How Peter Oliver freed himself

In June of 1800 an enslaved man from North Carolina walked into the courthouse in Lancaster and demanded his freedom. And he got it.

The man was Peter Oliver, a literate, bilingual brickmaker and potter from the Moravian community in what is now Winston-Salem, North Carolina. He knew that the law in Pennsylvania prohibited anyone from importing a slave into the state, and that doing so would mean his immediate liberation. So Oliver claimed his right. He swore to a statement that he was being held for the sole purpose of being a slave. He knew the details of his sale, and perhaps had the document itself to prove it. Then he signed his name.
Peter Oliver_affidavit
“Peter Oliver…verily believes that he is entitled to his freedom”
The judge ordered a writ of habeas corpus, that is, his owner, Peter Lehnert of Warwick Township, had to appear before the judge and show cause why Oliver was being held. Lehnert complied and presented the bill of sale. Oliver was being held because he had been legally purchased as a slave in North Carolina.
Bill of sale
Bill of sale for Peter Oliver

The judge, Frederick Kuhn then wrote out an order to immediately release Oliver. The law that he cited was an amendment to the 1780 Act for the Gradual Abolition of Slavery, passed in 1788 to clarify the first law and to close loopholes. Kuhn quoted the appropriate clause

that all & every slave & slaves who shall be brought into this State by persons inhabiting or residing therein or intending to inhabit or reside therein shall be immediately considered deemed & taken to be free to all intents & purposes

Kuhn’s order concluded:

I do therefore on due advisement & consideration had of all & singular the premises liberate set free & discharge the said Peter Oliver Negro from the said Peter Lehnert
(emphasis added)

freedom document
Judge’s order freeing Peter Oliver

A Moravian memoir of his life states that Peter Oliver “bought himself free.” Despite being a slave, he had the skills and determination to earn the money for his own purchase. Peter Lehnert, the Pennsylvania man who bought Oliver, was a Moravian from the Lititz area. Lehnert knew the law, in fact he seems to have been a lawyer. (He became a justice of the peace in 1802, and the household inventory made when he died included law books.) The North Carolina man who sold him, another Moravian, had a brother who was a brickmaker in Lititz. All the pieces fit to form a theory of what happened. Peter Oliver earned the money that Lehnert used to buy him. Then Lehnert brought Oliver to Pennsylvania as a slave with the intention of allowing him to claim his freedom.

After he did, remarkably, Peter Oliver returned to North Carolina. He continued living in the Moravian communities of Salem, working as a potter and farming a few acres of rented land. He married, had two children and died there in 1810. You can read more about this extraordinary man on the Old Salem website.

The papers documenting the freeing of Peter Oliver are housed in the archives at

From Archives Blog