Seeds of Illinois’ religious faith

By Jared Olar
Library assistant

On Friday, July 6, at 11 a.m., the Pekin Public Library will present the seventh video in its Illinois Bicentennial Series in the Community Room. Pekin’s first railroad was christened in a special ceremony on July 4, 1859. With that in mind, July’s video will be “History of Pekin Railroads and Depots,” which is 54 minutes in length.

The first week of July holds special meaning this year as Pekin and other area communities mark 100 years since the riverboat Columbia disaster of July 5, 1918, in which 87 of the 500 passengers drowned, most of the victims from Pekin. To commemorate the wreck of the Columbia, the library will host a talk by Ken Zurski, author of “The Wreck of the Columbia,” at 11 a.m. Tuesday, July 3, in the Community Room. Afterwards, at 2 p.m. that day the library will present a showing of WTVP’s new documentary, “The Sinking of the Columbia,” in the Community Room. Admission to these library events is free and the public is invited.

All day on July 3, the library will display articles and photographs of the disaster in the Community Room, including a 48-star U.S. flag from the Columbia that was salvaged the day after the wreck by Columbia survivor Roscoe Maxey of Pekin. The flag was donated to the Pekin Public Library in 1986 by Roscoe’s son Justin Maxey.

Pekin is hosting a memorial service for the Columbia’s victims and survivors at 10 a.m. Saturday, June 30, at the foot of Court Street, while on Sunday, July 1, at 7:30 p.m., the Pekin Park Concert Band will offer a concert in memory of the Columbia. Pekin’s churches have been invited to toll their bells on Saturday in conjunction with the riverfront service.

A solemn moment of memory and prayer is a fitting tribute to the Columbia’s victims, especially considering that religious faith and its public expression have always been a pillar of life in Pekin and Tazewell County – and statewide as well, from Illinois’ earliest days.

Before the arrival of European explorers and settlers in the Illinois Country, religion here took the form of the ancient nature-based or animist pagan religions of the Native American tribes. Catholic French explorers and missionaries introduced Christianity to Illinois in the 1600s, and French villages in Illinois often included chapels or churches – including La Ville de Maillet (Peoria) – and in places such as Cahokia or Prairie du Rocher religious missionaries offered Masses and provided religious instruction.

The Church of the Holy Family in Cahokia, Ill., is the church of the oldest continuous Catholic parish in the U.S. and the oldest church west of the Allegheny Mountains, having been established in 1699. The church building, still in use today, was first erected in 1786 using the French colonial poteaux-sur-solle log cabin style, and is little changed from when it was first built.

Catholic missionaries baptized many Native Americans, but sometimes the native tribes were not wholly converted from their ancient beliefs. One notable example was the influential Kickapoo prophet Kannekuk, who began a religious movement among Illinois’ native peoples in 1825 that mixed Catholic Christian doctrines and practices with Kickapoo religious beliefs and concepts. Though Kannekuk’s zealous preaching saved many of his people from the evils of alcohol abuse, Catholic priests in Illinois were grieved by his syncretistic approach which led members of their flocks to embrace beliefs that the Church condemns as heretical.

Despite the work of the Catholic missionaries, the regular practice of religious faith and the lasting establishment of churches, synagogues, temples, and mosques in Illinois did not really take root until the 1800s. This is not because Illinois’ early settlers were generally irreligious or secular in their outlook. Far from it – most of them were Catholic and Protestant Christians who had come from communities where religious practice and catechesis were a regular part of life. It rather had to do with the stark realities of pioneer life. As Illinois Gov. Edward Dunne explained in the first volume of his 1833 “Illinois: The Heart of the Nation,” pages 252-253:

“The prime necessity of the frontiersman was the preservation of his life and the lives of his dependents. To preserve life he needed shelter, food and clothing. To secure these he was compelled to give his whole time and energy. He had to build his cabin and shelter for his live stock, to watch the Indians, to track the wild game, and to make his traps and fish nets in order by hook or crook to keep hunger from his door. He had no time for education or for following the outward forms of religion. He built no schools or churches, nor had he the means to pay others for so doing.”

Further on in his account, Dunne sketches this picture of the religious landscape of Illinois in the days of the first European settlers (pages 253-254):

“The first waves of pioneer settlers in the state naturally by outward action showed but little evidence of the inner feelings of these hardy men towards religious ceremonies. The clergymen and Sunday school teachers of their old homes had not accompanied them into the wilderness. Except among the French habitants there were no preachers, teachers or houses of worship in the new land. Instead of hunting for churches which were non-existent for non-Catholics, they acquired the habit of hunting for game, which was abundant. This non-attendance at religious meetings was not proof that they were all irreligious. As soon as clergymen of their own respective religious [traditions] began to arrive and as soon as these reverend men secured churches or even temporary houses of worship, thousands of them felt and responded to the call to return to the teachings of their youth and filled the churches with zealous believers in the Christian faith.”

