One was sold away from her children. Another was freed and became a businessman. Others were freed only to be kidnapped and sold back into slavery. These are just a few stories of people who were enslaved in Illinois.
Contrary to what we’ve been told and taught, Illinois was not a free state. Slavery and indentured servitude —slavery by another name — were practiced here from the early 1700s until 1863. Blacks (and Native Americans early on) were bought, sold, auctioned, kidnapped, indentured, punished, controlled, gifted and taxed as property in the Land of Lincoln.
We know this from our state Constitution, which allowed and regulated enslavement; from newspapers, which advertised slave sales and rewards for escaped slaves; from emancipation records, bills of sale, probate records, wills and tax records which detailed transactions involving enslaved people (many are archived online at the Illinois State Archives Servitude and Emancipation Records); and from manuscripts and books, which gave first-hand accounts of the times.
According to the federal censuses, Illinois had 168 enslaved people in 1810 and 917 by 1820. Slavery began to decrease here in the 1840s, when the courts started favoring enslaved people in rulings and declared that blacks in the state were presumed to be free, unless proven otherwise. Before that, African-Americans in Illinois were presumed to be enslaved, unless they could prove otherwise.
We don’t know much about the men, women and children who were enslaved here. Most of their stories are lost. The majority couldn’t read or write (it was illegal in some states to teach slaves), so they didn’t chronicle their lives. Newspapers weren’t interested in them, unless they were for sale or ran away. Society considered enslaved people second class citizens (at best), so histories typically exclude them.
Their lives were controlled by their owners and the increasingly oppressive so-called black code laws of Illinois which, by 1845, mandated that: slaves not venture 10 miles away from their master’s home without permission; not gather in groups of three or more; not engage in commerce without their owner’s permission; and not be “lazy, disorderly, or misbehave.” Disobedience was punishable by whipping, up to 40 lashes, and sometimes, jail.
We know Illinois slaves’ names and sometimes ages from business records. We know parts of their stories from legal cases, when the rare slave — with the help of a sympathetic lawyer — sued their owner for assault, freedom or both. Occasionally, we learn a slave’s story from others’ letters or diaries.
What were their lives like? Was slavery in the north as “bad” as in the south? For a time, “Illinois was as absolutely a slave State as was Mississippi,” wrote Ethan A. Snively in the 1901 Transactions of the Illinois State Historical Society.
Here are three stories of enslaved Illinoisans, pieced together from various records (see the Bibliography below).
Like many slaves in the Illinois State Archives Servitude and Emancipation Records, Peggy didn’t have a last name. Enslaved people were usually given their owner’s surname, but that meant Peggy’s would have changed almost as often as Illinois’ weather.
In 1812, when she was “about 20,” Peggy was indentured to William Morrison, a large slaveholder in Kaskaskia. By Illinois law, slaves were “voluntarily” indentured for up to 99 years. Although they technically agreed to the arrangement, the reality was if they didn’t, their owner often threatened to sell them south into slavery. It was slavery here or slavery there.
Over the next three years, Peggy was enslaved in southern Illinois to three more men. Morrison gave her to Moses Short in 1814. The next year, Short sold Peggy “with her children, Keyzy and Charlotte” for $500 to Nicholas Jarrot in Cahokia. (His home is a state historic site.) Six months later Jarrot sold Peggy, without her children, to his son-in-law, Clayton Tiffin, who may have been cruel. Another of Tiffin’s slaves later charged him with assault, trespass and false imprisonment, charging that Tiffin “beat, assaulted, bruised, ill treated and imprisoned” him for no cause. The slave eventually won the case.
We don’t know what happened to Peggy after she was sold to Tiffin in 1815. She might still have been enslaved to him in 1820; he had four female slaves then, according to the federal census.
Swansey was owned by a family of ne’er-do-well brothers by the name of Duncan, who had a record of violence and misdeeds, and owned at least seven slaves at one time. They lived in Hopkinsville, Kentucky, near the border of southeastern Illinois, where our state’s salt works were located. Their slaves were their bread and butter; the Duncans made them toil in the salt works and the lead mines in Galena and pocketed their pay.
In 1828, the Duncans moved Swansey and a few other slaves from the salt works to the lead mines. There, Swansey weighed lead on the levee and mined for ore. After two years, Swansey and the other Duncan slaves in Galena sued James, the head of the Duncan family, for freedom.
The Duncans had developed tricks to escape these kinds of charges, which came regularly. Their slaves sued them 16 times. First, James claimed that he didn’t own their slaves in Galena, one of his brothers did, thereby nullifying the lawsuit. Then, James moved the enslaved men to St. Louis. In her book “Redemption Songs,” historian Lea VanderVelde writes: “Whenever these enslaved people sought their freedom, the brothers seized them, moved them across state boundaries, always threatening to carry out the ultimate penalty, to sell them south.”
