Pekin and Peoria Juneteenth-related events to spotlight Moffatt Cemetery, Nance Legins-Costley.

By Jared L. Olar

Local History Program Coordinator

As we mentioned here a little over two weeks ago, some special Juneteenth-related events are planned in Pekin and Peoria this month. The years of work to create a fitting memorial honoring more than 2,600 Peorians buried at the former Moffatt Cemetery are coming to fruition as Peoria’s new Freedom & Remembrance Memorial Park will be formally named and opened at 10 a.m. Flag Day, Wednesday, June 14.

That same week will see two very special events in Pekin.  on Friday, June 16, at noon, the Pekin Public Library will host a program about the life of Nance Legins-Costley (1813-1892) of Pekin and the new Moffat Cemetery memorial park in Peoria. Then on Saturday, June 17, at 10 a.m., the City of Pekin and Tazewell County will hold a dedication ceremony in the 400 block of Court Street to celebrate the Costley Monument which honors Nance and her son Pvt. William H. Costley (c.1840-1888) of Pekin, who was one of the original eyewitnesses of Juneteenth.

Nance Legins-Costley and her husband Benjamin Costley (c.1812-1883) and their son Leander Costley (c.1845-1886) are among those buried at the former Moffatt Cemetery in Peoria. She and her three eldest children (including her son William) are known to history as the first African-Americans to be freed from enslavement with the help of Abraham Lincoln, through the landmark Illinois Supreme Court case Bailey v. Cromwell (1841).

Peoria’s Event – Wednesday, June 14, 10 a.m.

The City of Peoria, Peoria Park District, Peoria Historical Society, and numerous other community organizations will gather for their event on Flag Day at West Montana and Griswold, across the street from Freedom & Remembrance Memorial Park. Street parking will be available. For more information about Peoria’s event, email Stacy Peterson, Peoria’s Strategic Communications Manager, at, or call her at (309) 494-8560. To learn the story of the F&RM Park Project and the history of Moffatt Cemetery, visit or .

Pekin Public Library Event – Friday, June 16, noon

The Pekin Public Library will host a program that will tell the story of Pekin’s Costley Monument and Peoria’s Freedom & Remembrance Memorial Park, with a major focus on Nance Legins-Costley and her spirited defense of her freedom and her rights. Speakers at the event will include 1) Robert Hoffer of the Peoria Historical Society, who with the help of a team of volunteers worked steadfastly to bring about creation of the Moffatt Cemetery memorial; 2) Tazewell County Clerk John Ackerman, who has spearheaded the creation of the Costley Monument in Pekin; and 3) historian Carl Adams, whose research into the remarkable lives of Nance Legins-Costley and her family have been ground-breaking both metaphorically and literally.

The event is sponsored by the Coalition for Equality YWCA Pekin, the Pekin Public Library, the Tazewell County Clerk’s Office, the Tazewell County Historical and Genealogical Society, and the Peoria Historical Society.  The Coalition for Equality will provide refreshments, and guests are also welcome to bring lunch.

Costley Monument Dedication – Saturday, June 17, 10 a.m.

As mentioned above, during this event the City of Pekin and Tazewell County will jointly dedicate a monument in the 400 block of Court Street in honor of Nance Legins-Costley and her eldest son, Pvt. William Henry Costley, who served in the 29th U.S. Colored Infantry, Co. B., during the Civil War, and thus was one of Pekin’s and Tazewell County’s witnesses to the first Juneteenth in Galveston, Texas, June 1865. The monument honoring them and telling their stories will be placed in the “pocket park” on the north side of the 400 block of Court Street.

The keynote address will be presented by special guest Illinois Supreme Court Justice Lisa Holder White, who was the first African-American judge in the Sixth Judicial Circuit and the first African-American justice on the Illinois Appellate Court, Fourth District.

Pekin Mayor Mary Burress will preside over the ceremony in downtown Pekin. During the ceremony, Mayor Buress will present a city of proclamation, and Illinois State Rep. Travis Weaver will present an Illinois House of Representatives proclamation.

Other event participants include historian Carl Adams, who will speak about the freedom lawsuits that Nance Legins-Costley brought during her years of struggle to secure the recognition of her freedom. I have also been asked to speak about the history of the Costley family in Pekin, highlighting Nance’s family and the life of her son Pvt. William H. Costley.

The highlight of the event will be the formal unveiling of the Costley Monument and the presentation of two Illinois State Historical Markers by the Illinois State Historical Society. The stone monument itself is being created by Abel Vault & Monument of Pekin. The event will conclude with closing remarks and benediction by Rev. Marvin Hightower of the Peoria branch of the NAACP.

After the dedication and unveiling, the celebration of Juneteenth will continue downtown with live music and what is planned as a first-annual community picnic.

Event sponsors and organizers include Tazewell County Clerk John C. Ackerman, the City of Pekin, the Pekin Chamber of Commerce, Pekin Main Street, the Dirksen Congressional Center, YWCA Coalition for Equality, the Pekin Public Library, and the Tazewell County Genealogical & Historical Society.

Pekin Community High School has also helped to shine a line on Nance Legins-Costley by incorporating her story in the studies and activities of the 2022-2023 school year. Students not only learned about Nance and the significance of the 1841 Bailey v. Cromwell ruling, but also created art, wrote poems and created a video biography inspired by her story.

Pekin Mayor Mary Burress and Tazewell County Clerk John C. Ackerman recognized the efforts of the PCHS students and staff during a press conference today, Thursday, June 1, the high school’s Holman Center.

The students’ “What Nance Means To Us” project may be viewed here:

Note: No photographs or contemporary portraits of Nance Legins-Costley and her son Pvt. William Henry Costley are known to exist. The students’ representations of Nance are therefore derived from a photograph of Selina Gray who had been a slave at Gen. Robert E. Lee’s Arlington Plantation. Discover Peoria had previously used Selina Gray’s image as a symbol of emancipated African-American womanhood to represent Nance Legins-Costley. The students’ video biography also incorporates a photograph of Pvt. William Henry Costley of Weldon (1845-1903), IIlinois, whom historian M. Scott Heerman in 2018 erroneously identified as Nance’s son Pvt. Willliam Henry Costley of Pekin (c.1840-1888).

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Nance Legins-Costley and Pvt. William Costley to be honored by Pekin monument

By Jared L. Olar

Local History Specialist

Plans are underway for a permanent stone monument in downtown Pekin to honor the memory of Nance Legins-Costley and her son Pvt. William Henry Costley.

