A Rare Find: Passport Applications of Free Blacks

Today’s post was written by Rebecca Sharp, Archives Specialist at the National Archives in Washington, DC.

Several years ago, I received a telephone call from a researcher that turned out to be an extremely intriguing and challenging question.  The researcher wanted to know if there might be additional documentation relating to the passport application of Robert Morris, Jr. As you can see by the accompanying image, Charles Sumner wrote the following succinct letter to the Secretary of State: “Sir, Please send me a passport for Robert Morris Jr. of Boston, a citizen of the United States.”

letter from Charles Sumner asking for the passport of Robert Morris, Jr.
Passport application #1673 issued to Robert Morris, Jr. June 28, 1861 (NAID 566612)

The researcher had viewed the application online through one of the National Archives and Records Administration’s (NARA) online partners (note: both Ancestry.com and Fold3.com have passport application databases that are subscription based, but you can view them for free from any NARA research facility).  I first examined the microfilm to determine if a page had been accidentally omitted during the digitization process.  To my dismay, I saw the same single page.  I then checked with our staff at the National Archives at College Park who confirmed that the original passport application was exactly the same single page as the microfilm copy.

Although we are not staffed to conduct substantial research and we sometimes encounter gaps in the records for which there are no explanation, I decided to continue searching because this passport application was lacking the required information.  Passport applications are minimally supposed to provide the applicant’s citizenship information, age, and a physical description.  A few years ago, the internet did not include the plethora of digitized secondary and primary sources that are available at the click of a mouse today.  After conducting several key word searches, I finally found a promising lead; a reference to the works of Charles Sumner. 

I visited NARA’s Archives Library Information Center and one of our librarians showed me where to find Sumner’s works.  I paged through until I found a section entitled “Passports for Colored Citizens.” Sumner explained that prior to 1862, the Federal government did not consider free blacks to be citizens of the United States.  As such, the Department of State rarely issued passports to free Blacks. My jaw dropped when I read how Sumner assisted Robert Morris, Jr. become an exception to the aforementioned Department of State passport issuance policy.  When Mr. Morris did not receive a passport in a timely fashion, he enlisted the assistance of Sumner who contacted the Secretary of State, William H. Seward.  Seward informed Sumner that he would not issue a passport based on Mr. Morris’ physical description, but he would approve a passport if Sumner verified Morris’ citizenship. My jaw dropped (again) when I read that Sumner sent a June 27, 1861 letter to Seward requesting “Sir, Please send me a passport for Robert, Jr., of Boston, a citizen of the United States.”  My research had come full circle. I was reading a published transcription of the handwritten passport application in NARA’s holdings as well the explanation of its brevity. If you would like to view the section of the book entitled “Passports for Colored Citizens,” see pages 229 and 230 of Charles Sumner His Complete Works, Statesman Edition, Volume VII.  Boston: Lee and Shepard, 1900 (viewed online at with Google Books on 9/27/2017). 

I have viewed numerous passport applications over the last decade.  To date, I have only seen two passport applications relating to free Blacks that were issued prior to the Civil War. The second application #3373 was issued to Robert Purvis on May 19, 1834, in the Passport Applications, 1795-1905 (NAID 566612, National Archives Microfilm Publication M1372, roll 2).

sheet with physical description of Robert Purvis
letter protesting the delay in issuing a passport to Robert Purvis
continuation of letter
Portion of Passport Application #1673 issued to Robert Morris, Jr. May 19, 1834 (NAID 566612)

If you are searching for the passport application of a free Black person, please know that there is an extremely remote chance that you will find a record.  To determine whether or not a record exists, you will need to conduct a search for a passport application. There is always a possibility that you may find a rare gem.

Researcher Note: Prior to the mid 19th century, passports were sometimes issued by state governments.  Another source of documentation may be the state archives for the state of residence of the individual who is the subject of your research project.  

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