A thwarted kidnapping: Shipman and Mose – the rest of the story

By Jared Olar

Local History Specialist

In September 2013 and January 2014, we recalled a dramatic story that was recorded in Charles C. Chapman’s “History of Tazewell County, Illinois” (1879) – the stirring account of the kidnapping of a family of free blacks from rural Tazewell County in 1827, and the bold and decisive actions taken by some of the county’s early settlers to rescue the victims.

The story, as Chapman recorded it, tells of how an early Tazewell County settler named Shipman had brought a family of free blacks with him to Illinois. The story in Chapman’s account does not name any of the blacks except the father, who is referred to simply as “Mose.”

The kidnappers struck in the middle of the night, seizing Mose and his family, but before the criminals had gone very far, Moses (who had a double row of sharp teeth) gnawed through his ropes and escaped, making his way back to the settlement and alerting his fellow pioneers. Johnson Sommers, William Woodrow, and Absalom Dillon mounted their horses and gave chase.

The pioneers rode hard in pursuit of the traffickers and managed to intercept them in St. Louis, Missouri, both pursuers and pursued landing on the Missouri side of the Mississippi River at the same time. Chapman’s account concludes:

“. . . Sommers jumped from his horse, gathered up a stone and swore he would crush the first one who attempted to leave the boat, and the men, who could steal the liberty of their fellow men, were passive before the stalwart pioneers.

“One of the pioneers hurried up to the city, and procured the arrest of the men. We do not know the penalty inflicted, but most likely it was nothing, or, at least, light, for in those days it was regarded as a legitimate business to traffic in human beings. The family was secured, however, and carried back to this county, where most of them lived and died. All honor to the daring humane pioneers.”

Quite frustratingly to local historical researchers, Chapman provides no other information on Mose and his family. He does not even tell us who “Shipman” was who had brought Mose and his family to Tazewell County. But subsequent research by members of the Tazewell County Genealogical & Historical Society was able to determine that “Shipman” was a Revolutionary War veteran from Kentucky named David Shipman (c.1760-1845) who is recorded as being buried in Antioch Cemetery near Tremont. Shipman’s probate file shows that the full name of “Mose” was “Moses Shipman,” who had adopted his former master’s surname, apparently out of gratitude for David Shipman’s having freed him and his wife and children. Moses and his family must have held David Shipman in great fondness, for when David died without any children, Moses handled the funeral arrangements and then purchased most of David’s possessions at the estate auction. The probate file includes reimbursement for Moses Shipman due to the diligent care he provided for David and David’s wife during their final years.

That still leaves numerous questions unanswered, though – namely, why did David Shipman come to Illinois, how and why did he free his slaves, and who were the other members of Moses Shipman’s family?

Census, marriage, and military records for the mid-19th century tell of several African-American Shipmans living in Tazewell and Peoria counties. No doubt they were related to Moses Shipman, very probably his children. One of them, as we mentioned a few weeks ago, was Pvt. Thomas G. L. Shipman, a Pekin native who served in the 29th U.S. Colored Infantry as a sharpshooter during the Civil War, giving his life for his country on 31 March 1865 and leaving a widow, Martha, and son, Franklin.

Another African-American Shipman was a woman named Mary Ann, whose son George W. Lee also served in the Colored Infantry during the war, afterwards marrying Mary Jane Costley, one of the children of Nance Legins-Costley of Pekin (but it is unknown if George and Mary Jane had any children, or least any who survived infancy).

While these records tell us a good deal about the African-American Shipmans of Tazewell and Peoria counties, they of themselves offer no confirming evidence that they were children of Moses Shipman, nor do they tell us who their mother was, or how and why David Shipman brought them to Tazewell County.

Research conducted by Susan Rynerson of the Tazewell County Genealogical & Historical Society has provided the answers to those questions, and then some.

The most important thing that Rynerson has discovered is that, contrary to the impression left by Chapman’s account, the family of Moses Shipman was not immediately brought back to Tazewell County. Rather, it took the intrepidity and endurance of Moses’ wife Milly, supported by the steadfast advocacy of Tazewell County’s abolitionist settlers, to convince Missouri’s courts that Milly Shipman, her children, and the others who had been kidnapped were free persons.

The full story of the ordeal of Milly Shipman and her children and companions can be learned by studying the 150 pages of the case file of Milly v. Stephen Smith (including papers from three related cases), which is available at the website of the library of Washington University in St. Louis, Missouri. Milly’s 1827 case can be compared to the steadfast efforts of Nance Legins-Costley to secure recognition of her freedom, which at last was obtained through the 1841 case of Bailey v. Cromwell & McNaghton.

