This post was written by Matthew Murphy, Head of Cataloging and Metadata.
One of the many interesting aspects of the American Historical Manuscript Collection is the opportunity for new research it provides. One such item that would benefit from a deeper investigation is the June 16, 1821, affidavit of freedom for Benjamin Smith.
Little is known about Benjamin Smith, apart from his being a free-born African American man from King George County, Virginia. At the time of this affidavit, he is said to be roughly 40 years old and to have resided in New York City for 18 years. Additionally, he is listed as residing at 24 William Street. Smith first appears at this address in the 1817/1818 volume of Longworth’s American almanac, New York register, and city directory, for the forty-second year of American independence. His occupation is listed as “victualler,” a person who provides food, drink and other perishables for seagoing vessels. Smith continues to be listed as a victualler at this address until the 1826/1827 city directory. Smith’s affidavit is signed and witnesses by Arnold D. J. Bowser, who claims to have known Smith for ten years. Bowser, about whom even less is currently known, does not seem to appear in contemporary directories.
Who was Benjamin Smith? For what reason did he need to prove his freedom, after living as a free man in New York for nearly two decades? Who was Arnold D. J. Bowser? Perhaps some of these questions cannot be answered, but this single item, like so many in the American Historical Manuscript Collection, can be the starting point from which a new historical discovery will be made.
Cataloging of the American Historical Manuscript Collection (AHMC), a group of 12,000 small and unique manuscript collections, is made possible by grants from the National Endowment for the Humanities, the Gladys Krieble Delmas Foundation, the Peck Stacpoole Foundation, and the Pine Tree Foundation of New York.