According to Dunne, many of Illinois’ newcomers in the early 1800s came from Methodist, Baptist, and Presbyterian backgrounds. Methodist clergy were among the most energetic in evangelizing the new state, and by 1824 the Methodists of Illinois already had a presiding elder, nine circuits, 11 preachers, and a membership of 3,705 European Americans and 27 African Americans. By the following year, the Baptists reported that they had 58 preachers and “exhorters” in Illinois. That same year there were 16 Presbyterian preachers in the state. Other Protestant denominations such as the Brethren (“Dunkards”), Covenanters, and Independents each had a single minister active in Illinois. Besides the orthodox Catholic and Protestant groups, a few Universalist ministers were also working in Illinois. As for the Catholics, almost all were of French origin in the first three decades of the 19th century, but a few Irish families had begun to arrive by the 1820s, and there were three English-speaking Catholic mission churches in Illinois by 1830.

Next week we will offer an overview of the development of religion in Pekin during the 1800s.

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Black Hawk, Shabbona, and the Clearance of Illinois’ Native Americans

By Jared Olar
Library assistant

As previously noted in this column, the city of Pekin was established at the site of a Native American village of about 100 wigwams located on Gravel Ridge along the eastern shore of Pekin Lake (near the location of the Pekin Boat Club). Pekin’s first European settler, Jonathan Tharp, built his cabin in 1824 to the south of that village, at or very near the spot where the former Franklin School stands today, at the foot of Broadway.

The Indians who lived along Gravel Ridge in the 1820s and 1830s were primarily Pottawatomi, but much of Tazewell County also was home to Kickapoo bands. In a letter dated in May 1812, Illinois Territorial Gov. Ninian Edwards wrote, “At Little Makina, a river on the south side of [the] Illinois, five leagues below Peoria, is a band, consisting of Kickapoos, Chippeways, Ottaways and Pottowottamies. They are called warriors, and their head man is Lebourse or Sulky. Their number is sixty men, all desperate fellows and great plunderers.”

While Sulky was a Kickapoo, his other name “Lebourse” is French, for he was, like many Native Americans in Illinois during that period, partly of French descent, even as his own band was made up of warriors from three other tribes besides the Kickapoo. The name of the river that Gov. Edwards said was the location of Sulky’s village – “Little Makina” – might suggest that they were living on the shores of the Mackinaw River south of Pekin. However, the distance “five leagues below Peoria” indicates a spot about 17 miles downriver from Peoria Lake, which is the river distance between Peoria and Pekin, so “Little Makina” must refer to a stream or creek that flows into the Illinois (perhaps Lick Creek?). That would mean Sulky and his band were living at the future site of Pekin around May of 1812.

Another Kickapoo chief in Tazewell County, mentioned by Gov. Edwards in a letter written July 21, 1812, was Pemwotam (or Pemwatome), whose village was at the northeast end of Peoria Lake in Fondulac Township, to the north of the McClugage Bridge. On his raid of the Indian villages of Peoria Lake in Oct. 1812, Gov. Edwards destroyed a Kickapoo village that is said to have been Pemwotam’s. In his 1879 “History of Tazewell County,” Charles C. Chapman gives a somewhat lengthy account of Edwards’ raid, describing the destruction of the Kickapoo village in Fondulac Township and of Pottawatomi chief Black Partridge’s village in Woodford County.

Chapman mentions another Kickapoo chief of Tazewell County named “Old Machina,” whose name is also spelled “Mashenaw.” Machina’s village was near Mackinaw, and Chapman related the pioneers’ recollections of Chief Machina’s displeasure at the new wave of settlers who arrived in the 1820s.

Another Native American name associated with early Pekin history is that of a Pottawatomi leader named Shabbona, whose name is also spelled Shaubena and Shabonee. He was prominent in the early history of Pekin and Tazewell County and played a significant role in the wider history of Illinois, the Midwest and the U.S. At the time that Jonathan Tharp settled at the future site of Pekin, Shabbona’s camp was in the vicinity of Starved Rock, but Pekin pioneer historian William H. Bates indicates that around 1830 Shabbona and his family had set up a small village of Pottawatomi just south of Tharp’s cabin, between McLean Street and Broadway. But not much later, during the Black Hawk War of 1832 Shabbona and his family were camped in northern Illinois.

Pottawatomi leader Shabbona, shown in a daguerreotype printed in John Leonard Conger’s “History of the Illinois River Valley,” 1932.