In the past few years, Nance and her son William have been the subjects of multiple articles posted here at “From the History Room.” Nance Legins-Costley (1813-1892) of Pekin and Peoria is known to history as the first African-American to secure her freedom with the help of Abraham Lincoln, through the landmark 1841 Illinois Supreme Court case Bailey v. Cromwell. Her oldest son William H. Costley (1840-1888) of Pekin later went on to fight in the Union Army during the Civil War, serving in the 29th Illinois Colored Infantry, Co. B., and was present in Galveston, Texas, on the first Juneteenth in 1865.

The story of Nancy Legins-Costley is told by Carl Adams in his book, “Nance: Trials of the First Slave Freed by Abraham Lincoln.” IMAGE PROVIDED BY CARL ADAMS

Partners involved in this project include Tazewell County Clerk John Ackerman, the City of Pekin, Pekin Main Street, the Pekin Area Chamber of Commerce, the Dirksen Congressional Center, and Abel Monument. Ackerman also credits research on Nance Legins-Costley and her family that has been conducted or made possible by the Tazewell County Genealogical & Historical Society and the Pekin Public Library’s Local History collection.

According to Ackerman, the memorial is being privately donated, and Abel Monument is now at work on it.

The monument will be four feet in length and three feet in height, and will bear a header inscription reading, “Tazewell County Remembers.” The names of Nance and her son William, and words of tribute to their lives, will be inscribed on the front and back of the monument.

Ackerman says the memorial is to be installed in the “pocket park” on the north side of Court Street across from the Tazewell Building, located between the Studio 409 beauty salon at 411 Court and the law offices of Joseph W. Dunn at 417 Court St.

Coming this summer, a memorial to honor the memory of Nance Legins-Costley and her son Pvt. William H. Costley is to be installed in the “pocket park” on the north side of Court Street across from the Tazewell Building, located between the Studio 409 beauty salon at 411 Court and the law offices of Joseph W. Dunn at 417 Court St. GOOGLE STREET VIEW IMAGE

Placement and dedication of the monument is to be on or near Juneteenth this summer.

This will be the second Central Illinois memorial devoted to memorializing the life of Nance Legins-Costley.

As was reported here last week, the life of Nance Legins-Costley is also commemorated on an Illinois State Historical marker currently on display at the Peoria RiverPlex facility.

That marker and two others were created last year for the planned Freedom & Remembrance Memorial that will be placed and dedicated this spring at the corner of South Adams and Griswold streets in Peoria. The purpose of the memorial is to honor the lives of the more than 2,600 Peorians (Nance among them) buried at the defunct Moffatt Cemetery that was located a very short distance north of that intersection.

Nance Legins-Costley’s life and that of her family forms a part not only the history of Pekin, where she lived from 1829 to the late 1870s, but also of Peoria, where she lived for most of the rest of her life from the late 1870s until her death in 1892. She and her husband and one of her sons were interred in Moffatt Cemetery.

But I am of the opinion that Nance and her story really belong to all of Illinois, since she was born in Kaskaskia, the old territorial capital (and later the first state capital), and later was taken to Springfield before Nathan Cromwell brought her to Pekin. She even lived briefly with one of her sons in Minneapolis, Minnesota, after her husband Benjamin’s death.

However, the real reason it can be said that Nance belongs to all of Illinois is the indomitable courage and persistence she showed in fighting to secure the recognition of her freedom – for her fight and her strength resulted in an important Illinois Supreme Court ruling benefitting not only her and her family but every other African-American held in indentured servitude in Illinois.

In my opinion, that’s definitely worthy of a monument or two – or more.

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Freedom & Remembrance Memorial markers unveiled

By Jared L. Olar

Local History Specialist

A great deal of progress has been made in the effort to create the Freedom & Remembrance Memorial in south Peoria, a project that aims to commemorate and honor the more than 2,600 Peorians buried at the former Moffatt Cemetery. This project was described here at “From the History Room” in a blog post in August 2021.

The most visible signs of that progress are the three Illinois State Historical Markers that were the center of attention at a special “unveiling” event hosted this week by the Peoria Riverfront Museum, held on Tuesday afternoon, Nov. 15. Project core team member Robert Hoffer of the Peoria Historical Society was the chief speaker at the event.

In addition, Joseph Hutchinson, another core team member, who belongs to the Sons of Union Veterans of the Civil War, spoke about the Civil War veterans buried at Moffatt Cemetery. Also addressing the attendees was Charles Stanley, Illinois State Historical Society board member and chairman of the Society’s Historical Marking Committee, who read a message from the New York-based Pomeroy Foundation, a major donor toward two of the project’s three markers.

The first marker to be completed, commemorating the 52 Union Civil War veterans buried at Moffatt Cemetery, was unveiled July 28 at the Riverfront Museum as part of an exhibit on Moffatt and the planned Freedom & Remembrance Memorial. One of those veterans was Pvt. Nathan Ashby of Pekin, who was present at the first Juneteenth in Galveston, Texas, 19 June 1865.

More recently, the other two historical markers were completed and brought to Peoria. One of the markers tells the history of Moffatt Cemetery, from its origins in the mid-1800s as a family burying ground of Peoria pioneer Aquilla Moffatt, through its closing in 1905, down to the razing and rezoning of the cemetery in the 1950s. When the cemetery was razed, it was reported that the burials at Moffatt had been relocated, but recent research has found that only a small number of burials were moved. The majority of the 2,600-plus burials remain at the site, paved and built over.

Among those burials still at the site would be Nance Legins-Costley (1813-1892), known to history as the first African-American to secure freedom with the aid of Abraham Lincoln. Her life story is the subject of a book and several papers and articles written by project core team member Carl Adams. Costley had indefatigably insisted on her freedom through a series of Illinois lawsuits, and Lincoln’s legal arguments in the landmark 1841 Illinois Supreme Court case of Bailey v. Cromwell at last obtained the courts’ recognition that Costley had been right all along. In April of 1892, she was buried in Moffatt Cemetery, where her late husband Benjamin Costley had been buried in 1883 and their son Leander Costley was buried in 1886.

At Tuesday’s event, Hoffer said the United Union of Roofers Local #69 is deeding land at the corner of South Adams and Griswold for the site of the Freedom and Remembrance Memorial, which will be owned by the City of Peoria. Hoffer also acknowledged and thanked the other organizations that are involved in and support the project, which include, among others, the Peoria Park District, the Sons of the Union Veterans of the Civil War, the Abraham Lincoln Association, the Peoria Public Library, and the Pekin Public Library.

