some of these states didn’t entirely cease until 1848). Free people of color had an easy time of it in the north before the Civil War? Wrong! Quakers didn’t own slaves and they were all abolitionists? Nul points there, my friend.

It turns out that understanding real American history, the unvarnished stuff, can provide new access routes to making genealogy discoveries. I’ll explain.

My link to the Quakers

A number of my mother’s enslaved ancestors in North Carolina and South Carolina were owned by – and the children of  – practising Quakers, or those who, while no longer practising Quakers, came from very old English Quaker families. Understanding the history and American origins of these enslaved ancestors requires an understanding of the histories of the families who sired them…and owned them.

For instance, in Edgefield County, South Carolina (including Old Ninety-Six, Abbeville and Greenwood Counties, which were created from parts of Edgefield), my ancestors were sired and owned by a few families with Quaker roots: Brooks, Edwards, Harling (originally, Harlan before moving to South Carolina), Holloway, Hollingsworth, Scott, and Stewart.

In Northampton and Halifax Counties in North Carolina, the Quaker families whose history is intertwined my enslaved ancestors, include: Bailey, Edwards (again), Harlan (again), Jones, Mendenhall, Moore, Peel(le), Pool(e), Price, Scott (again), Starr, Stewart (again), and Webb.

Many of my Quaker ancestors fled England and settled in Quaker communities in the English-controlled northern Irish provinces (i.e. Ulster and Antrim). From there, they settled in the following Pennsylvania counties when they arrived in the American colonies in the early 18th Century: Bucks, Chester, Cumberland and New Castle (now in Delaware).

Out of sheer curiosity, I Googled the phrase ‘slavery in Cumberland County, PA’ and a chapter of American history in Pennsylvania revealed itself. So much history, in fact, that I’m still working through a staggering reading list.

It’s a chapter of American history that puts my Quaker ancestors front and centre in the debate around slavery.

A little bit of historical context

The Religious Society of Friends (Quakers) was the first corporate body in Britain and North America to fully condemn slavery as both ethically and religiously wrong in all circumstances. That’s what most of the history books tell us.

While admirable, this leaves out a nugget of overlooked history and back story. The Quakers were among the most prominent slave traders during the early days of the Pennsylvania colony. They bought slaves from British-controlled Barbados and Jamaica.  While the Quakers were also among the first denominations to protest slavery, their internal battle over slavery took over a century to resolve. The fight began in Pennsylvania. There, in April 1688, four Dutch Quakers sent a short petition “against the traffick of men-body” to their meeting in Germantown, PA:

image of the 1688 Germantown Quaker Petition Against Slavery
The two sides of the 1688 Germantown Quaker Petition Against Slavery. It was written in iron gall ink and has substantially faded. The document was the first public protest against the institution of slavery, and represents the first written public declaration of universal human rights. Image courtesy of The Germantown Quakers – Photos taken by conservators of the original document for Germantown Monthly Meeting of the Society of Friends.

When the Quakers arrived in what’s now Pennsylvania, Delaware, and Maryland in 1684, they arrived in a territory previously controlled by the Dutch (New Netherlands) and the Swedes (New Sweden). The Dutch and Swedes had an established practice of enslaving those of African descent for use in fur trapping. Yeah, I didn’t know that either. It’s all the more interesting for another reason. My mother’s mtDNA is approximately 20% Swedish. She has a direct Swedish female ancestor who was alive somewhere between 7 to 9 generations ago. Old Quaker bloodlines make up a substantial part of her family’s history in the Carolinas. While I have no idea of who this woman was, 7 to 9 generations ago fits this time period perfectly – when English Quakers met Swedes in the Colonial Mid-Atlantic states.

One form of punishment for European women who had children by black and mulatto men was the indenture of their children until the age of 28 (early Colonial period) or the enslavement of their children (later Colonial period). Did one of my Quaker ancestors purchase a female child from such a union? It’s certainly a line of inquiry to investigate. Critical Thinking would suggest this is the most likely explanation.