A member of the Ottawa tribe, Shabbona was born about 1775, but his place of birth is uncertain. In his 1879 “History of Tazewell County,” Charles C. Chapman said Shabbona “was born at an Indian village on the Kankakee river, now in Will county,” but others say he was born in Ontario, Canada, or on the Maumee River in Ohio.

Shabbona was the grandnephew of the great Ottawa Chief Pontiac, and his father had fought alongside Pontiac in Pontiac’s War of 1763. His name comes from the Ottawa word zhaabne (related to the Pottawatomi word zhabné) which means “hardy” or “indomitable,” and interpreted by white settlers as “built like a bear.” The Ottawa originally lived in Ontario, Canada, but were driven out by the Iroquois, moving to Michigan where they joined with the Ojibwa and Pottawatomi, and afterwards migrating with their kinsmen the Pottawatomi to Ohio, Indiana and Illinois. Around 1800, Shabbona married Pokanoka (Coconako), daughter of a Pottawatomi chief in Illinois named Spotka (Hanokula), and upon the death of his wife’s father he succeeded him as leader of Spotka’s Pottawatomi band.

Chapman devoted a few pages of his 1879 history to the life of Shabbona, whom he praised as “The kind and generous Shaubena” and “that true and generous hearted chief.” In his account of the Black Hawk War of 1832, Chapman wrote:

“At the time the war broke out he, with his band of Pottawatomies, had their wigwams and camps on the Illinois within the present limits of the city of Pekin. Shaubena was a friend of the white man, and living in this county during those perilous times, and known by so many of the early settlers, that we think he deserves more than a passing mention. . . . While young he was made chief of the band, and went to Shaubena Grove (now in De Kalb county), where they were found in the early settlement of that section. In the war of 1812 Shaubena, with his warriors, joined Tecumseh, was aid to that great chief, and stood by his side when he fell at the battle of the Thames.”

Shabbona’s experiences in the War of 1812 convinced him of the futility of armed resistance to white encroachment, and for the rest of his life he strove to live in peace with the white settlers who were flooding into Illinois. Many Native Americans in Illinois called him “the white man’s friend” – and they didn’t mean it as a compliment.

Together with a fellow Pottawatomi leader named Wabaunsee, Shabbona kept the Pottawatomi out of the Black Hawk War, despite two attempts of Sauk war leader Black Hawk to persuade him to join the fight. “On one of these occasions,” Chapman wrote, “when Black Hawk was trying to induce him and his band to join them and together make war upon the whites, when with their forces combined they would be an army that would outnumber the trees in the forest, Shaubena wisely replied ‘Aye; but the army of the palefaces would outnumber the leaves upon the trees in the forest.’ While Black Hawk was a prisoner at Jefferson Barracks he said, had it not been for Shaubena the whole Pottawatomie nation would have joined his standard, and he could have continued the war for years.”

This artist’s depiction of Black Hawk was published in From John Leonard Conger’s “History of the Illinois River Valley,” 1932.

The Black Hawk War was the last, desperate attempt of Native Americans living in northern Illinois and southern Wisconsin to resist their displacement before the wave of encroaching white settlers. The war is named for a Sauk warrior named Black Hawk (Ma-ka-tai-me-she-kia-kiak, 1767-1838), who had refused to accept the treaties with the U.S. by which the Sauk people had agreed to move from Illinois and Wisconsin to Iowa. Black Hawk repeatedly led hunting parties from Iowa into Illinois, and in 1832 when he was ordered to cease his “incursions,” he attempted to forge a confederacy of tribes to resist white settlement. But by 1832 it was already too late for the Indians of Illinois – though the war opened in April 1832 with an victory for Black Hawk caused by American incompetence at Stillman’s Run (in which Pekin co-founder Isaac Perkins was killed), Black Hawk’s efforts were futile and the war was over in months, having been nothing more than an occasion for whites and Indians to commit some brutal massacres. Black Hawk retreated to Prairie du Chien in Wisconsin, where he surrendered on Aug. 27, 1832, and bringing Illinois’ leaders to the conclusion that all remaining Native Americans should be expelled from the state. How differently things may have turned out for the Indians of Illinois if Black Hawk had taken an approach more like that of Shabbona and of his fellow Sauk chief Keokuk.

Chapman commented, “To Shaubena many of the early settlers of this county owe the preservation of their lives, for he was ever on the alert to save the whites.” But, Chapman said, “by saving the lives of the whites (he) endangered his own, for the Sacs and Foxes threatened to kill him, and made two attempts to execute his threats. They killed Pypeogee, his son, and Pyps, his nephew, and hunted him down as though he was a wild beast.” After the surrender of Black Hawk, for their alliance with the U.S. Shabbona and Wabaunsee were rejected by their people, who instead chose as their leader Kaltoo, also called Ogh-och-pees, eldest son of the late Pottawatomi war chief Senachwine (Sen-noge-wone).