Title transfer of the land for the memorial should be completed in the near future, after which the markers and a lighted flag pole will be installed. A formal dedication ceremony of the memorial is being planned for the Spring of 2023.

The following photos are provided courtesy of the Freedom & Remembrance Memorial project:

The story of Peoria’s Moffatt Cemetery is told on this Illinois State Historical Marker. This and the other two Freedom and Remembrance Memorial ISHS markers were made possible through grants from the William D. Pomeroy Foundation. The markers will be placed at the intersection of South Adams and Griswold, near the site of the former cemetery. The memorial will be established on land donated by the United Union of Roofers #69 and will be owned and maintained by the City of Peoria.
This Illinois State Historical Marker lists all 52 of the Civil War Union soldiers buried in Moffatt Cemetery on the south side of Peoria. Among those Union veterans was Pvt. Nathan Ashby of Pekin, who served in the 29th U.S. Colored Infantry and was present at the original Juneteenth in 1865.
The life and legacy of Nance Legins-Costley of Pekin and Peoria, who was buried in Moffatt Cemetery in 1892, is commemorated by this Illinois State Historical Marker to be placed near the site of the former cemetery in Peoria. Costley is known to history as the first African-American to obtain her freedom with the help of Abraham Lincoln. She and her family were pioneers who lived in Pekin from 1829 until the late 1870s, when they moved to Peoria.
Robert Hoffer, core team member of the Freedom and Remembrance Memorial project, addresses the attendees of the historical marker unveiling event Tuesday afternoon, 15 Nov. 2022. Three Illinois State Historical Markers memorializing and honoring the more than 2,600 people buried in Moffatt Cemetery will be placed near the location of the former cemetery at the intersection of South Adams and Griswold, Peoria. A dedication ceremony is planned for Spring 2023.

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The Alchemy of ‘Oops!’: Inaccuracies in Heerman’s treatment of Nance Legins-Costley’s trials

By Jared L. Olar

Local History Specialist

In recent years, the lives of Nance Legins-Costley (1813-1892) and her family have become much better known thanks chiefly to fresh light being brought to the subject as a result of the research of Carl Adams, who began delving into Nance’s story in the 1990s.

As we have related here at “From the History Room” more than once, Nance Legins-Costley is known to history as the first African-American slave to secure her freedom with the help of Abraham Lincoln. First appearing in published Pekin historical accounts in 1871 (in William H. Bates’ original narrative of Pekin’s early history), Nance and her persistent efforts to obtain acknowledgement of her freedom later were briefly mentioned in the 1949 Pekin Centenary volume. A much fuller (though far from complete) account was included in the 1974 Pekin Sesquicentennial (pp.6-7).

Apart from local historical narratives, prior to Adams’ research Nance’s story has been mostly relegated to relatively brief notices or passages in Lincoln biographies and studies. For example, John J. Duff devoted just four extended paragraphs to the story in his 1960 tome “A. Lincoln, Prairie Lawyer” (pp.86-87).

Adams himself has contributed two significant articles on the subject to the Abraham Lincoln Association’s newsletter, “For the People” – first, in the Autumn 1999 issue (vol. 1, no. 3), “The First Slave Freed by Abraham Lincoln: A Biographical Sketch of Nance Legins (Cox-Cromwell) Costley, circa 1813-1873,” and second, in the Fall 2015 issue (vol. 17, no. 3), “Countdown to Nance’s Emancipation.” Adams is also the author of the paper, “Lincoln’s First Freed Slave: A Review of Bailey v. Cromwell, 1841,” in the Journal of the Illinois State Historical Society (vol. 101, nos. 3/4 – Fall-Winter 2008, pp.235-259). Finally, Adams has treated this subject in story form in his 2016 book, “NANCE: Trials of the First Slave Freed by Abraham Lincoln: A True Story of Mrs. Nance Legins-Costley.”

More recently, Nance and her story have been treated in a number of histories devoted to Lincoln or to the subject of American slavery.

For example, Lincoln scholar Guy C. Fraker addresses the case of Bailey v. Cromwell and McNaughton in a single paragraph on p.52 of his 2012 book, “Lincoln’s Ladder to the Presidency: The Eighth Judicial Circuit.” There Fraker offers a bit of polite criticism of the manner of telling the story of Nance and her trials “as a case where Lincoln’s role was to ‘free a slave,’” which Fraker says “is simply not accurate.” Rather, Fraker insists, “Nance’s gallant efforts to assert her free status, not Lincoln, resulted in her freedom.

Fraker’s criticism is well received, because while Lincoln’s place in Nance’s story was very important in enabling her to secure the freedom that she always (and rightly) insisted was hers, this is in truth Nance’s life story rather than the story of how Lincoln purportedly set out to free a slave. From the standpoint of Lincoln scholarship, this case is significant as the first time Lincoln had to directly wrestle with the moral and legal issues related to slavery. But, as Adams himself agrees, from the viewpoint of Nance Legins-Costley this case was quite simply a matter of the greatest importance, because on it depended her freedom and that of her children.

Most recently, Lincoln historian and scholar Michael Burlingame tells the story of Nance and the case of Bailey v. Cromwell in a lengthy paragraph on pp.20-21 of his new (2021) book, “The Black Man’s President: Abraham Lincoln, African Americans, & the Pursuit of Racial Equality.”

As only to be expected in historians of the stature and scholarly diligence of Burlingame and Fraker, their accounts of Nance and Bailey v. Cromwell are accurate and informative.

Unfortunately, it is not possible to use those two adjectives to describe the way in which the story of Nance is told in M. Scott Heerman’s 2018 volume, “The Alchemy of Slavery: Human Bondage and Emancipation in the Illinois Country, 1730-1865.” I have not had occasion to give a close reading to Heerman’s entire book, which appears to be a generally compelling study of the manner in which human servitude was practiced in the officially free state of Illinois. Nevertheless, regarding Heerman’s treatment in his book of the life and trials of Nance Legins-Costley, a number of serious factual errors seem to have slipped past his fact checker during the editorial process.

Heerman introduces Nance and her trials in his chapter 4 (pp.105-106), where he refers to, “The first case, Nance, a Negro Girl v. John Howard (1828).” More accurately, that was the second case. The long tale of Nance’s struggles to win her freedom began (as Heerman himself describes) the previous year, when Nance’s master Thomas Cox’s possessions (including Nance and her family) were auctioned off to pay for a debt. She did not wait until 1828 to protest her freedom, but already in October of 1827 we find the freedom suit Nance, a Negro girl v. Nathan Cromwell. The second case, against Howard, was filed due to Sangamon County Coroner John Howard’s role in selling Nance to Cromwell.

