Welcome to the Virginia Manumission Database

In 1782 an act of the Virginia General Assembly enabled the voluntary manumission (freeing) of thousands of slaves in the 80 or so years prior to the Emancipation Proclamation. The motivation of each slave holder to free their slaves varied from individual to individual and many of the "freedom documents" give some indication as to their thoughts, beliefs and intentions. Though it is an unfortunate historical reality that slaves were treated as chattel property, this led to a documentation process in the court system that preserved these documents for future study. Virginians of all statuses manumitted slaves, from humble Quakers to Founding Fathers. Many manumission documents show an individual slave being freed, while the largest documented manumission being that of Robert Carter III who manumitted over 450 individuals by deed.

The word “manumit” means “to release (a person) from slavery, bondage, or servitude; to set free,” and “manumission” refers to the action of manumitting. The more commonly known term "emancipation" refers to the process of freeing slaves through government action whereas manumission takes place when masters free their slaves voluntarily. In the Colonial and pre-Civil War period the two terms were sometimes used interchangeably.

Choose a locality to view manumission documents

A project of the Liberty University Helms School of Government