After the Black Hawk War, new treaties were negotiated so Illinois would be cleared of all Native American tribes. The Pottawatomi of Indiana and Illinois, including those who had lived at Pekin, were deported to Nebraska and Kansas, and, and we noted before, the agonizing march of the Indiana bands is remembered as the Pottawatomi Trail of Death. Shabbona, however, was allowed to have a reservation of two sections of land at Shabbona’s Grove. But “by leaving it and going west for a short time the Government declared the reservation forfeited, and sold it the same time as other vacant land. Shaubena finding on his return his possessions gone, was very sad and broken down in spirit, and left the grove for ever,” Chapman wrote.

The people of the town of Ottawa then bought him some land near Seneca in Grundy County, where Shabbona stayed until his death on July 17, 1859. “He was buried with great pomp in the cemetery at Morris,” Chapman wrote. His widow Pokanoka drowned in Mazen Creek, Grundy County, on Nov. 30, 1864, and she was laid by his side. Efforts to raise money for a grave monument were interrupted by the Civil War, so it was not until 1903 that a large inscribed boulder was placed at their final resting place. According to the 1886 compilation “Abraham Lincoln’s Vocations,” some year’s later Shabbona’s daughter and her son, John Shabbona, came from the reservation at Mayetta, Kansas, and visited Shabbona’s Grove, viewing photographs and documents pertaining to Shabbona in DeKalb and Chicago. In 1903, when Shabbona’s monument was laid, John Shabbona again returned to Chicago along with members of several of the expelled tribes of Illinois for a special Indian encampment recognizing the original peoples of Chicago (see “City Indian: Native American Activism in Chicago, 1893-1934,” 2015, by Rosalyn R. LaPier, David R. M. Beck, page 64).

As an epilogue, in 2001 the Department of Interior’s Solicitor wrote an opinion that Shabbona’s Grove was never lawfully forfeited and therefore is a reservation owned by the Prairie Band Potawatomi Nation. The case is still pending, however.

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Celebrating and mapping Tazewell County’s history

Jared Olar
Library assistant

The opening of Illinois’ Bicentennial Year A.D. 2017-2018 was marked across the state last winter with formal ceremonies in which local governments raised the official State Bicentennial flag. The chief flag-raising for Tazewell County took place on the Tazewell County Courthouse lawn, in a ceremony organized and presented by the Tazewell County Illinois Bicentennial Committee.

Since then, the committee, made up of representatives of local communities and organizations, has continued to meet on a monthly basis to help with the ongoing celebration of the Bicentennial in Tazewell County. Among the events gearing up for the celebration of Illinois’ 200th birthday this December was an Illinois Bicentennial Tea, presented May 12 at the Pekin Park Pavilion by the Tazewell County Museum and the Pekin Woman’s Club. The event was attended by about 30 people, who listened to a historical address by Stu Fliege, director of the Illinois State Historical Society in Springfield.

One of the committee’s projects has been the construction of an online historical StoryMap of Tazewell County, an initiative of the Tazewell County Board. Janna Baker, Tazewell County geographic information system coordinator, has been at work on the StoryMap, adding the locations of county historical sites along with information about them that she has researched or that committee members have provided.

Shown is a screenshot of the Tazewell County Historical StoryMap, a local Illinois Bicentennial project that can serve as an information resource for local historical education. IMAGE COURTESY THE TAZEWELL COUNTY ILLINOIS BICENTENNIAL COMMITTEE

The sites on the Tazewell County Historical StoryMap are organized under four page tabs: Historical Places of Interest, National Register of Historic Places, State Historical Markers, and the Springfield-to-Peoria Stage Coach Road.

The Historical Places of Interest range from the sites of the county’s first courthouse in Mackinaw and the old French trading post in Creve Coeur early in Tazewell County’s history, to the location of the Little Mine Riot and the nation’s first Vacation Bible School (both of which happened in 1894), to the former Springlake Clubhouse (where infamous Chicago gangster Al Capone is said to have gone hunting) and the Deer Creek-Mackinaw Middle School World War II memorial.

The average Tazewell County resident is probably unaware that the county has 12 structures on the National Register of Historic Places, including the Old Post Office, the Tazewell County Courthouse, and the Carl Herget Mansion in Pekin, the Dement-Zinser House and Denhart Bank Building in Washington, and the Waltmire Bridge across the Mackinaw about five miles south of Tremont.