Heerman returns to the story of Nance in his chapter 6 (pp.135-136), but here we again find factual errors. Of Nance he writes (p.135), “Born in Maryland around 1810, she was brought to Illinois and converted into a registered servant.” U.S. Census records consistently show Nance’s place of birth as Maryland, and indicate that she was born circa 1813. However, Adams’ research into Nance’s family history shows that she was born in Kaskaskia, Illinois, not Maryland. It was rather her master Nathan Cromwell who was born in Maryland, and presumably Nance, not knowing where she was born, herself came to believe she was born in Maryland as well. Her parents and siblings, who perhaps could have reminded her of where she was born, were sold away from her in 1827, when Nance was about 14. It was Nance’s parents Randol and Anachy (Ann) Legins, not Nance herself, who were brought to Illinois (by Nathaniel Green) – but they were from South Carolina, not Maryland.

Next, on the same page Heerman says, “In 1828, Nathan Cromwell sold Nance at public auction to John Howard. She disputed her sale before the Illinois Supreme Court, in Nance, a Negro girl v. John Howard (1828), . . . .” This is a remarkable instance of confusion on Heerman’s part. Howard did not purchase Nance; he rather oversaw the auction whereby Nance, an indentured servant of Thomas Cox, was sold to Nathan Cromwell. Heerman’s confusion seems to have arisen from his overlooking the earlier case of Nance v. Cromwell, and from misreading the court documents in Nance v. Howard.

Heerman once more returns to the story of Nance and her family in his concluding chapter (pp.166-167). There he correctly recalls that “In 1841, Abraham Lincoln helped to free Nance Cromwell from bondage in a local case, and during the war, her son William Costley took up arms.” But at this point we again encounter some very serious errors of fact.

Heerman proceeds to say that Nance’s son William “enlisted in the 26th Volunteers, and after fighting in Missouri and Mississippi, the company went to Virginia, where on April 9, 1865, Costley witnessed Lee’s formal surrender at Appomattox Courthouse.

Shown here is the white Union soldier William Henry Costley (1845-1903) of Weldon, DeWitt County, Illinois, who is not to be confused with the black soldier William Henry Costley/Cosley (1840-1888) of Pekin, Tazewell County, Illinois. Image is from the Logan Collection of the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum in Springfield, and may also be found at the Find-A-Grave memorial of William H. Costley of Weldon.

On this point, Heerman and his fact checker should have paused to consider how and why a black man, William Costley, would have served in a white Union regiment during the Civil War. Even more remarkable, on p.167 Heerman presents the photograph of a white Union soldier whose name, regiment, and company are written in cursive hand as “William Costley, Co. D, the 26 Ills Volls.” Heerman’s caption for this photo reads, “William Costley, son of Ben and Nancy Cromwell, age about twenty-one, Boys in Blue, Logan Collection, Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum, Springfield Ill.” (The same photo may be seen at William Costley’s Find-A-Grave memorial.) This same image appears on the front cover of Heerman’s book.

In fact, William Costley was the son of Ben and Nancy Costley, not Cromwell. “Cromwell” was one of the surnames that Nance bore during her lifetime – specifically, during the time she spent as a servant and ward of Nathan Cromwell. (Before that, she would have been known as Nance Legins and then Nance Cox, and the Peoria County marriage records of her children also give her a maiden name of “Allen”.) In this case, Heerman made a simple mental slip, for in his book he usually refers to Nance as “Nance Cromwell.”

However, he clearly has misidentified the white soldier William Henry Costley (1845-1903) of Weldon, DeWitt County, Illinois, as the black soldier William Henry Costley/Cosley (1840-1888) of Pekin, Tazewell County, Illinois. Nance’s son William (Bill) served in the 29th U.S. Colored Infantry, Co. B. – and although the 29th U.S.C.I. was present (along with the 26th Illinois Volunteers) at Lee’s surrender at Appomattox, Bill himself was not there, because (as his pension file says) he was wounded in action on April 1 and subsequently was sent to a military hospital. Bill recovered in time, however, to take part in the landing at Galveston, Texas, on 18 June 1865, and thus was present for the first Juneteenth.

Incidentally, Carl Adams believes the white Costleys of DeWitt County may have formerly been the owners of Nance’s husband Benjamin Costley – a fascinating possibility that I have not been able to confirm or disprove. All we know at present is that Ben Costley was a free black, born in Illinois, and first appears on record in the 1840 U.S. Census as a head of household in Tazewell County, where he and Nance married on 15 Oct. 1840.

As I mentioned above, generally speaking Heerman’s work seems to make for a compelling study of the way slavery perdured in Illinois despite laws banning it — and he rightly and very helpfully places the story of Nance Legins-Costley in its broader historical context. However, Heerman’s fact errors and misinterpretation of primary documents regarding the story of Nance and her family (matters with which I have had occasion to become familiar), give us reason to be cautious and critical regarding his treatment of historical examples elsewhere in his book.

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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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Traces of a past nearly forgotten

By Jared Olar
Library assistant

Recently local historian Carl Adams brought to my attention the Tazewell County Genealogical & Historical Society’s collection of portrait photographs of World War I soldiers who had lived in Tazewell County. The photographs were donated to the Society by the late L. Sidney Eslinger of East Peoria.

In most cases the identity of the soldiers is known. However, according to Connie Perkins, one group of portraits were scanned from smaller glass negatives that were in bad condition, and of that group only a few of the soldiers were identified. Perkins says it is not known where Eslinger had salvaged these negatives, but it is likely that all the soldiers had lived in either Tazewell or Peoria counties – of the unidentified photos, Charles Dancey was able to identify one soldier as an East Peoria man.

Among these unidentified portraits is one of an African-American Army soldier. Considering the black population in Tazewell and Peoria counties during World War I, most likely this man was from Peoria or East Peoria. He may even have come from Pekin, for Pekin in those days – before the advent of the Ku Klux Klan – had a small population of black families, most of whom lived in downtown Pekin or in the area of South Second Street. As we’ve noted before, a few African-American Civil War soldiers came from Pekin. Later, in Oct. 1902 large crowds filled the Tazewell County Courthouse square during the Pekin Street Fair to witness the public wedding ceremony of a notable African-American couple: a Spanish-American War hero named Lloyd J. Oliver and his bride, Cora Foy.

