Memorial park planned to honor Nance Legins-Costley and remember Moffatt Cemetery

By Jared Olar

Library Assistant

It was two summers ago that “From the History Room” was the first to announce the recent discovery of the death record and the final resting place of Nance Legins-Costley (c.1813-1892), who is remembered as the first slave freed by Abraham Lincoln. We now know that Nance, along with her son Leander and probably her husband Benjamin also, was buried at the defunct Moffatt Cemetery that was located near the intersection of South Adams and Griswold streets in Peoria.

This is a rendering of the proposed Freedom & Remembrance Memorial Park and its monuments. PHOTO COURTESY OF PEORIA FREEDOM & REMEMBRANCE MEMORIAL PARK TEAM

In the more than two years since Nance’s death and burial record was found in the Peoria County Undertaker Records, a group of interested volunteers has begun a project to create a special memorial to honor Nance Legins-Costley and the thousands of Peorians who were laid to rest at the former Moffatt Cemetery.

As regular readers of this weblog will recall, Nance came to Pekin in the 1820s as an indentured servant of Pekin co-founder Nathan Cromwell. Even though Illinois was nominally a free state, under Illinois law at the time slavery existed in the form of indentured servitude. However, the law stipulated that a person could not become an indentured servant against his will, and Nance vehemently and steadfastly maintained that she never agreed to be anyone’s slave.

Shown is a memorandum from the Tazewell County court file of the 1838 case of Cromwell vs. Bailey, which was the legal prelude to the 1841 Illinois Supreme Court case of Bailey vs. Cromwell. The memorandum was written by Tazewell County attorney William Holmes, who assisted Abraham Lincoln in the case. In the memorandum may be read the momentous words, “was then and still is a free woman,” signaling that the case wasn’t really about an unpaid debt, but addressed the question of whether or not Nance Legins-Costley and her children were free or slaves. IMAGE COURTESY OF CARL ADAMS

Three times Nance sought relief from the courts, and the third time was a charm. In the case of Bailey vs. Cromwell, in July of 1841 Lincoln argued successfully before the Illinois Supreme Court convened at St. Paul’s Episcopal Church in Springfield that Cromwell never had legal title to Nance’s service and therefore Nance and her three children were free. Justice Sidney Breese issued the ruling confirming Nance’s freedom on July 23, 1841. It was a significant legal precedent that confirmed Illinois’ standing as a free state and led to the end of indentured servitude in Illinois.

As we have recalled several times here, Nance and her husband Benjamin Costley and their eight children lived in Pekin until circa 1870, when they moved to Peoria. After Ben’s death in 1883, Nance lived for a while with her youngest child James Willis Costley in Minneapolis, where her oldest son Bill also lived during the 1880s. After Bill’s death in 1888, however, we find Nance back in Peoria, living with her oldest child, Amanda (Costley) Lewis, with whom she spent her final years. Nance passed away at home on April 6, 1892, and was buried in old Moffatt Cemetery.

Nance Legins-Costley and her kin were among the approximately 2,500 people from the Peoria area who were buried in Moffatt Cemetery during the 19th and early 20th centuries. Among those interred there were 48 Civil War veterans, including Pvt. Nathan Ashby, formerly of Pekin, an African-American who served in the U.S. Colored Troops and was an eyewitness of the first “Juneteenth” in Galveston, Texas, in 1865.

On Memorial Day in 2017, this temporary Civil War memorial was placed and dedicated on Griswold Street near the former site of Moffatt Cemetery in Peoria, to honor the Civil War veterans buried there. One of them, Nathan Ashby, was a resident of Pekin when he volunteered for the 29th U.S. Colored Infantry in 1864, and went on to become a eyewitness to the first Juneteenth in June 1865. PHOTO COURTESY OF PEORIA FREEDOM & REMEMBRANCE MEMORIAL PARK TEAM

Moffatt Cemetery was founded by Peoria pioneer settler Aquilla Moffatt as early as 1836, but was closed in 1905 and fell to ruin, and finally was destroyed in the 1950s and the land rezoned to light industrial. Although many of Moffatt Cemetery’s burials were relocated, the vast majority apparently were left in situ, and today are paved or built over – forgotten for many decades, their burial records lost. Only the names of the Civil War veterans buried there were remembered.

In 2016, however, Bob Hoffer of the Peoria Historical Society and Peoria County Genealogical Society made a significant discovery in his search for the grave of his wife’s great-grandfather Mans Nelson – he found and photographed the crumbling pages of the old Peoria County Undertaker Records, which include information on which cemetery a person was buried in. Thanks to those records, we again know the names of most of the approximately 2,500 people who were buried at Moffatt Cemetery.

