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.”
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).
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.
4 thoughts on “A Rare Find: Passport Applications of Free Blacks”
A fascinating (and frustrating) revelation for researchers, albeit one to which I’d add a caveat: this depended on whether the potential passport applicant was “known to be” black. Here’s what I mean: A year or so ago, I came across a passport application for someone who is somewhat tangential to my research. At the time (actually until seeing this post just now!) I didn’t realize that during the antebellum period, passports were generally not given to black Americans. But when I read the passport application, I assumed the applicant was white, based on the physical description (skin color is not included but other physical attributes are). Subsequent research revealed that he was actually biracial, with both black and white ancestry, but based on this post and the physical description in the application, I’d surmise the agent taking the application likely assumed the applicant was white. Indeed, I first learned about antebellum passport applications as a source for research when I read James O’Toole’s biography of the biracial Healy family, PASSING FOR WHITE. His research also locates passport applications in instances in which passports were granted to black Americans, but the agents likely presumed the applicants were white.
Thank you for your valuable feedback that I am sure will encourage others to look for and possibly find additional documentation. It is certainly worthwhile to check for a passport application even if the search yields a negative result. Leaving no stone unturned is always an excellent approach when it comes to research.
Passports are a bit of an anomaly when it comes to federal records. Department of State employees did not create the applications. Although the first pre-printed passport application form was created in 1830, passport applicants (or a third party on behalf of the applicant) usually wrote letter requests for passports in the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries.
This is an interesting piece of detective work.
Another thing to take into consideration is that during the Nineteenth Century, except for a brief period during the Civil War (August 19, 1861 to March 17, 1862), passports were not required for Americans to travel abroad. If it was perceived or known that the Department of State did not issue passports to them, the free Black community might have chosen to do their international travel without a passport.
I own a “colored passport” for a freed slave named Thomas H. Armstrong. Issued in 1884 June 26 .which bears the US seal and signature of the Secretary of State Frederick T. Frelinghauysin, numbered 12193