This portrait of an unidentified World War I soldier comes from a collection of glass negatives salvaged by the late L. Sidney Eslinger of East Peoria, who donated the negatives to the Tazewell County Genealogical & Historical Society. The soldier most likely was from Tazewell or Peoria counties. PHOTO REPRINTED BY PERMISSION OF THE TAZEWELL COUNTY GENEALOGICAL & HISTORICAL SOCIETY

Although this World War I soldier may not have come from Pekin, a review of the known black families who lived in Pekin around that time could help identify him, or can help rule out some candidates. Another benefit of such a review is that it would uncover the traces of a past nearly forgotten: a time when African-Americans made homes and found jobs in Pekin despite the common racism of that period – before racist animus stoked by the KKK in the early 1920s drove almost all of them away.

To begin, we see that the 1910 U.S. Census for Pekin shows two black men, Edward Reaves, 49, and William Gaines, 33, rooming together at the Tazewell Hotel on Elizabeth Street. The Kentucky-born Reaves was the hotel’s head chef, while the Georgia-born Gaines was a porter and worked in the hotel’s barbershop. Reaves does not appear as a Pekin resident in any records after 1910, but Gaines appears as a Pekin resident and Tazewell Hotel porter in both the U.S. Census and Pekin city directories until 1932.

On Sept. 12, 1918, Gaines registered for the World War I draft. His draft card says he was then 40, being born April 3, 1878, and that his “nearest relative” was his mother, Mary T. Gaines of Washington, Ga. Gaines could not sign his name on his card, so he instead made his mark, which was witnessed by the draft registrar W. G. Fair.

A July 24, 1933 Pekin Daily Times story refers to Gaines as “William Gaines, one of our two black men, who is porter at the Tazewell hotel and who has been here for 30 years . . .” Gaines, who was 55 in 1933, is not listed in the Pekin city directories after 1932, so he may have moved from Pekin, but probably died here later in 1933. He does not appear in the 1940 U.S. Census.

Besides Reaves and Gaines, the 1910 U.S. Census lists another African-American porter working at the Tazewell Hotel – Joseph Roach, 60, who was born in Tennessee. Given his age, it is clear that Roach could not be the World War I soldier in the photograph.

Pekin city directories and the U.S. Census show an African-American family who were named McElroy, living in a house at 201 Sabella St., at the northeast corner of Second Street and Sabella. (The author of this column and his family lived in the same house from 1985 to 1994.) Tazewell County marriage records show that George E. McElroy, 35, son of James and Ann McElroy, married Ellen Clark on Jan. 5, 1879. The 1908 Pekin city directory shows Mrs. Ellen McElroy, her husband George McElroy, laborer, and their daughter “Mrs.” Emma McElroy all living at that address. In the 1910 U.S. Census, we find at that address Ellen McElroy, 69, widow, born in Michigan, house mortgaged, with her daughter Emma Jones, 22, widow, born in Illinois, and granddaughter Della Jones, 1, born in Illinois.

The McElroys – George, laborer, and Miss Emma – appear in the Pekin city directories at the same address in 1913 and 1914 (though George presumably died before 1910). It would seem that Emma reverted to her maiden name a few years after the death of her husband, whose name is unknown. There was an African-American man named Henry Jones, born Aug. 16, 1882, who lived at 227 Sabella St. and worked at Keystone Steel & Wire – Henry registered for the draft in 1918. He may have been Emma’s husband, but Henry’s draft card says his “nearest relative” was his wife “Eva Jones.”

Another black family who lived in Pekin in the 1910s was headed by William M. Young, born Oct. 11, 1889, in Du Quoin, Ill. William registered for the World War I draft on June 5, 1917, and his draft card says he lived in the Rosenburg Flats at 200 Court St. with his wife and two children. The 1920 U.S. Census shows William, 30, a steel mill laborer, with his wife Anna, 21, a hotel maid, renting an apartment on Court Street, but does not list any children with them. Their children may have died by then, or perhaps were living with relatives elsewhere.

The same census shows another African-American family living in the Rosenburg Flats next door to the Youngs: the family of Philon Strong, born June 14, 1882, in Mississippi, who is listed (his name misspelled as “Thealon”) with his wife Henrietta, 22, born in Tennessee, and their daughters Orene, 5, and Cathelene, 2. About two years earlier Philon had registered for the World War I draft, at which time he and Henrietta were living at 227 Sabella St. Like several other black men in Pekin in that period, Philon worked at Keystone Steel & Wire.

The 1920 U.S. Census shows an African-American extended family living at 611 Second St. in Pekin, headed by two brothers, Douglass Keys, born Feb. 12, 1890, in Franklin County, Miss., and Norman Keys, born Aug. 10, 1892, in Brookhaven, Lincoln County, Miss. Living with Douglass was his wife May, 22, and children Fanny May, 4, and Troy R., 2, as well as Norman and his wife Elva, 24, and their son Elisha, 11. Also boarding with them was a 4-year-old boy named Floyd Tilmon.

Douglass registered for the World War I draft on June 5, 1917, while he and his wife were farming in Mississippi. Douglass and Norman and their families moved from Pekin during the 1920s, probably during the heyday of the Pekin KKK. Norman is later found living in Peoria. Since the Keys family was still living in Mississippi during World War I, neither Douglass nor Norman are likely to be the soldier in the mystery photograph.

Another African-American extended family living in Pekin at this time were the Robisons, who lived at 227 Sabella St. Jessie Robison, born Aug. 1, 1882, in Mississippi, registered for the World War I draft on Sept. 12, 1918. On the same day, Cammie Robison, born April 1, 1878, probably Jessie’s older brother, also registered for the draft. Both Jessie and Cammie worked at Keystone Steel & Wire. Cammie lived in Peoria in the early 1920s. The 1920 U.S. Census for Pekin spells the surname “Robinson,” and shows Jessie, 35, with his wife New Orleans, 26, their children Teaja, 10, Myrtle M., 7, Ora Nell, 5, Anna Lee, 3, and Mable, 1, and Jessie’s nephew Albert Robinson, 17, and Albert’s wife May W. Robinson, 17.