The 1688 petition had little traction or impact. For the next 50 years, similar scattered protests against slavery were published and spoken of to an indifferent or actively hostile North American public. Early opponents of slavery often paid a high price for their outspokenness. They were disowned by family and fellow congregants, and faced public ostracization.

William Penn flooded his “Holy Experiment” with Quakers whose descendants would later find their faith incompatible with slaveholding. The original Quakers, however,  had no qualms about it. Penn himself owned a dozen slaves, and used them to work his estate, Pennsbury. He wrote that he preferred them to white indentured servants, “for then a man has them while they live.” Benjamin Franklin too owned slaves (no, I didn’t know that either). In Penn’s new city of Philadelphia, African slaves were at work by 1684, and in rural Chester County by 1687. Between 1729 and 1758, Chester County had 104 slaves on 58 farms, with 70 percent of the slave owners likely Quakers. By 1693, Africans were so numerous in the colony’s capital that the Philadelphia Council complained of “the tumultuous gatherings of the Negroes in the town of Philadelphia.”

The Harlans: A Quaker family divided by slavery

My Harlan ancestors don’t appear to have owned slaves while they were in Pennsylvania.  Those who remained in Pennsylvania became outspoken abolitionists. Their cousins in North Carolina, South Carolina and Kentucky, on the other hand, who were no longer practising Quakers, did become slave holders. Alongside Quaker Harlan relations in Virginia and Maryland.  This one family shows 2 sides of the then contemporary slavery issue in America.

First up is my ancestral cousin, James Harlan (26 Aug 1820 – 5 Oct 1899) who was an attorney and a US Senator (1855-1865), (1867-1873) and a U.S. Cabinet Secretary at the United States Department of Interior (1865-1866) under President Andrew Johnson. He was as outspoken an opponent to slavery as one can find: https://archive.org/stream/legaltitletoprop00harl#page/n3/mode/2up .

Image for 'Legal title to property in slaves'
Image for ‘Legal title to property in slaves’: the speech of Hon. James Harlan, of Iowa, on the amendment to the constitution. Delivered in the Senate of the United States, April 6, 1864. The full speech can be accessed via: https://archive.org/details/legaltitletoprop00harl
John Marshall Harlan, Supreme Court collection,
John Marshall Harlan, Supreme Court collection, photograph by Handy Studios

For the opposing view, another ancestral cousin, John Marshall Harlan (1 Jun 1833 – 14 Oct 1911) who was a lawyer and politician from Kentucky who served as an associate justice on the U.S. Supreme Court. He was Secretary of State of Kentucky (1840–1844) and state legislator (1845–1851).

John is a study in contradictions. When the American Civil War broke out, he strongly supported the Union, yet vociferously opposed the Emancipation Proclamation and supported slavery. However, after the election of Ulysses S. Grant as President in 1868, he reversed his views and became a strong supporter of civil rights. His close relationship with his formerly enslaved, beloved mulatto half-brother, Robert James Harlan, might be credited for this change in his views. He is best known for his role as the lone dissenter in the Civil Rights Cases (1883, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Civil_Rights_Cases), and Plessy v. Ferguson (1896, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Plessy_v._Ferguson), which, respectively, struck down as unconstitutional federal anti-discrimination legislation and upheld southern segregation statutes. These dissents, among others, led to his nickname of “The Great Dissenter”.

John is an interesting study in contradictions when it came to race relations in America. He was also something of a poster boy for the conflicting attitudes of the slave owners of the day. The journal article Plessy v. Ferguson: Harlan’s Great Dissent provides an excellent insight into these contradictory beliefs: https://louisville.edu/law/library/special-collections/the-john-marshall-harlan-collection/harlans-great-dissent

This is just one glimpse into how the issue of slavery impacted one of my ancestral families in the Civil War Era. It’s worth remembering that both of these men were contemporaries and were cousins from the same Quaker family. Meanwhile, in the south, they had numerous slave owning Harlan and Harling cousins fighting to preserve the Confederacy. In terms of family relations, it was a hot mess. A red hot mess. The kind of hot mess that isn’t covered in history classes.