A photo montage of grave stones and monuments in the former Moffatt Cemetery, from the 13 Sept. 1936 issue of the Peoria Journal-Transcript. PHOTO COURTESY OF PEORIA FREEDOM & REMEMBRANCE MEMORIAL PARK TEAM

In 2020, Hoffer and other citizen volunteers launched a project to create a memorial park near the site of the former Moffatt Cemetery, where monuments and markers would be erected to ensure that the people buried at the cemetery are, in Hoffer’s words, “Forgotten no more.”

Besides Hoffer, the core members of the volunteer team are David Pittman, a Peoria area community activist, Peoria Park District advocate, and member of the Executive Committee of the Peoria Branch NAACP; Carl Adams, a Lincoln historian who literally wrote the book on Nance Legins-Costley; Joe Hutchinson, a member of the Peoria County Genealogical Society and Officer in the Sons of the Union Veterans of the Civil War; and Bill Poorman, a writer and media producer and Lincoln enthusiast.

The core team invites other volunteers and allies to participate in and support the project as well.

Their proposal is to convert a small area of land at the northwest corner of South Adams and Griswold – just south of where the cemetery used to be – into “Freedom & Remembrance Memorial Park.” At the park will be placed special monuments to memorialize the remarkable life of Nance Legins-Costley, the Union soldiers who were buried in Moffatt Cemetery, and all of the other everyday Peorians who were laid to rest there, some of whom never had a grave marker to help people remember them.

In addition, an Illinois State Historical Marker will be placed at the park, telling the story of Nance Legins-Costley and how she and her three eldest children, Amanda, Eliza Jane, and William Henry, were freed from slavery in 1841 with the assistance of Abraham Lincoln. No more will Nance lie forgotten under a parking lot.

Shown here is the site of the proposed Moffatt Cemetery memorials and park. PHOTO COURTESY OF PEORIA FREEDOM & REMEMBRANCE MEMORIAL PARK TEAM

At this point, the Peoria Freedom & Remembrance Memorial Park project is approaching the point where it can begin fundraising for the park and the monuments. However, donations can now be made to pay for the Illinois State Historical Marker, which requires private funds to pay for the creation and setting of the marker. Checks for the marker may be mailed to:

Illinois State Historical Society
Nance/Lincoln Project (on the memo line)
P.O. Box 1800
Springfield, IL 62705-1800

For more information on the project, visit the website at, or the project’s Facebook page, “Peoria Freedom & Remembrance Memorial Park”.

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Where is Nance Legins-Costley’s final resting place? (Redux)

By Jared Olar
Library assistant

“To rescue a name worthy to be remembered and honoured
To recall great events,
To look back upon the deeds of those gone before us,
Are objects worthy of all consideration.”

— U.S. Secretary of State and Illinois historian E. B. Washburne, 1882

It’s not every day that historical researchers discover new facts that solve long-standing mysteries – but today is one of those days.

Several times in recent years, “From the History Room” has had the opportunity to tell of the life and family of one of Pekin’s most notable historical figures – Nance Legins-Costley, remembered as the first African-American slave freed by Abraham Lincoln. Most of what we know of Nance is the fruit of the research of local historian Carl Adams. Only two weeks ago we took another look at the lives of Nance and her son Private William Henry Costley.

Following close upon the heels of that column, we now return once more to the subject of Nance in order to announce that the answer has been found to the three-fold question, “When and where did Nance die and where was she buried?

We previously addressed that question here in Aug. 2015. At that time we noted the speculation of late Pekin historian Fred Soady, who thought Nance died circa 1873 in Pekin and had probably been buried in the old City Cemetery that formerly existed at the southwest corner of Koch and South Second streets. We also considered a May 29, 1885 Minnesota State Census record of “Nancy Cosley,” identified in the record as age 72, black, born in Maryland, and living in Minneapolis with James Cosley, 32, born in Illinois. This record is a perfect match for Pekin’s Nance Costley and her son James Willis Costley, especially considering that Nance’s son William was then living in Minneapolis and died three years later in Rochester, Minn.

Lacking any further information, I wondered if Nance may have died in Minneapolis and was buried there or nearby.

We now know the answer to that question is, “No.” Although the 1885 census record shows Nance in Minneapolis, she later returned to central Illinois (presumably after her son William’s death in Rochester in 1888). A few years later, Nance died and was buried in Peoria.

Those facts were discovered by Debra Clendenen of Pekin, a retired Pekin Hospital registered nurse and local genealogical researcher who has been engaged in a project of creating Find-A-Grave memorials for deceased individuals whose names are recorded in the old Peoria County undertakers’ records.

While engaged in that project, Clendenen came across the burial records of Nance Legins-Costley, her husband Benjamin Costley, their son Leander “Dote” Costley, their daughter and son-in-law Amanda and Edward W. Lewis, and Amanda’s and Edward’s sons Edward W., William Henry, Ambrose E., Jesse, and John Thomas. Clendenen has created Find-A-Grave memorials for all of those members of Nance’s family. She added Benjamin’s memorial on March 8 this year, and then added Nance’s memorial on March 12.