A black man named Walter Lee, born July 10, 1884, in Greenville, Ill., the son of Jim Lee and Jane Merifield, registered for the World War I draft on Sept. 12, 1918. His draft card says Lee’s employment was “Dr & Turkish Bath” working for the Pekin Park Board at Mineral Springs Park. Lee was disqualified from military service due to a spinal injury. The 1920 U.S. Census says Lee, then 35 and unmarried, lived on Park Avenue and was a masseur working at a bath house (i.e. the park’s bath house). His death record gives his date of birth as July 4, 1895 (contradicting his draft card), identifies his employment as “Turkish Bath Owner,” and says he died at the Peoria State Hospital on 1 Oct. 1947. Lee was probably the other “one of our two black men” mentioned in the Pekin Daily Times on July 24, 1933.

To complete our review of Pekin’s African-American residents during this early period, we note that Illinois death records mention an African-American named Joseph Howaloway, born in Tennessee, son of James Howaloway, a laborer who died in Pekin on May 27, 1938 and was buried in Lakeside Cemetery. He does not appear to have lived in Pekin during World War I, however.

Anyone with information that could help identify the unidentified soldier may contact the Pekin Public Library at (309) 347-7111 or the TCGHS at (309) 477-3044, or leave a comment here below.

#albert-robison, #anna-lee-robison, #anna-young, #cammie-robison, #carl-adams, #cathelene-strong, #charles-dancey, #cora-foy, #della-jones, #douglass-keys, #edward-reaves, #elisha-keys, #ellen-clark-mcelroy, #elva-keys, #emma-mcelroy-jones, #fanny-may-keys, #floyd-tilmon, #george-e-mcelroy, #henrietta-strong, #henry-jones, #jessie-robison, #joseph-howaloway, #joseph-roach, #keystone-steel-wire, #kkk, #ku-klux-klan, #l-sidney-eslinger, #lloyd-j-oliver, #mable-robison, #mary-t-gaines, #may-keys, #may-w-robison, #mineral-springs-park-bath-house, #myrtle-m-robison, #new-orleans-robison, #norman-keys, #ora-nell-robison, #orene-strong, #pekins-racist-reputation, #philon-strong, #racism-in-pekins-past, #tazewell-hotel, #teaja-robison, #troy-r-keys, #w-g-fair, #walter-lee, #william-gaines, #william-m-young, #world-war-i

Nance Legins-Costley and her historian recognized by African-American Hall of Fame Museum

On Saturday, Feb. 29, 2020, at the culmination of African-American History Month, the African-American Hall of Fame Museum held a ball at the Peoria Riverfront Museum. Among the highlights of the evening was an award and recognition ceremony, and among those honored as inductees into the Hall of Fame were Nance Legins-Costley of Pekin (formerly of Peoria) and her historian Carl Adams, who has published a book on Costley as well as several papers on Costley and her family.

The stories of Costley and her family, and Carl Adams’ work, have previously been featured here at “From the History Room” several times. Brought to Pekin as an indentured servant (a virtual slave) by Nathan Cromwell, one of Pekin’s co-founders, Costley was steadfast in her efforts to secure legal recognition that she and her children were free. With the aid of an attorney named Abraham Lincoln, that legal recognition finally was obtained for Costley and her three eldest children through the 1841 case of Bailey vs. Cromwell, in which the Illinois Supreme Court handed down a verdict declaring that Costley had never been an indentured servant. In effect, Costley and her three eldest children were the first slaves freed by Lincoln.

Nance Legins-Costley was well-known to Pekin’s pioneer families, and was so highly esteemed that Pekin’s pioneer historian William H. Bates devoted a long paragraph just to her in his original 1870 sketch of Pekin’s history. The paragraph, headed, “A Relic of a Past Age,” says:

“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.”

Plaque presented in memory of Nance Legins-Costley of Pekin (later of Peoria) during the African American Hall of Fame Museum Ball at the Peoria Riverfront Museum on Saturday, Feb. 29, 2020. Costley had been an “indentured servant” (de facto slave) in Illinois. The African American Hall of Fame Museum chose to honor her memory for her repeated efforts to secure legal recognition of her freedom which culminated in the 1841 case of Bailey vs. Cromwell, which Abraham Lincoln successful argued before the Illinois Supreme Court. The verdict in the case established that Costley and her three eldest children had never been indentured servants and were therefore free.

Plaque presented Saturday, Feb. 29, 2020, to local historian Carl Adams during the African American Hall of Fame Museum Ball at the Peoria Riverfront Museum. The plaque recognizes Adams’ contribution to civil rights, which include his book and articles on the family of Nance Legins-Costley of Pekin (later of Peoria), who is remembered as the first slave freed by Abraham Lincoln.

#abraham-lincoln, #african-american-hall-of-fame-museum, #bailey-v-cromwell, #black-nance, #carl-adams, #first-slave-freed-by-abraham-lincoln, #nance-legins-costley, #nathan-cromwell, #william-h-bates

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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‘Black Nance’ and her son, Private William H. Costley

By Jared Olar
Library assistant

Four years ago, “From the History Room” shone the spotlight on William Henry Costley, a forgotten figure of Pekin’s past whose remarkable life story serves as a historical link between Pekin and the origins of the annual “Juneteenth” celebration.

We told the story of Costley, a Civil War soldier who served as a private in one of the Union Army’s Colored Troops regiments, in a column entitled, “Bill Costley – Pekin’s link to ‘Juneteenth,’” which first ran in the Saturday, June 20, 2015 Pekin Daily Times and later was republished at the Pekin Public Library’s “From the History Room” weblog. It was the third of four columns that have featured the members of the family of Nance Legins-Costley of Pekin, an African-American woman mentioned in Pekin’s historical records as “Black Nance,” who is remembered as the first slave freed by Abraham Lincoln (through the 1841 Illinois Supreme Court case Bailey vs. Cromwell).

The story of Nance Legins-Costley’s steadfast struggle to obtain freedom for herself and her children is told in the 2014 book, “Nance: Trials of the First Slave Freed by Abraham Lincoln – A True Story of Nance Legins-Costley,” which was written by local history Carl Adams, formerly of the Pekin area but now residing in Maryland. The Pekin Public Library has a copy of Adams’ book that may be checked out, and a second copy is in the Local History Room collection for in-library research.

Bill Costley was Nance’s third child and eldest son. U.S. Census records indicate that Bill was only about a year old when his mother won their freedom through Bailey vs. Cromwell. Through his research, Adams learned that during the Civil War Bill served in the Illinois 29th Regiment of Volunteers (Colored), which was one of the regiments sent to the Gulf of Mexico in June 1865, landing at Galveston, Texas, on June 19 and announcing that the war had ended and all of Texas’ approximately 250,000 slaves were free. The four-day celebration of emancipation that ensued is the origin of Juneteenth.