So… what does this have to do with my genealogy research?

Plenty, as it turns out. I’ve stumbled across records that show some of my Quaker ancestors owned slaves in Colonial Pennsylvania. This could – or probably does – mean that they owned members of my mother’s family for far longer than I ever could have imagined. The roots for some of my mother’s African-descended lines probably stretch back to Pennsylvania in the 1660s onwards. That’s the first genealogy revelation I’m wrapping my head around.

an image for Negro Servant Returns, 1788-1821, Cumberland County, PA
Negro Servant Returns, 1788-1821, Chester County, PA. This is one page from this return, which lists owners and slaves. This page shows my slave owning Moore cousins, as well as the slaves they owned. I’m very interested in Silas (Moore, possibly) and Casia (Jones, possibly), two names that appear in my Northampton County, North Carolina genealogy research. The full return can be accessed via: http://www.chesco.org/1724/Negro-Servant-Returns-1788-1821
Slave Manumissions in Cumberland county, PA.
Slave Manumissions in Cumberland county, PA. Records of slaves manumitted (set free) by their masters that were filed with the Recorder of Deed’s Office. Staying with my Moore cousins, I’ve highlighted the slaves that were freed by the same family. The full record can be accessed via http://www.chesco.org/1725/Slave-Manumissions

The second point is that this earlier group of enslaved ancestors most likely came from, or had roots in, Bermuda or Jamaica or both – and not directly from Africa. A few may even have been present in the US long before the arrival of the Quakers, purchased by the Dutch and Swedish colonists who were in the region long before Britain claimed the territory as its own. That’s quite another thing to try and wrap my head around. It’s another layer of research complexity.

The third is that not all of my African American DNA matches will share common ancestors with me in the southern states. There are a handful of African American DNA cousins who are biologically connected to the same Quaker families as I am. However, they live in areas of Pennsylvania and Delaware settled by Quakers. They have no direction connection with southern states. Our common ancestors won’t be found south of the old Mason-Dixon line. Our connection will be with people who never left those old Quaker communities in the north. It helps us narrow the genealogy research field to find our common ancestors. It also gives us a more specific time frame to investigate within. Instead of looking over 250 years of family ancestry, we can cut this down to a 100 year window. I’ll take a time window of 100 years over one that’s 250 years any day of the week!

This history of my mother’s African-descended ancestors is largely entwined with the history of the Quaker families who owned them. Without individual histories of their own, I will only be able to trace them through various Quaker records and Last Wills and Testaments. This means following the trail from Pennsylvania to Maryland, Virginia and the Carolinas – to the places where the descendants of these families settled and owned slaves. Added to this are the number of slaves freed by my Quaker relations over a 150 year period before the outbreak of the Civil War. These freed slaves received financial aid enough to relocate to Ohio, Illinois and Liberia – which is another subject for another post.

I’ve had my Quaker-related genealogy research epiphany. I don’t underestimate the time and effort it will take to follow the trail of documents back to Pennsylvania, or from Pennsylvania to the other states. I hope that by tackling the trail from both ends (from the beginning to the end, and vice versa) I can connect both trails in the middle to build an unbroken line of slaves owned by my Quaker ancestors.

The end of slavery in Pennsylvania

Pennsylvania’s break with slavery was not a straightforward process. It didn’t end on a certain date. By 1790, the number of slaves in the state had fallen to 3,760. By 1810, it had fallen to 795. Slavery withered more rapidly in Philadelphia than in surrounding areas, in part because slaves did not live as long, nor have as many children, as they did on farms. In 1810, 94 percent of the slaves in Pennsylvania were in seven rural counties.

In 1779, Pennsylvania passed the first abolition law in America (http://slavenorth.com/penna.htm). The measure was praised for embodying the spirit of enlightenment at the time, but its gradual terms were far from being a godsend.

