Maryland Loyalism Project

The Inspection Rolls

Background: Black Loyalists in New York, 1783
Dunmore’s Proclamation (1775) and the Philipsburg Proclamation (1779)
The Creation of the Inspection Rolls
Structure of the Records

The Inspection Rolls, or the “Book of Negroes” as the three volumes of manuscript ledgers are commonly known, are a list of Black Loyalists who fled to British lines during the war.  The majority of these Loyalists were on Patriot estates. The rolls were created by British headquarters at the direction of Sir Guy Carleton, the Commander-in-Chief of British forces in New York, and include the names and brief physical descriptions of 3000 refugees registered onboard vessels in New York Harbor during the British evacuation to Nova Scotia. Carleton commissioned two copies of the Inspection Rolls. The original ledgers created by the Board of Inquiry are in the Papers of Guy Carleton, 1st Baron Dorchester, at the National Archives, Kew. A copy made by American commissioners Egbert Benson, William Smith, and Daniel Parker was sent to George Washington on January 18, 1784 and is today in the collection of the National Archives in Washington, DC. According to historian Graham Hodges, the two manuscript copies are “fundamentally the same, with slight variations in order” (Hodges, The Black Loyalist Directory, 1996, il).

Background: Black Loyalists in New York, 1783

News of the drafting of a preliminary peace treaty in November 1782 was widely welcomed across a war weary continent. One group in British occupied New York, however, had good reason to fear the cessation of hostilities.

For the formerly enslaved who had fled to British lines and had made their way to New York, news of a possible treaty brought with it fear that their hard-fought liberty may be taken from them. The Summer and Autumn of 1783 was an anxious period for Black Loyalists. Would the treaty dictate they be re-enslaved by the victorious Patriots or would the British Command in America honor promises made to guarantee freedom to the enslaved that took up arms in defense of the Crown?

South Carolinian Boston King remembered this time in his memoirs. He recalled how Whites in New York expressed “Universal Joy” at the prospect of peace, but that these sentiments were not shared among those “who had escaped from slavery and taken refuge in the English army.” Rumor circulated that “all the slaves, in number 2000, were to be delivered up to their masters, altho' some of them had been three or four years among the English.” King stated that, “This dreadful rumour filled us all with inexpressible anguish and terror, especially when we saw our old masters coming from Virginia, North-Carolina, and other parts, and seizing upon their slaves in the streets of New-York, or even dragging them out of their beds.”

These fears plagued King and other Black refugees in New York until they were put to rest by an order from Sir Guy Carleton, stating that Black Loyalists should be evacuated from New York alongside their White counterparts. By the end of November 1783, 3,000 Black women, men, and children joined the Loyalist exodus from the new United States to begin life in British Canada. (Read more about Boston King's life here.)

Dunmore’s Proclamation (1775) and the Philipsburg Proclamation (1779)

Why did Boston King and other self-emancipated Black refugees come to New York in 1783? The simple answer is that service with the Crown’s forces in America presented a route to freedom for thousands of enslaved Blacks. New York, as the last bastion of British control in the colonies, became a safe haven for those who had taken the offer of freedom in exchange of service to the King. That the British Army in America should be seen as an agent of emancipation in the eyes of many African Americans is the result of British strategy to encourage enslaved people to flee their Patriot masters. British government officials and military commanders, looking to end the rebellion quickly by disrupting the southern plantation economy, issued orders promising freedom to enslaved people fleeing patriot masters.

Two British initiatives, in particular, affected the lives of enslaved people in the Chesapeake and are mentioned in the LCC records and the Inspection Rolls.

The first is Lord Dunmore’s proclamation. John Murray, the 4th Earl of Dunmore, was the last Royal Governor of Virginia. Governor Dunmore lost his grip on power in Virginia as resistance to British rule grew in 1775. In June he was forced to flee the colonial capital, Williamsburg, and sought refuge aboard the British ship HMS Fowey. In the months that followed, Dunmore watched from afar as Patriot leaders filled the power vacuum left by his absence. On November 7th, he signed a proclamation declaring that the colony was in an open state of rebellion. The proclamation declared, “all indentured Servants, Negroes, or others, (appertaining to Rebels,) free that are able and willing to bear Arms, they joining His Majesty’s Troops as soon as may be”. Dunmore hoped to capitalize on widespread fears of slave rebellion to scare Virginians to abandon support for rebellion. Although the proclamation applied only to Virginia, news of it spread quickly throughout the Chesapeake and into Maryland, where the Council of Safety issued orders for the militia in St. Mary’s County to watch for possible runaway servants or enslaved people en route to join Dunmore. (Read Lord Dunmore's Proclamation here.)