The gravestone of Private William H. Costley in Rochester, Minn., misspells his surname “Crossley” and gives an erroneous estimate for his year of birth. Costley, who was born and lived much of his life in Pekin, was one of the witnesses of the first “Juneteenth” on June 19, 1865.

More recently, Adams interest in the life of Bill Costley has motivated him to get involved with the National Juneteenth Observance Foundation. Members and supporters of NJOF aim to establish Juneteenth as a national holiday to be observed every third Saturday in June. “Since they are not asked for a day off work, nor on a Monday, they have hopes,” Adams said in a recent email to the Pekin Public Library.

This year NJOF kicked off their month-long observance of Juneteenth with nationwide flag-raising ceremonies on Monday, June 3, said Adams. The Pekin Public Library’s Local History Room also features a Juneteenth display all this month.

In related news, The Randolph Society, an honor society with a mission of recognizingd prominent individuals who have lived in and contributed to Randolph County, Illinois, has made Bill Costley’s mother Nance Legins-Costley a 2019 Randolph Society honoree. Nance was nominated early this year on Feb. 8, and the formal induction ceremony was held March 10 at the Randolph County Courthouse in Chester, Ill.

The Randolph Society chose to recognize Nance because she was a Randolph County native, having been born in Dec. 1813 in the boarding house of land surveyor Col. Thomas Cox of Kaskaskia, then the capital of the Illinois Territory. Nance’s parents, Maryland-born slaves named Randall and Anachy Legins, were legally classed as indentured servants of Cox, but effectively were Cox’s slaves. Nance later lived in Springfield after Cox moved there in 1822. In 1827, however, Cox’s estate was seized and auctioned off to pay his debts. At that time Nance and her sister Dice were both sold, and Nance was acquired by Pekin co-founder Nathan Cromwell, one of the men to whom Cox owed a great deal of money. Cromwell brought Nance to Pekin soon after that, in 1827 or 1828.

Under Illinois law, an indentured servant had to agree to the contract of indenture. However, Cox’s mother Jane later gave sworn testimony in court that she overheard Cromwell ask “Nance if she would go and live with him and said Nance refused and presented she would not.”

This refusal of Nance to agree to her indenture contract in 1827 was key to Lincoln’s eventually winning Nance’s freedom in 1841. Her last owner David Bailey could not provide evidence that Nance was really indentured to serve him, so the Illinois Supreme Court ruled that she was free – and since she was free, that meant her children Amanda, Eliza Jane, and Bill were not born of an indentured servant and therefore were free as well.

Pekin pioneer David Bailey, who belonged to a family of abolitionists, was the last owner of Nance Legins-Costley. Bailey let Nance and her family live as free persons while Abraham Lincoln steered through the Illinois court systems the legal case of Bailey vs. Cromwell. The freedom of Nance and her three eldest children was confirmed when Lincoln won the case in 1841.

The Randolph Society has published a biography of Nance Legins-Costley at its website. The biography, based mainly on Adams’ book “Nance,” may be read at

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Bill Costley — Pekin’s link to ‘Juneteenth’

This is a reprint (with corrections and updates) of a “From the Local History Room” column that first appeared in June 2015 before the launch of this weblog.

Bill Costley — Pekin’s link to ‘Juneteenth’

By Jared Olar
Library assistant

On May 2, 2015, this column featured a review of a new book by local historian Carl M. Adams about a notable early Pekin resident’s stalwart struggle for freedom — “Black Nance” Legins-Costley, who secured her freedom from slavery with the help of her attorney Abraham Lincoln in the 1841 Illinois Supreme Court case Bailey v. Cromwell. Adams’ book, “Nance: Trials of the First Slave Freed by Abraham Lincoln,” was recognized April 25 at the annual awards luncheon of the Illinois State Historical Society in Springfield.

This week, we will take another look at the family of Nance Legins-Costley in order to learn about Pekin’s historical connection to the origin of the celebration of “Juneteenth,” which is the oldest known public commemoration of the legal end of slavery in the U.S. “Juneteenth” refers to June 19, 1865, the day when Union soldiers under the command of Major General Gordon Granger landed at Galveston in Texas with news that the Civil War was over and all slaves were now free. Because Texas had been a part of the Confederate States of America, Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation could not be enforced in Texas until then.

Juneteenth 2015 was celebrated on Friday, marking exactly 150 years since Union troops brought the news of freedom to Galveston. One of Granger’s soldiers in Galveston that day was none other than Private William Henry “Bill” Costley of Pekin (1840-1888), eldest son of Benjamin Costley and Nance Legins-Costley (though Union military records misspell Bill’s surname “Corsley”).

On his enlistment and muster papers, Bill Costley of Pekin is called “William H. Corsley.”

Bill Costley was mustered out of his regiment on Sept. 30, 1865.

We will now lend this column space to Carl Adams so he can share the results of his historical and genealogical research which tell the story of Bill Costley’s adventures during and immediately after the Civil War. (It was only this month that Adams located Bill’s final resting place, with the help of Rich Apri of St. Paul, Minn.)

  • * *

Bill Costley was the first male slave to be legally freed by attorney Abraham Lincoln as a result of the Bailey v. Cromwell Illinois Supreme Court case in 1841. He was an infant at the time. At age 23, Bill Costley decided to join the Union cause of the Civil War.

During the summer of 1864, the Civil War was going poorly for the Union Army on the Richmond-Petersburg front. Commander-in-Chief Lincoln was afraid he would not be re-elected president. To make matters worse, the Illinois 29th Regiment of Volunteers (Colored) had suffered more than 70 percent casualties at the Battle of the Crater — virtually wiped out, with all the officers either dead or wounded.

In spite of the fact they knew black men would have to fight with muskets at their front and bayonets held by white soldiers at their backs, 11 blacks from Tazewell County decided it was time to volunteer to reinforce the Colored Troops. Those brave 11 were William Costley of Pekin, his brother-in-law Edward Lewis, Thomas Shipman, George M. Hall, Wilson Price, Thomas Tumbleson, Morgan Day, and the tightly knit family of William J. Ashby, William H., Marshall and Nathan (who were likely acquaintances of Bill Costley).

At least two of them would not come home — Thomas Shipman of Pekin and Morgan Day of Elm Grove fell in battle, and their names are inscribed on the monument to Tazewell County’s fallen heroes outside the courthouse in downtown Pekin. And at least one of them was wounded — William Henry Costley. However, Bill Costley would participate in a historic event before he returned home: “Juneteenth.”