Tazewell County also has four State Historical Markers, including one for the Riverboat Columbia Disaster of 1918 at the Pekin riverfront, and one for Fort Crevecoeur, which was the first European structure built in the future Tazewell County in 1680.

The StoryMap also traces the path of the old Springfield-to-Peoria state road, a stage coach route that the Illinois General Assembly established as an official state road in Feb. 1827, just a month after they had formed Tazewell County. The route is now known as Springfield Road, though it has been a long time since it has gone all the way from Springfield to Peoria. One fascinating historical detail is that Abraham Lincoln once owned land along Springfield Road in Tazewell County.

Even after the State Bicentennial Year concludes on Dec. 3, 2018, the StoryMap will continue to be available as an educational resource.

The Tazewell County Historical StoryMap may be viewed HERE.

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Trials of the first slave freed by Abraham Lincoln

This is a slightly revised version of one of our “From the Local History Room” columns that first appeared in May 2015 before the launch of this weblog, republished here as a part of our Illinois Bicentennial Series on early Illinois history.

Trials of the first slave freed by Abraham Lincoln

By Jared Olar
Library assistant

Three years ago a book was published about a little known episode and an all-but-forgotten individual in Pekin’s history – an episode that helped confirm Illinois as a free state. The book was among the publications honored at the 2015 annual awards luncheon of the Illinois State Historical Society held April 25, 2015, at the Old State Capitol in Springfield.

Entitled “Nance: Trials of the First Slave Freed by Abraham Lincoln – A True Story of Nance Legins-Costley,” it was written by local historian Carl M. Adams and illustrated by Lani Johnson of Honolulu, Hawaii. Adams, formerly of Pekin, now resides in Stuttgart, Germany, and was unable to attend the awards banquet in Springfield, so he asked his friend Bill Maddox, a retired Pekin police office and former city councilman, to receive the award on his behalf. Maddox is one of Adams’ collaborators and over the years has helped Adams in organizing his research.

Russell Lewis, former president of the Illinois State Historical Society, is shown with Bill Maddox of Pekin, following ceremony on April 25, 2015 in Springfield. At the ceremony, Maddox received an award on behalf on Carl Adams, whose book on Nance Legins-Costley was among those honored that day. PHOTO BY PEKIN PUBLIC LIBRARY ASSISTANT JARED OLAR

Carl Adams, author of “Nance: Trials of the First Slave Freed by Abraham Lincoln – A True Story of Nance Legins-Costley.” IMAGE PROVIDED BY CARL ADAMS

Adams has previously published two papers on the same subject: “The First Slave Freed by Abraham Lincoln: A Biographical Sketch of Nance Legins (Cox-Cromwell) Costley (circa 1813-1873),” which appeared in the Autumn 1999 issue of “For the People,” newsletter of the Abraham Lincoln Association; and, “Lincoln’s First Freed Slave: A Review of Bailey v. Cromwell, 1841,” which appeared in The Journal of the Illinois State Historical Society, vol. 101, no. 3/4, Fall-Winter 2008. In contrast to those papers, however, Adams’ 87-page book “Nance” distills the fruit of his many years of historical research, presenting Nance’s story in the form of a biography suitable for a middle-school audience and ideal for a junior high or middle school classroom.

Though Nance’s story is little known today, during and after her own lifetime her struggles to secure her freedom were well known in Pekin, and Nance herself came to be a well regarded member of the community. As this column had previously discussed (Pekin Daily Times, Feb. 11, 2012), Nance obtained her freedom as a result of the Illinois Supreme Court case Bailey v. Cromwell, which Abraham Lincoln argued before Justice Sidney Breese on July 23, 1841. It was the culmination of Nance’s third attempt in Illinois courts to secure her liberty, and it resulted in a declaration that she was a free person because documentation had never been supplied proving her to have been a slave or to have agreed to a contract of indentured servitude. Breese’s ruling is also significant in Illinois history for definitively settling that Illinois was a free state where slavery was illegal.

IMAGE PROVIDED BY CARL ADAMS

Another significant aspect of this case is indicated in an 1881 quote from Congressman Isaac Arnold that Adams includes in his book. Arnold wrote, “This was probably the first time he [Lincoln] gave to these grave questions [on slavery] so full and elaborate an investigation . . . it is not improbable that the study of this case deepened and developed the antislavery convictions of his just and generous mind.”

