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Journeys to Liberation: Records of Mariners, Migrants, and Freedom Seekers

All throughout the slavery era in pre- and post-colonial America, individuals and families of African descent pursued paths to freedom.

Most famously, people used the Underground Railroad to escape, but other enslaved people turned to legal channels through “freedom suits,” paid for self-manumission, or experienced emancipation through African emigration. Invaluable collections of historical records provide an opportunity to read accounts (sometimes firsthand) of formerly enslaved individuals and gain insights into their extraordinary paths to emancipation.

Wagon travel

Examples of records:

  • Records of abolitionist groups, such as the American Colonization Society

  • Court records (federal, state, and local court records)

  • Crew lists, seamen’s registers, and passenger lists

  • First-person accounts from the Underground Railroad

  • Runaway advertisements in newspapers


Check this space for future updates!


Completed Databases


Upcoming Databases

  • Biographical entries of New Bedford and coastal towns also once part of Dartmouth (Westport, Dartmouth, and Fairhaven) of people of African descent
  • Biographical entries of the New Bedford whaling crew and tradespeople of African descent from the United States, Cape Verde, the West Indies, and St. Helena between the 1860s and 1925
  • Whaling Crew List Database (in partnership with the New Beford Whaling Museum)

Ancestor Spotlight: Henry B. Freeman

In the early 19th century, New Bedford provided many opportunities in the maritime industry that appealed to formerly enslaved people across the Diaspora. Joining the crew of a whaling ship was especially attractive, as the long voyages at sea could help formerly enslaved men avoid recapture. One such crew member was Henry B. Freeman. Born in Smithfield, North Carolina, he arrived in New Bedford during the 1830s.

New Bedford Wharf


Freedom on the Move: Rediscovering the Stories of Self-Liberating People
Online database of "runaway slave" ads

North Carolina Runaway Slave Notices Project

New Bedford Historical Society
Virtual Exhibit: Sailing to Freedom: Maritime Dimensions of the Underground Railroad

New Bedford Whaling Museum
Search the Whaling Crew List Database

National Maritime Digital Library



Bolster, Jeffrey. Black Jacks: African American Seamen in the Age of Sail . Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1997. View Catalog

Grover, Kathryn. The Fugitive’s Gibraltar: Escaping Slaves and Abolitionism in New Bedford, Massachusetts . Amherst, MA: University of Massachusetts Press, 2001. View Catalog

Handsman, Russel G., Kathryn Grover, and Donald Warrin. New Bedford Communities of Whaling: People of Wampanoag, African and Portuguese Island Descent, 1825 – 1925, New Bedford Whaling National Historical Park, Special Ethnographic Report, National Park Service, Boston, MA 2021. Read Online

Hayden, Robert C. African-Americans and Cape Verdean-Americans in New Bedford: A History of Community and Achievement . Boston: Select Publications, 1993. Read Online

Mulderink III, Earl F. New Bedford’s Civil War. New York: Fordham University Press, 2012. View Catalog

Newby-Alexander, Cassandra. Virginia Waterways and the Underground Railroad . Charleston, SC: The History Press, 2017. View Catalog

Putney, Martha S. Black Sailors: Afro-American Merchant Seamen and Whalemen Prior to the Civil War . New York: Greenwood Press, 1987. Read Online

Walker, Timothy, ed. Sailing to Freedom: Maritime Dimensions of the Underground Railroad . Amherst, MA and Boston: University of Massachusetts Press, 2021. View Catalog