Shown is the name of Bill Costley’s fellow soldier Thomas Shipman inscribed on the Tazewell County Veterans Memorial outside the Tazewell County Courthouse. Shipman, along with Morgan Day and William H. Costley, were among the 11 African-Americans from Tazewell County who fought to end slavery and restore the Union during the Civil War. Shipman and Day fell in combat, while Costley suffered a shrapnel wound to his shoulder.

Shown is the name of Bill Costley’s fellow soldier Morgan Day inscribed on the Tazewell County Veterans Memorial outside the Tazewell County Courthouse. Costley and Day were among the 11 African-Americans from Tazewell County who fought to end slavery and restore the Union during the Civil War.

General Ulysses S. Grant and the Union Army, sensing a quick victory, were eager to get the spring offensive started in March 1865, but heavy spring rains made movements difficult for horses and men alike, and wet ammunition was also a problem.

Finally, in the last week of March, the Union Army awoke from winter sleep and started to move. A fair-skinned black private from Tazewell County, Private Thomas Shipman, was one of the first to go. Assigned to the sharpshooters under Captain Porter, Shipman was killed trading musket balls with the rebel skirmishers on March 31.

Around noon on April 1, General Sheridan beat General Pickett at Five Forks. Private Bill Costley’s unit, the 29th Regiment of Volunteers (Colored), held part of the right flank of the Union line at Hatcher’s Run. The breakthrough prompted Grant to order a full frontal assault all along the line, spanning miles.

As Bill’s infantry line moved forward on the Confederate breastworks nearing Petersburg, an artillery shell blew an air burst to the front and to the left of Bill, close enough to knock him to the ground with sharp pain to the front left shoulder.

Bill was evacuated to the Regimental Aid Station. Dr. Clarence Ewen later wrote in Bill’s pension file (No. 524296) that he remembered Bill’s wound as badly bruised, but no blood, so Bill was ordered back to the front and, bravely, Bill went back into the fight — only to return the next day with intolerable pain.

So Bill was evacuated again, this time to Division for Triage, then on to the “Negro Only” facility at Point-of-Rocks near the pontoon bridge across the James River, and from there to City Point for transfer to a hospital at Alexandria, Va. Bill spent about five weeks in the military medical system. During this time Bill learned his family’s old friend, lawyer Lincoln, was killed as one of the last casualties of the War of the Rebellion.

Juneteenth — Freedom Day, June 19, 1865, for all of Texas slaves, about a quarter of a million souls.

The scene is the Gulf of Mexico in June 1865. The Civil War was over and Private Bill Costley was recovering from a shrapnel wound to his left shoulder, according to his pension file. After a month in the hospitals at Point-of-Rocks and Alexandria, Va., Bill Costley was returned to duty with his unit.

Most of the white Union soldiers were discharged for home, but most of the black soldiers still had a year of service, and the French had invaded Mexico during the war. Lincoln was dead, so Secretary of War Stanton ordered General U.S. Grant to dispatch the black units to the Mexican border as a show of force along the Rio Grande.

At least two Navy ships, the USS Wilmington and the USS William Kennedy, were ordered to load 2,000 Union soldiers, including General Gordon Granger and the 900 men of 29th Regiment of Illinois Colored Volunteers, which was augmented with former slaves and dispatched to the Mexican border.

It was a rough ride. From Mobile, Ala., the ships were sent out into very rough stormy seas to disembark at South Padre Island near Brownsville, Texas. The weather was too rough to unload anyone and the Rio Grande was flooding. After two days, the Navy needed safe harbor, so they tried Aransas Pass near Corpus Christi for another three days, but it was still too rough to unload.

The senior Navy captain warned Granger they were running out of supplies and the nearest resupply was at Galveston. This would be a turning point of history for the state of Texas.

“June 18 — Arrived off Galveston, at Pier 21.” The sight was surprising, if not shocking, to see black uniformed sailors and soldiers working side-by-side with still enslaved longshoremen, who had never heard of an “Emancipation … what?” This discovery would travel up the chain of command very quickly.

So without further orders and under threat of martial law enforced by black armed soldiers, the entire populace assembled at Ashton Villa the next morning. General Granger stood on the second floor balcony to read General Order No. 3. At the last four words of the first sentence, “all slaves are free,” the entire throng was motionless. It seemed no one even breathed. While it took a while to sink in, the order soon turned into an explosion of emotion that has lasted now for 150 years — Juneteenth, Freedom Day, 1865.

Private Bill Costley of Pekin probably didn’t get much of a celebration when his mother was emancipated 24 years earlier, but he did not miss the joys of this party that lasted all day, into the night and again the next day. However, they were still under military orders. “June 21 — Put to sea.”

  • * *

After the war, Bill returned to Pekin, where in 1870 the Civil War hero found himself indicted for murder. Bill had encountered a convicted rapist named Patrick Doyle brutally attacking a woman in the street. Bill intervened, twice ordering Doyle to stop, and when Doyle ignored him, he shot and killed him. (The records of Doyle’s inquest detailing Bill Costley’s actions are still on file with the Tazewell County Coroner.)

The people of Pekin knew Bill and his family, though, and they also knew who Doyle was and what he’d been sent to prison for — so after a two-day trial, the all-white jury acquitted Bill Costley, finding the homicide justifiable due to Bill’s having come to the aid of a woman in need. (Charles C. Chapman’s 1879 “History of Tazewell County,” page 296, has a brief reference to Bill Costley’s trial and acquittal.)

Adams’ research shows that Bill later left Pekin, moving to 320 Main St., Davenport, Iowa, and then to 1134 N. Ninth St., Minneapolis, Minn., where it’s possible some of his family had also moved. Though the years wore on, Bill’s old war wound continued to plague him. Bill kept complaining of shoulder pain to his Pension Board, so he finally was admitted to Rochester State Hospital in Rochester, Minn., in May 1888, and there he died five months later, on the night of Oct. 1, 1888. The ward notes say he had “expired before he could be undressed.”

William Henry Costley, war hero and witness to the first Juneteenth, was laid to rest — under the name of “William H. Crossley” — in Rochester’s Quarry Hill Park, in the Rochester State Hospital Cemetery, located between 11th Ave. NE and Route 22, just north of Route 11.

Shown is the grave marker of Pekin Civil War veteran William H. Costley (surname misspelled “Crossley” in the inscription) in the Rochester State Hospital Cemetery, Rochester, Minn.

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