From those documents we learn that the kidnapping of the Shipman family was not a random attack of slavers looking for likely victims. It was more in the line of a family dispute involving a potential heir of David Shipman – namely, David’s nephew Stephen Smith of Kentucky, to whom David owed a sum of money. To help pay off that debt, two of David Shipman’s slaves in Shelby County, Kentucky, named Sarah, 27, and Eliza, 15, were seized and sold.

David, however, evidently wanted his slaves to be free, so he and his wife moved to Madison, Indiana, with the rest of his slaves. There on 3 Oct. 1826, David filed and recorded Deeds of Emancipation for the rest of his slaves, i.e., Moses, 30, Milly, 25, their children Allen, 4, Mary Ann, 3, and David, 15 months, and two others named Henry Dick, 16, and William, 12. David Shipman then moved to Tazewell County, Illinois, bringing his newly freed companions with him. (Mary Ann is certainly the Mary Ann Shipman Lee who was mother of Pvt. George W. Lee, while little David Shipman must be the David Shipman who married Elizabeth Ashby of the Fulton County African-American Ashbys.)

David Shipman’s actions were not at all to the liking of his nephew Stephen Smith, who had expected to inherit his uncle’s slaves and planned to sell them in order to obtain money to buy land. When he found out where his uncle had gone, he visited his uncle in Illinois and attempted to take the former slaves with him, but was prevented from doing so.

Smith then gathered a gang of kidnappers and on the night of 4 May 1827 – while everyone was asleep at his uncle’s home at what would later become Circleville in Tazewell County – seized the former slaves and dragged them down to the St. Louis slave market. Smith and his gang managed to grab Moses, Milly, little David, David’s infant brother (probably Charles), as well Henry Dick and William – but as we have seen, Moses escaped and made it back home, alerting his fellow settlers to what had happened.

The rescuing posse intercepted Smith and his gang with their victims on 8 May 1827. The posse members, including Nathan Dillon, quickly filed papers in St. Louis court to prevent Smith from carrying the kidnapping victims to any other jurisdiction. That gave Moses’ wife Milly and her companions time to file a freedom lawsuit that same month. (In one of the documents in the Milly v. Stephen Smith court file, Smith complains about what he saw as the meddling of David Shipman’s Quaker neighbors.)

As historian Lea VanderVelde has related at length in her 2014 book “Redemption Songs: Suing for Freedom before Dred Scott,” Milly was one of numerous free blacks who petitioned for their freedom in Missouri during the 1800s under the legal rule then reigning in Missouri courts of “once free always free.” That is, even though Missouri was a slave state, their courts in those days did not allow the practice of kidnapping a free black in one state and selling him into slavery in Missouri. Just last month, on June 20 during Juneteenth weekend, a new memorial was unveiled outside the Civil Courts Building in St. Louis, inscribed with the names of every black person who brought a freedom suit in Missouri. Among the names on the memorial under the year 1827 are “Milly, a free mulatto woman,” “Harry Dick, a free negro man,” “William, a free negro boy,” and “David Shipman, a free mulatto boy.

Among the names inscribed on the new St. Louis Freedom Suits Memorial are Milly, Harry Dick, William, and David Shipman, four free blacks who were kidnapped from Tazewell County in May 1827 by Stephen Smith, who wished to turn a profit by selling them back into slavery. The new monument was erected and dedicated during the Juneteenth weekend last month, on 20 June 2022.

Milly and the others were held in St. Louis as her case slowly made its way through Missouri’s circuit court as depositions were taken from relevant witnesses in Kentucky and Illinois – with attorneys even traveling to the home of John L. Bogardus in Peoria to take deposition statements. The circuit court erroneously ruled in favor of Smith, claiming that David Shipman was not legally able to free his slaves on account of the money he owed his nephew. However, that judgment was overturned by the Missouri Supreme Court 23 Sept. 1829, finding that Shipman’s debt did not bar him from freeing his slaves. The case was then remanded to the circuit court, which confirmed the Supreme Court’s decision on 13 April 1830, and Smith was ordered to repay to Milly and her companions all court costs.

Milly and her children were at last able to reunite with Moses Shipman in Tazewell County. The 1840 U.S. Census shows David Shipman living in Tazewell County as the head of a household that included black persons whom Susan Rynerson has plausibly identified as Moses Shipman and wife Milly and their children Allen, Mary Ann, David, Charles, and Thomas, along with Henry Dick and William.