Pekin’s pioneer historian William H. Bates was also opposed to slavery and deeply admired Lincoln. Bates also knew Nance Legins-Costley, and, five years after Lincoln’s assassination, Bates made sure to include her in his first published history of Pekin, the historical sketch that Bates wrote and included in the 1870-71 Sellers & Bates Pekin City Directory, page 10. There we find a paragraph with the heading, “A Relic of a Past Age”:

“With the arrival of Maj. Cromwell, the head of the company that afterwards purchased the land upon which Pekin is built, came a slave. That slave still lives in Pekin and is now known, as she has been known for nearly half a century, by the citizens of Pekin, as ‘Black Nancy.’ She came here a chattle (sic), with ‘no rights that a white man was bound to respect.’ For more than forty years she has been known here as a ‘negro’ upon whom there was no discount, and her presence and services have been indispensible (sic) on many a select occasion. But she has outlived the era of barbarism, and now, in her still vigorous old age, she sees her race disenthralled; the chains that bound them forever broken, their equality before the law everywhere recognized and her own children enjoying the elective franchise. A chapter in the history of a slave and in the progress of a nation.”

Remarkably, Bates doesn’t mention how Nance obtained her freedom, nor does he mention Lincoln’s role in her story. He doesn’t even tell us her surname. That’s because the details were then well-known to his readers. Later, her case would get a passing mention in the 1949 Pekin Centenary, while the 1974 Pekin Sesquicentennial would provide a more extended treatment of the case. But in none of the standard publications on Pekin history is personal information on Nance and her family included.

“What I did figure out,” Adams said in an email, “was that all the stories of Nance were positive up until the race riots in Chicago in 1918-1919 followed by a rebirth of the Klan in Illinois, and stories of Nance and her family disappeared, before the age of radio and TV.”

Since she had been forgotten and scant information was available in the standard reference works on Pekin’s history, Adams had to scan old census records, court files, coroner’s reports and newspaper articles to reconstruct the story of Nance’s life and the genealogy of her family. He learned that Nance was born about 1813, the daughter of African-American slaves named Randol and Anachy Legins, and that she married a free black named Benjamin Costley. Nance and Ben and their children appear in the U.S. Census for Pekin in 1850, 1860, 1870, and even 1880 (though the 1880 census entry is evidently fictitious). The 1870-71 Pekin City Directory shows Benjamin Costley residing at the southwest corner of Amanda and Somerset up in the northwest corner of Pekin. Perhaps not surprisingly, Ben and Nance’s log cabin was adjacent to the old Bailey Estate, the land of Nance’s last master, David Bailey, one of the principals of the 1841 case in which Nance won her freedom.

On this detail from an 1872 map of Pekin, from the 1873 “Atlas Map of Tazewell County,” a star indicates the location of the home of Benjamin Costley and Nance Legins-Costley and their children.

In his email, Adams explains the challenge of “writing about the first slave freed by Lincoln, when no one even knows her last name. OK. How does one do that? Genealogy. It is close to impossible to trace the genealogy of a slave. Now what? Trace the genealogy of the people who claimed to own her soul. It took six genealogies minimum to figure out where Nance was and when back to the time of her birth. I did what Woodward and Bernstein did with ‘All the President’s Men’ – follow the money and the paper trail that followed the money, that’s how.”

Telling of how he became interested in Nance’s story and how he eventually came to write his book, Adams said, “In 1994 my wife was diagnosed with cancer. I was unemployed, and in debt and depressed because of all this. To distract my self-pity, I took an interest in Nance and slavery – who could be worse off than they? I tried free-lance writing, but in Greater Peoria, I couldn’t make a living at it. So research on a totally new story about A. Lincoln had to be a part-time, part-time, part-time ‘hobby,’ as my wife called it. That is why it took so long: five years of research packed into a 15-year period.”

“Nance deserves her place in history because of what she did, not what the others did,” Adam said. “At the auction on July 12, 1827, she just said ‘No.’ By indentured servitude law, the indenture was supposed to ‘voluntarily’ agree to a contract to serve. When Nathan Cromwell asked if she would agree to serve him she just said ‘no,’ which led to a long list of consequences and further legal issues in court.

“What makes her historically important was when she managed to get to the Supreme Court twice. In my history fact-check only Dred Scott had managed to do that and he lost. Then I discovered with primary source material that Nance had actually made it to the Supreme Court three times. The third time was never published nor handed down as a court opinion when the judge found out she was a minor just before age 14. This was truly phenomenal, unprecedented and fantastic for that period of history.”

As Ida Tarbell said of Nance in 1902, “She had declared herself to be free.”

Adams’ book may be previewed and purchased on Amazon.com or through the website www.nancebook.com.