Later, Swansey and some of the other enslaved men (who may have been his biological brothers and their owners’ stepbrothers) sued the Duncans for freedom again. At this point, a former Duncan slave bought Swansey’s freedom.
In 1832, Swansey went back to Galena and changed his last name from Duncan to Adams. He bought the freedom of his future wife, Margaret Menard, who had been indentured to a Kaskaskia man for 99 years. They married in Galena where Swansey bought property, built a home, headed a large family, and went into business for himself. He became the town’s water dealer, delivering water to businesses and homes with his horse and cart, earning $1.25 to $2.00 a day.
When Swansey died in 1880 — in his 80s, after a fall from his wagon — Galena newspapers praised him.
Most of the Duncans’ slaves found liberty. One died enslaved, but two successfully sued for their freedom, two had their freedom purchased by a former Duncan slave, and two were freed by the Duncans for unknown reasons. One became a slaveholder himself but freed his slave in his will.
As for the Duncan brothers, they died broke. Two of their former slaves bought their Illinois property.
Eveyone in the Singleton family was enslaved – Phillis, the mother; James, the father; and their sons, James, Isaac and John.
Phillis and her sons were freed by Joseph Ogle of St. Clair County in 1815, where they appeared before court to prove their emancipated status. This was required of all African-Americans in Illinois at the time.
Two years later, the father, who was probably in his late 40s or even 50s, was indentured for nine years in St. Clair County, at a different home from the last place his wife and children lived. In 1818, he was bought by a new owner, a man in Madison County, who indentured James for 12 years.
During this time (in 1821), the Singletons’ youngest son, John, was kidnapped and sold into slavery in Alabama. He was about 18 years old. John fought back and sued for his freedom six years later in Missouri. But he was kidnapped again by a different man and ran away to St. Louis, where he was arrested and jailed as a runaway slave.
Surprisingly, both of John’s kidnappers were convicted, which was rare. When John sued the second kidnapper, the judge ordered the offender to pay John damages — one penny. But he also granted John his freedom.
John’s mother, Phillis, may have been kidnapped herself in 1824. (Court records don’t list a last name for this free black woman who was kidnapped, but her first name and middle initial match Phillis’.) If this was Phillis Singleton, she was kidnapped from St. Louis in 1824 and taken to Baton Rouge, Louisiana, where she was sold back into slavery for 11 years.
By 1839, we know Phillis Singleton was living free in Brooklyn, Illinois, a community just north of East St. Louis, which has been called “America’s first black town” and included many free and formerly enslaved African-Americans. “The kidnapping of her son and herself would have been a motivator for moving to Brooklyn, a safe haven, since Phillis was an early resident of the town,” says Miranda Yancey-Bailey, an archaeologist who has studied Brooklyn and its early residents.
(Author’s note: My research on the stories of individual enslaved Illinoisans began with a grant from the Illinois Humanities Council through the Academy of Lifelong Learners at Lincoln Land Community College in 2019.)
-Lea VanderVelde, “Redemption Songs: Suing for Freedom before Dred Scott,” Oxford University Press, 2014
-Genealogical Research Series Pamphlet No. 6, Illinois State Archives
-Revised Statutes of Illinois, 1845, Chapter LXXIV – Negroes, Mulattoes, &c, pp 387-390
-Shelby Miller, Curator, Galena-Jo Daviess County Historical Society and Museum
-Galena Weekly Gazette, Galena, Illinois: April 30, 1880; March 22, 1894
-“History of Jo Davies County, Illinois,” 1878, H. F. Kett and Company, p. 257
-March 28, 1845 Jo Daviess County, Illinois marriage record of Swansey and Margaret Adams
-Scott Wolfe, Historical Librarian, Galena Public Library
-John S. Collins, “Across the Plains in ’64,” 1904, pp. 141-142
-Galena Industrial Press newspaper, Galena, Illinois, March 29, 1880
-Darrel Dexter, “Bondage in Egypt: Slavery in Illinois,” The Center for Regional History, Southeast Missouri State University, 2010
-I. J. Montague, “The History of Randolph County, Illinois,” 1859
-Richard E. Hart, “Lincoln’s Springfield: The Early African American Population of Springfield, Illinois (1818-1861),” 2008
-“History of Madison County, Illinois,” W. R. Brink and Co., 1882
-John Singleton v. Alexander Scott and Robert Lewis, St. Louis Circuit Court Records
-Transactions of the Illinois State Historical Society, 1902
-George Murray McConnel, “Illinois and Its People,” Transactions of the Illinois State Historical Society, 1902, pp. 78-79
# # #