As I noted above, a few weeks ago we recalled the life of Thomas Shipman and his service in the Civil War. I am indebted to Susan Rynerson for bringing to my attention the fact that on the Tazewell County Veterans Memorial outside the courthouse, Thomas Shipman’s name is listed immediately below Milton S. Sommers, who was a son of Johnson Sommers, one of the men who pursued Stephen Smith to St. Louis and prevented Thomas’ mother and brothers from being sold back into slavery.

This is the first page of the St. Louis freedom suit petition of Milly Shipman, Harry Dick, William, and David Shipman, free blacks who were kidnapped in May 1827from their home in Tazewell County and dragged down to St. Louis for the purpose of selling them back into slavery. IMAGE FROM WASHINGTON UNIVERSITY IN ST. LOUIS LIBRARY WEBSITE.
This is the second page of the freedom suit petition of Milly Shipman, Harry Dick, William, and David Shipman. Significantly, each of the petitioners signed their own names, indicating that their former owner David Shipman had been teaching them how to read and write. IMAGE FROM WASHINGTON UNIVERSITY IN ST. LOUIS LIBRARY WEBSITE.
This is the first page of an informative petition of Tazewell County settler Nathan Dillon supporting the fact that Milly Shipman, Harry Dick, William, and David Shipman were free. Dillon also relates how the four were kidnapped by Stephen Smith, nephew of their former master David Shipman. IMAGE FROM WASHINGTON UNIVERSITY IN ST. LOUIS LIBRARY WEBSITE.
This is the second page of a petition of Tazewell County settler Nathan Dillon supporting the fact that Milly Shipman, Harry Dick, William, and David Shipman were free. IMAGE FROM WASHINGTON UNIVERSITY IN ST. LOUIS LIBRARY WEBSITE.

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Jacob Tharp’s memoir of Pekin’s founding

By Jared Olar
Library assistant

The founding of Pekin was due to the influx of settlers of central Illinois during the 1820s, in the decade following Illinois statehood. This area’s newcomers in that wave of settlement were first attracted to Fort Clark (Peoria), but before long pioneers were establishing homesteads up and down the Illinois River valley in Peoria’ vicinity.

Pekin, as it well known, began with Jonathan Tharp’s homestead of 1824 on a ridge above the Illinois River, at what is now the foot of Broadway near downtown Pekin. Within a year, Tharp had been joined by several other settlers, including his own father Jacob Tharp (1773-1871) and brother Northcott Tharp, and his friend Jesse Eggman, all of whom arrived in 1825 and built cabins near Jonathan’s.

Most of what we know of Pekin’s “pre-history” during the 1820s comes from three sources: the 1860 diary of Jacob Tharp, William H. Bates’ 1870 account of Pekin’s history that he first published in the 1870-71 Sellers & Bates Pekin City Directory, and Charles C. Chapman’s 1879 “History of Tazewell County.”

The 1860 diary of Pekin pioneer Jacob Tharp (1773-1871), shown here, is one of the most important primary sources for the history of Pekin’s founding.

Jacob Tharp’s diary contains the earliest surviving reference to Pekin as “the Celestial City,” referring to the old pioneer tradition that Pekin had been named after Peking (Beijing), China. A transcript of Tharp’s diary was itself published on pages 565-562 of Chapman’s history, and Tharp’s account was substantially reproduced in the 1949 Pekin Centenary and the 1974 Pekin Sesquicentennial volumes. Following are excerpts from Tharp’s diary, drawn from Chapman’s county history:

“. . . After a streak of bad luck, in 1825, [I] left Ohio, where I then resided, and traveled through Indiana with one ox-team, a span of horses, and a family of twelve persons, reaching the site of Pekin just before Christmas.

“Jonathan Tharp, my son, built the first house ever erected in the city of Pekin, in 1824, on the spot now occupied by Joshua Wagenseller’s residence. Jonathan’s farm embraced the land now covered by our heaviest business houses.

“At the time of my arrival, Jonathan was the only occupant. Their neighbors were Major Nathan Cromwell, living on the Hawley farm; Gideon Hawley, living on the Mackinaw side of Sand Prairie; Seth Wilson, living on John Young’s farm; John and Geo. Clines, between that place and Tremont; the Woodrows and John Summers, living in the Woodrow settlement; the Dillon family, after whom that township was named; the Hodgsons, friends and relatives of the Dillons; old Benj. Briggs, afterwards Sheriff; James Scott, who with Wilson, acted as constable in those days; and Wm. Eads, who was the first miller in this section of the State. He ran a ‘horse-mill,’ and ground only corn. On New Year’s day, 1827, I went to Fort Clark, now Peoria, where I found a few cabins occupied by John Hamlin, James Dixon, and others. Hamlin had a little store, and I bought groceries, coffee selling at 37 ½ cents per pound. On my way home I contracted for mast-fed pork at $2.50 per hundred. I soon built my cabin, placing it about half way between Joshua Wagenseller’s house and the present landing at the river.