Clendenen described her discoveries earlier this month in an email dated June 6, 2019:

“The heroes of this tale are the undertakers who kept such remarkably detailed records and the Peoria County Clerks who have housed their records for nearly 150 years.

“The records began in 1872 and were discovered in the basement of the Peoria Courthouse a few years ago by Bob Hoffer of Peoria. He photographed the records and gave them to the Peoria County Genealogical Society who transcribed and published them.

“I have been photocopying pages of the books at the Tazewell County Genealogical & Historical Society in Pekin and creating Find-A-Grave memorials from them. I am ‘blessed’ with an enormous curiosity gene. I use to research the folks I create memorials for. I have created 35,000 memorials over an eight-year period.

“So that is the journey Nance’s burial took from the undertaker to my hands.”

The Peoria County undertaker’s report for Nance says she was born in Maryland and died of old age at the remarkable age of 104, on April 6, 1892. The report lists her residence at 226 N. Adams St., which means she was living with her daughter Amanda and son-in-law Edward. According to the report, Nance was buried in Moffatt Cemetery in Peoria.

Moffatt Cemetery, as shown on an 1896 plat map of Peoria, from the “Illinois Ancestors Presents Peoria County” website.

Her husband Ben had died nine years earlier. His undertaker’s report says he died at the age of 86 on Dec. 4, 1883, with the cause of death listed as unspecified “injuries.” His residence was 517 Hale St., and he was, according to the report, buried in Springdale Cemetery.

Clendenen has expressed doubt about whether or not Benjamin and Nance were really buried in different cemeteries. The undertaker’s reports for their children Amanda and Leander are similar, showing Amanda buried in Springdale and Leander buried in Moffatt. Even though Benjamin is said to have been buried in Springdale, Springdale Cemetery has no record of his burial, so Clendenen thinks it is possible he may have really been buried in Moffatt Cemetery.

Moffatt Cemetery, at 3900 S.W. Adams St. (the corner of Adams and Griswold), was one of Peoria’s oldest cemeteries, starting as early as 1836 as a burying ground for the family of Peoria pioneer Aquila Moffatt (1802-1880). The cemetery has long been defunct, however, being officially closed in 1905 after burial space ran out. Eventually the cemetery sank into decrepitude and neglect, overgrown and the gravestones crumbling and fallen. As Bob Hoffer discovered in his research, the Peoria City Council finally voted in 1954 to rezone the property as light industrial, after which it appears that most of the burials were relocated – but many burials are probably still there, at the site that is now the location of a roofers union office, muffler shop, an electrician, and a parking lot. (See the story of Hoffer’s research efforts in “Peoria searching for Civil War grave finds forgotten cemetery,” in the May 27, 2017 edition of the Peoria Journal Star)

A large part of the site of Peoria’s defunct Moffatt Cemetery, at the corner of Griswold and Adam streets, is today paved over as a parking lot, as shown in this Google Maps Street View image. Nance Legins-Costley was buried in Moffatt Cemetery in April 1892.

Although study of the Peoria County undertaker’s reports for Benjamin and Nance Costley has at last revealed when and where Nance and her husband Ben died, their reports do raise some questions. First of all, in both Nance’s and Ben’s reports their stated ages at death are obviously erroneous. Earlier U.S. and state census records indicate that Nance was born circa 1813 while Ben was born circa 1811 or 1812. In fact even those earlier census records give varying ages. Knowing that Nance and Ben were illiterate, and that Nance had been born in slavery, most likely they themselves were unsure of when they were born.

Carl Adams, leading expert on Nance’s life, has identified Nance as a daughter of the slaves Randall and Anachy Legins, who are known to have had a daughter in Kaskaskia, Illinois, in December 1813 – this matches Nance’s age from the census records, and thus we can narrow down Nance’s birth to that month and year. Their owner Nathan Cromwell was born in Maryland. Nance may have appropriated that as her place of birth, either because she was confused or because, given the grave injustices that Illinoisans had inflicted upon her in her younger days, she disavowed the place of her birth. Or, as Adams suspects, it may have been a census-taker’s error, attributing to the slaves the place of the birth of their master. Be that as it may, Nance was 78 when she died, not 104. Nance’s daughter Amanda was likely the one who supplied the undertaker with her mother’s age, and Amanda herself likely did not know how old her mother really was. Unfortunately we’ll never know how Nance’s age came to be inflated from 78 to 104. As for Nance’s husband Ben, based on census records he probably died at the age of 70 or 71, not 86.

There is still doubt regarding the disposition of the burials that were removed from Moffatt Cemetery. Were they moved to another cemetery, and if so which one? Were the remains of Nance and Leander among those that were removed, or are they still in situ, covered over by a parking lot? There’s no way to be sure at this time.

Even so, with Clendenen’s discovery of the undertaker’s reports for Nance and her family, and her creation of online memorials for them at Find-A-Grave, we can finally write the final chapter of Nance’s remarkable life. Memory eternal!

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