The law did not emancipate a single slave. Not. One. Anyone who was a slave the last day before it went into effect on 1 March 1780, remained a slave until death; unless freed by his or her owner. All children born of slaves after the law took effect could be kept enslaved until age 28. So it would have been possible for a slave girl, born on the last day of February 1780, to live out her life in slavery. And for her children, theoretically born as late as 1820, to remain slaves until 1848.

Total abolition didn’t come to Pennsylvania until 1847.

Here are some online resources for researching Pennsylvania slaves:

  1. Chester County, PA Slave Records (Negro Servant Returns, Indentured Servants, Runaway Slaves and Slave Manumissions): http://www.chesco.org/1724/Negro-Servant-Returns-1788-1821

  2. Cumberland County, PA:

    3.The Slaves of Bucks County, PA:
    http://repository.upenn.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1005&context=mead 4. Slavery in Delaware (for New Castle County):


  1. Gary B. Nash & Jean R. Soderlund, Freedom by Degrees: Emancipation in Pennsylvania and its Aftermath, Oxford Univ. Press, 1991.

  2. Edgar J. McManus, Black Bondage in the North, Syracuse, N.Y.: Syracuse Univ. Press, 1973.

  3. John F. Watson, Annals of Philadelphia and Pennsylvania in the Olden Time, Philadelphia, 1850.

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9 thoughts on “Quakers & Slavery: 50 shades of grey and then some

  1. Absolutely Fabulous Post! I’ve always longed for Quaker ancestry because of the wonderful records they have.

    1. I will commend them for that. And just to note that i will be doing a post covering the other side of the same coin: the numbers of Quakers who, led by their faith and the Mennonites, freed their slaves.

  2. Masterful piece; I will be re-reading it many times. (I’ve had similar surprises regarding Quakers in colonial New England.) However, I wanted to mention a book, I’m reading, which I think you would find fascinating, too, — Eighty-Eight Years – The Long Death of Slavery in the United States, 1777-1865, by Patrick Rael (2015). Particularly relevant, eye-opening (and uncomfortable) truths regarding slavery, racial attitudes and policies in the northern states. -Thanks again for a great article.

  3. Thank you for a wonderful article! This certainly puts my own family legend into context. My 5x great grandfather of Welsh descent from Philadelphia left the US with his African American wife to settle in India. There’s no record of their marriage or her name. They were settled in India by 1790. His children and grandchildren were born free and grew up as part of the British Raj. I am assuming he was Quaker, though he may not have been. But nonetheless given the climate as you beautifully showed would not have guaranteed freedom for his children if his wife was a slave. Hence perhaps their choice to move to India.

  4. I have no knowledge of genetics. It is worth noting that most Quakers from the the north midlands of England which was the area most heavily settled by the Vikings some 600-800 years earlier. I learned this information from Albion’s Seed: the 4 Bristish folkways . Is it possible your “swedish genes, could be English …or scotch-Irish Quakers who had large scandanavian genetic inheritance? I hope this is helpful. PS I am a descendant of many generations of NC Quakers..including some of the family names you have mentioned in your blog.

  5. You wrote: “My mother’s mtDNA is approximately 20% Swedish. She has a direct Swedish female ancestor who was alive somewhere between 7 to 9 generations ago. ”

    I am wondering if you mistakenly referred to mtDNA in this statement. Since mtDNA does not recombine, I am baffled how your mother’s mtDNA could have 20% Swedish DNA. Since mtDNA changes by mutation, it is passed on basically unchanged except for those few mutations to all her children, and through female descendents to later generations (as I’m sure you are aware).

    I wonder if you meant to refer to “X chromosome DNA”, since you reference direct female transmission? That would account for both recombination and the percentage you mention, which could be within the range for 7-9 generations. Especially given the tendency of some DNA to be “sticky” and be passed down intact. This is a common unintentional mixup: I’ve seen and heard even professional geneticists make it!

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