“In the summer of 1827, the first consignment of goods was sent to Pekin, by one [Mordecai] Mobley, the land auctioneer. I received them, and so won the honor of being the first commission merchant. Most of the goods, however, went on to Mackinaw, which was the first shire-town. Pekin at this early day, was reported to be the best commercial point on the Illinois river. All goods came up from St. Louis, which was the great basis of supplies for the settlers.

“The Government surveys were made previous to 1828. This year we were cheered by a close neighbor, a Mr. Hinkle, who came to put up a trading house for Absalom Dillon. The goods came before the house was finished, and so my smoke-house was used for the first store. This season the Methodists established a mission, and their first service was held in Hawley’s house, on Sand Prairie. In the fall of 1828, Absalom and Joseph Dillon moved to Pekin, and ‘camped out’ for a while. Major Cromwell came in 1829, and bought out Dillon’s stock in trade, when those gentleman returned to the country. In the same year, Hawley and William Haines built cabins in our town. The inhabitants then consisted of Cromwell, Hawley, Haines, Dr. John Warner, the two Hiatts, Jonathan Tharp and myself. Mr. Clark made a raft of hewed puncheons, and started the ferry, placing a stake just below the present ferry landing to mark his claim.

“When the land sales were held at Springfield, there were several claimants for the Pekin town-site. On the first day of the sale the bidding ran high, and the land was knocked down to William Haines at $20.00 dollars an acre; but he did not comply with the regulations of the sale, and on the second day the same tract was sold for one hundred dollars per acre. The buyer again failed to comply, and the tract was once more offered on the third day. A man in Springfield, named Harrington, had in the meantime a deadly quarrel with Major [Isaac] Perkins, one of the principal claimants, growing out of some delicate question. Those were chivalrous days, and he determined on revenge. So he placed himself near the auctioneer, armed to the eyebrows, and when the coveted tract was put up, he bid one dollar and twenty-five cents an acre, and swore he would blow out any man’s brains who offered a higher bid. Major Perkins was stalking around the room, armed for battle and hunting blood. There was immense excitement, and death was felt in the atmosphere, but the tract was knocked down to Harrington. He complied with the regulations and walked out feeling sublime, but the Major and his friends captured the usurper, conveyed him to a room and persuaded him to make out deeds for the prize. From these papers the original title is derived.”

“In the spring of 1830, the proprietors surveyed and laid out the town, Perkins, Hawley, Haines and Cromwell being the active agents. Cromwell did the surveying. About this time Perkins sold out to Thomas Snell, from Cincinnati, Ohio. The gentlemen were much exercised about the way in which to lay off the celestial city. The elder Hiatt had a claim upon the Lake shore, but when the land sales occurred he forgot to bid, and Carpenter bought his tract, also buying eighty acres on the east side of said tract. The proprietors of the future city included these two tracts in the town-site. Mr. Hiatt was appeased with a pony purse of seventy-five or eighty dollars.

“After some property sales, the foreign owners were bought out and the entire city owned, body and soul, by five persons, namely: William Haines, Thomas Snell, Nathan Cromwell, William Brown, and David Bailey. The surveys were finally completed, and it was found that the lots had cost just twenty-eight cents apiece. The advertisement for the sale of lots was immediately made, to take place in April, 1830. The deed of partition was drawn up before the sale, and is the one now on record.”

Many additional details on Pekin’s founding were recorded in four pages of the original handwritten minutes of the stockholder meetings of the company that founded Pekin. From these minutes we learn that on Dec. 28, 1829, Cromwell was appointed to survey and stake out the proposed town, and Cromwell reported on Jan. 18, 1830, that “the survey of Said Town, is Compleeted (sic) and the Stakeing (sic) nearly done.”

On Jan. 19, 1830, according to the minutes, the company’s commissioners met again to decide on the name of the new town and to arrange the sale of lots to be announced in several newspapers throughout the Midwest. Isaac Perkins made the motion to vote on the town’s name, and three names were proposed: Pekin, Port Folio, and Portugal. According to old pioneer tradition, Nathan Cromwell’s wife Ann Eliza had proposed the name of “Pekin,” and that name garnered the most votes – and thus Pekin was born.

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