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Free State of Illinois: Gov. Coles calls for emancipation

By Jared Olar
Library assistant

Previously in our ongoing Illinois Bicentennial series, we saw how the controversy over slavery affected the history and development of Illinois from the formation of the Northwest Territory in 1787 right up to Illinois statehood in 1818. In fact, the dispute between Illinois’ pro-slavery and anti-slavery settlers played a role both in the breaking off of the Illinois Territory from the Indiana Territory in 1809 and in the race to achieve statehood for Illinois prior to Missouri.

This week we’ll recall how the issue flared up again during the tenure of Illinois’ second state governor Edward Coles (1786-1868).

About two years after Illinois became a state, the U.S. Congress agreed to admit Missouri and Maine to the Union simultaneously under the Missouri Compromise of 1820, which sought to defuse tensions between America’s pro-slavery and abolitionist parties by keeping the numbers of new “slave states” and “free states” balanced. The Missouri Compromise stipulated that slavery would be illegal in any new states formed from the areas of the Louisiana Purchase north of Parallel 36°30′ North.

Looking ahead, we can see that although the issue of slavery continued to simmer in the next three decades, at the national level the Missouri Compromise had moved the issue to the back burner. This arrangement endured until 1854, when Congress passed Illinois Sen. Stephen A. DouglasKansas-Nebraska Act, which repealed the Missouri Compromise and made slavery possible north of Parallel 36°30′ North.

Douglas’ rival Abraham Lincoln sharply criticized the Kansas-Nebraska Act in his Peoria speech on Oct. 16, 1854, an important step on the road that would take Lincoln to the White House. The resulting outrage over the act on the part of the free states and the abolitionists led to the dreadful violence of “Bleeding Kansas” and, ultimately, to the outbreak of the Civil War in 1861 and the final abolition of slavery in 1865.

In the great conflict over slavery, Illinois was ranged with the free states. As noted before, Article 6 the Northwest Ordinance of 1787 had outlawed slavery in any territories or states that later would be formed from the Northwest Territory. But in its early history Illinois’ place among the slave states was somewhat dubious and precarious. Most of Illinois’ early settlers came from slave states and territories, and from 1796 to 1806 there were repeated attempts to legalize slavery in the Indiana and Illinois territories.

Although the pro-slavery forces in Illinois failed to legalize slavery, effectively the practice of slavery still went on in Illinois due to an indentured servitude law that made it possible for slave owners to pressure their slaves to agree to continue to serve their masters after coming to Illinois. In Jan. 1818, the Illinois Territorial Legislature sought to emphasize to Congress that Illinois would be a free state by approving a bill that would have reformed labor contracts to eliminate the practice of indentured servitude. However, Gov. Ninian Edwards (1775-1833), himself a wealthy aristocratic slave-owner, vetoed the bill, claiming it was unconstitutional – the only time Edwards ever exercised his veto power as territorial governor.

After Illinois achieved statehood, pro-slavery forces continued to strive to legalize it. In anticipation of Illinois’ admission to the Union, the territory framed a state constitution in Aug. 1818 – but it is significant that Illinois’ first constitution had a “loophole” of which pro-slavery leaders soon tried to avail themselves in order to legalize slavery. On the question of slavery, the 1818 constitution said, “Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude shall hereafter be introduced into this state otherwise than for the punishment of crimes.

In his 1933 history, “Illinois: the Heart of the Nation,” former Ill. Gov. Edward Dunne explained the loophole in Illinois’ first constitution in these words (pp. 240, 260, 262, emphasis added):

“The section of the constitution relative to slavery and prohibiting it in the state, as amended and finally passed, was a compromise between the pro-slavery and anti-slavery members of the convention. In effect, it practically admitted that the former indentured laws of the territory practically amounted to slavery, but provided that the children of indentured persons were to become free. Under that provision, no indentures made outside the state could be enforced within the state, but the constitution failed to bind the state not to make a revision of the constitution which would admit slavery. Notwithstanding that the constitution failed to have any provision in strict accordance with the Ordinance of 1787 relative to slavery, it was accepted and approved by Congress, . . .

“Slavery had already been introduced into the state. Slaves and indentured servants, who were in almost as abject a condition of service as slaves, were numerous in Illinois at the time this constitution was adopted and, noting the word ‘hereafter’ in the constitution, there was a rush to have indentured articles approved before the constitution went into effect. . . .

“To have framed a constitution favoring slavery, or one making no declaration on the subject, would have invited a denial by Congress of the application for statehood. Therefore, some declaration against slavery was necessary, but reserving a method of reopening the question, was devised and carried in the convention . . . .”

As expected, Dunne wrote, “That opportunity soon arose and was promptly seized by the pro-slavery element in the state.