Dunmore’s Proclamation set a precedent for future British military orders in North America that sought to weaken colonial resolve by offering freedom to enslaved people bound on Patriot estates. In June 1779, Sir Henry Clinton, the commander of Crown forces in America issued a sweeping declaration that applied to all of the colonies in rebellion. From his headquarters at Philipsburg Manor in Westchester New York on June 30th, Clinton signed a document that offered freedom to any enslaved persons who left their Patriot enslavers and made it to British lines. The Philipsburg Proclamation expanded the reach of Dunmore’s earlier effort and was issued for the similar strategic reasons. Neither of these documents represented a genuine desire to undermine the institution of slavery. These orders were wartime measures aimed at weakening Patriot resolve by both raising the spectre of slave revolt and damaging the American economy.

The Creation of the Inspection Rolls

Black Refugees sheltering in New York in the Fall of 1783 are proof that thousands of African Americans had taken the offer to serve the Crown in exchange for freedom. However, the man tasked with evacuating British forces in America, Sir Guy Carleton, faced a challenge securing the freedom promised to these refugees by his predecessors (including Dunmore and Clinton) because diplomats on the other side of the ocean had written their re-enslavement into the treaty ending the war.Carleton created the Inspection Rolls in order to circumvent the Treaty of Paris regarding the re-enslavement of Black Loyalists. Instead of returning Black Loyalists to their former masters, Carleton proposed financial compensation to American claimants for the loss of their formerly enslaved property. This was done in accordance with Article VII of the Treaty of Paris, which stated, among other things, that:

his Brittanic Majesty shall with all convenient speed, and without causing any destruction, or carrying away any Negroes or other property of the American inhabitants, withdraw all his armies, garrisons, and fleets from the said United States. (Read more about the Treaty of Paris here.)

Writing to Washington in May 1783, Carleton informed his adversary that the British Army would not adhere to the letter of the treaty because Carleton “had no right to deprive them [Black Loyalists] of that liberty” that they possessed when he took command. The British general went on to criticize the peace negotiators:

I must confess that the mere supposition, that the King’s Minister could deliberately stipulate in a treaty, an engagement to be guilty of a notorious breach of the public faith towards people of any complection [sic] seems to denote a less friendly disposition than I could wish (Read Carleton's Letter to Washington here.)

Instead, Carleton told Washington that he would record the former owners of Black refugees as well as their approximate auction value in the inspection Rolls so that Americans could claim compensation for their losses from the British government after the evacuation. Carleton ordered the creation of two sets of inspection rolls - one for the British government and one for the American. In this way, Americans could easily claim restitution for losses resulting from the migration of their former enslaved laborers. Each entry in the rolls includes a Loyalist’s name, their former enslaver, and other details - including physical appearance, skills, and occupation - that, taken together, would denote their monetary value in enslavement.

Even as Carleton debated with Washington regarding the legality of the evacuation of Black Loyalists, he had undertaken measures to determine who among them was eligible for transportation under the criteria established by his predecessors. Carleton appointed General Samuel Birch, the commandant of New York City, to oversee the interviews of Black Loyalists at the Fraunces Tavern in Manhattan at noon every Wednesday from April to November 1783. During the so-called “Birch Trials,” Black Loyalists would identify themselves, their former masters, and provide information about their service to the British war effort during the war. If Birch deemed their statements truthful, he issued the Loyalist with a certificate stating that they had Carleton’s permission to travel to Nova Scotia “or wherever else [s/he] may think proper. Over 3,000 people received affirmation of their freedom through the award of a “Birch Certificate.” General Thomas Musgrave took over for Birch once the latter had departed New York on the 21st of August. Musgraves signed a further 340 certificates.

The bearers of these certificates joined in the mass exodus of Loyalists from New York in 1783; their names entered into Carleton’s Inspection Rolls. By the time the British had completed their evacuation of New York on November 30, 1783, information on nearly 3,000 women, men and children had been included in the Rolls. The majority of these people began a new life in Canada while others went to the Bahamas or Europe.

Structure of the Records

The Maryland Loyalist Project extracts the records for over fifty men, women, and children known or suspected to be from Maryland out of the thousands listed in the three books of the Inspection Roll. The record for each individual is divided into nine distinct columns:
  • Commander of Vessel
  • Name of Vessel
  • Name of Memorialist
  • Age of Memorialist
  • Description of Memorialist
  • Name of Claimant to Ownership
  • Residence of Claimant to Ownership
  • Names of the Persons in Whose Possession They Are In
  • Remarks
Some of these fields have been directly imported into the biographical database (such as “Commander of Vessel” and “Name of Vessel”) while others have had information extracted into fields of interest to modern-day site users.


Users might find abbreviations next to the names listed in the Inspection Rolls on this site. Please find below a list of abbreviations commonly found through the source:

GBC - General Birch’s Certificate
GMC - General Musgrave’s Certificate
KAD - Kings American Dragoons
RAD - Royal Artillery Department
WMGD - Wagon Master General Department

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