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History of slavery in Illinois

Slavery in Illinois existed for more than a century. French settlers introduced African slavery to the Illinois Country in the early eighteenth century. French inhabitants of Illinois continued the practice of owning slaves throughout the Illinois Country's period of British rule, as well as after its transfer to the new United States. The Northwest Ordinance banned slavery in Illinois and the rest of the Northwest Territory, but many slaves remained in bondage in the state until their gradual emancipation by the Illinois Supreme Court. During the early decades of statehood, the number of slaves in Illinois dwindled before dropping to zero; nevertheless, anti-Black sentiment remained strong in the state, and laws made it difficult for Black people to enter or live in Illinois.


  • Colonial period 1
  • United States territory 2
  • Slavery during statehood 3
  • References 4
  • See also 5

Colonial period

French settlers first brought African slaves into the Illinois Country from what became Haiti around 1720 under the legal terms of the Code Noir, which defined the conditions of slavery in the French empire and restricted the activities of free Black persons.[1][2] The first documented slavery in Illinois was in 1721, when Philip François Renault brought five hundred African slaves to the territory. After an unsuccessful attempt at mining, Renault founded St. Philippe, Illinois, in 1723, and used his slaves to produce crops. The institution of slavery continued in Illinois after Britain acquired the Illinois country in 1763 following the French and Indian War. At the time, nine hundred slaves lived in the territory, although the French would take at least three hundred with them as they left the state for lands west of the Mississippi River.[3]

United States territory

Slavery continued following the American Revolutionary War, when the territory was ceded to the United States. The first legislation against slavery was the Northwest Ordinance of 1787, which forbade slavery in the Northwest Territory. However, territorial laws and practices allowed human bondage to continue in various forms. Territorial governors Arthur St. Clair and Charles Willing Byrd supported slavery and did not enforce the ordinance. When the Indiana Territory was split from the Northwest Territory in 1800, residents petitioned the United States Senate to allow slaves. A proposal offered emancipation to Illinois-born male slaves at age thirty-one and female slaves at age twenty-eight. Southern-born slaves were to be slaves for life. No response to the proposal was ever issued.[3]

Illinois had a Black Code which restricted free blacks. Also, slaveowners could force their slaves to sign indentures of very long length (40 to 99 years), threatening them with sale elsewhere if they refused. Furthermore, free blacks could be kidnapped and sold in St. Louis in Missouri Territory or states where such sales were legal.[4] Also, salt was necessary for preserving meat, and the salt-works near Shawneetown were one of the largest businesses in the Illinois Territory, exploiting between 1000 and 2000 slaves hired from masters in slave states to keep the kettle fires burning.

Slavery during statehood

Slavery was also tolerated in the early years of Illinois statehood, and its first state constitution did not have a clause forbidding its amendment to allow slavery, as did the constitutions of the two earlier states formed from the Northwest Territory (Indiana and Ohio). However, due to the efforts of a coalition of religious leaders (Morris Birkbeck, Peter Cartwright, James Lemen, and John Mason Peck), publisher Hooper Warren and politicians (especially Edward Coles, Daniel Pope Cook and Risdon Moore), Illinois voters in 1824 rejected a proposal for a new constitutional convention that could have made slavery legal outright. Ohio and Indiana had defeated similar convention proposals in 1819 and 1823, respectively.

In a series of legal decisions beginning with Cornelius v. Cohen in 1825, the Illinois Supreme Court developed a jurisprudence to gradually emancipate slaves in Illinois. In that first case, the justices decided that both parties must be in agreement and sign the contract. In Phoebe v. Jay in 1828, the justices refused to allow transfer of indentures through wills. In Choisser v. Hargrave, they decided that indentures would not be enforced unless they complied with all provisions of Illinois law, including that they be registered within 30 days of entering the state. In 1836, the court in Boon v. Juliet the court held that children of registered slaves brought into the state were free, and could themselves only be indentured for 18 or 21 years (depending on their sex) according to the state's Constitution. In Sarah v. Borders (1843), the court held that if any fraud occurred in the signing of an indenture contract, it was void. Finally, in the 1845 decision, Jarrot v. Jarrot, that same court ended tolerance of slavery even for descendants of former French slaves, holding that descendants of slaves born after the 1787 Northwest Ordinance were born free.

Illinois' Constitution of 1848 specifically banned slavery, section 16 of its Declaration of Rights specifying, "There shall be neither slavery nor involuntary servitude in the State, except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted." Nevertheless, the same constitution led to one of the harshest Black Code systems in the nation until the American Civil War. The Illinois Black Code of 1853 prohibited any Black persons from outside of the state from staying in the state for more than ten days, subjecting Black persons who remain beyond the ten days to arrest, detention, a $50 fine, or deportation. The Code was repealed in early 1865, the same year that the Civil War ended.[5] In one of the predecessors of the Dred Scott decision, Moore v. People, 55 U.S. 13 (1852),[6] the U.S. Supreme Court upheld a conviction for harboring a fugitive slave from Missouri, as had the Illinois Supreme Court a few years earlier.


  1. ^
  2. ^
  3. ^ a b Lehman, Christopher P. (2011). Slavery in the Upper Mississippi Valley, 1787-1865: A History of Human Bondage in Illinois, Iowa, Minnesota and Wisconsin. p. 27.  
  4. ^
  5. ^ Bridges, Roger D. The Illinois Black Codes.
  6. ^
  • Bridges, Roger D. (1996). "The Illinois Black Codes." Illinois History Teacher Vol. 3:2, 2-12. Illinois Historic Preservation Agency, Accessed 2 July 2013.

See also

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