It happened following the election of Virginia-born Edward Coles as Illinois’ second governor. In Virginia, Coles held a large estate and owned at least 20 slaves, and he served as President James Madison’s private secretary from 1809 to 1815 with a special assignment as ambassador to Russia. By 1814, Coles had come to oppose slavery, corresponding with ex-President Thomas Jefferson on the subject that year.

Edward Coles, 2nd Illinois governor, 1822-1826

After returning from his diplomatic work in Europe, Madison appointed Coles registrar of the federal land office in Edwardsville, Ill. After arranging matters at his Virginia estate, Coles struck out west for Illinois. On the way down the Ohio River, Coles made the decision to set his slaves free. “He promised them each emancipation from slavery,” Dunne wrote, “and 160 acres of land and help for farming, and they, of course, joyfully accepted their freedom and every one of them agreed to accompany him to Edwardsville. Before landing in Illinois Coles gave each of his slaves a written certificate of freedom and all settled around his home near Edwardsville.

Two years later, Coles and three other men entered the race to succeed Shadrach Bond as governor of Illinois. The other gubernatorial candidates were Illinois Supreme Court Justice Joseph Phillips, Associate Justice Thomas C. Brown, and Gen. James B. Moore – Phillips and Brown ran on pro-slavery platforms, while Coles and Moore were anti-slavery. Even though pro-slavery voters outnumbered those opposed to slavery, Coles managed to secure his election because the pro-slavery vote was split almost equally between Phillips and Brown, while Moore only won a few hundred votes.

Coles decided to force the issue of slavery on his very first day as governor in 1822, calling in his inaugural address before the Illinois General Assembly in Vandalia for the immediate emancipation of all slaves or indentured servants in Illinois. The pro-slavery members of the General Assembly responded by making plans to call for a new constitutional convention, with the unstated intention of crafting a constitution that would enshrine slave-owning as a right.

The resolution to put the question of calling a new convention to the people for a vote narrowly passed the Illinois House of Representatives by the slimmest of margins, and under extremely questionable circumstances. Initially the resolution failed by one vote when Nicholas Hansen of Pike County switched sides and voted against the resolution. But Hansen’s own election to the House had been marred by a vote-counting dispute – so his outraged pro-slavery colleagues expelled Hansen from the House and replaced him with his opponent in the election, John Shaw, who then obediently voted in favor of the resolution.

Even though the majority of Illinois voters and members of the General Assembly favored slavery, Dunne observed that, “The high-handed, arbitrary and unfair methods pursued by the House in evicting Hansen and securing thereby a two-thirds vote for the convention, disgusted many fair-minded citizens who had been tolerant of slavery.” Furthermore, although those who sought a new constitutional convention had the goal of turning Illinois from an officially free to an officially slave state, they were not forthright about their intentions, and that cynical approach probably cost them support.

Consequently, despite the numerical advantage and the initial momentum of those who wanted to call a constitutional convention, in the end their effort was resoundingly defeated on Aug. 2, 1824, by a vote of 6,640 to 4,972, “after a campaign of exceeding violence, lasting about eighteen months,” Dunne wrote. It had been an ugly fight, but Gov. Coles and his anti-slavery allies, including the influential journalists Morris Birkbeck and Daniel P. Cook (eponym of Cook County), managed to prevent the prospect of a pro-slavery constitution.

In retrospect, it can be seen that the very fate of the nation hung upon the outcome of Illinois’ convention battle – for if Illinois had switched from free to slave, the proponents of slavery would have gained permanent control of the U.S. Senate, “and no law thereafter could have been passed by Congress limiting or restricting slavery in the United States,” Dunne wrote.

The 1818 constitution limited governors to a single term, so Coles left office in 1826. Though he was able to defeat the convention movement, he was otherwise impotent against the pro-slavery General Assembly, which rejected all of his nominees to state office and ignored his legislative recommendations. Afterwards Coles was sued by the State for freeing his slaves without paying bonds of $200 to vouch for the good behavior of each freed slave. Even though he’d free his slaves before entering Illinois, the State initially won the politically-motivated suit – Coles would have had to pay $2,000, a great financial blow, but Coles appealed to the state Supreme Court and won on appeal.

Wearied by his bitter political experiences in Illinois, Coles returned to the East, finally settling in Philadelphia. His was gravely disappointed by his son Robert, who became a slave-owner and fought for the Confederacy – but he did live to see the abolition of slavery and emancipation of all slaves in the U.S. in the 1860s.

In 1929, a bronze portrait of Gov. Coles was erected in his memory in Valley View Cemetery in Edwardsville. Also, in recognition of Coles’ commitment to the abolition of slavery, the State of Illinois Human Rights Commission offers the Edward Coles Fellowship, a scholarship for law students.

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