Trials of the first slave freed by Abraham Lincoln

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

Trials of the first slave freed by Abraham Lincoln

By Jared Olar
Library assistant

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

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

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

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

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

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

IMAGE PROVIDED BY CARL ADAMS

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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When Pekin was only a town

By Jared Olar
Library assistant

For the first 19 years of its existence, from 1830 to 1849, Pekin was a pioneer town, with much of the character that is associated with the Wild West rather than a modern semi-rural Midwestern city. A Native American village even thrived near the new town until 1833, first located on the ridge above Pekin Lake and later on the south shores of Worley Lake.

However, as Pekin’s pioneer historian William H. Bates tells in the 1870-71 Pekin City Directory, it was in that first period of Pekin’s history that the crucial groundwork was laid for Pekin’s civic development.

Thus, Bates tells us that Pekin’s nascent economy got a boost in Pekin’s first year with the opening of two stores – one belonging to Absalom Dillon and the other to David Bailey – and a hotel or tavern operated by Pekin co-founder Gideon Hawley. Religion in the new town also made its debut in 1830, with the construction of Rev. Joseph Mitchell’s Methodist Church on Elizabeth Street between Third and Capitol.

The following year, Thomas Snell built the town’s first school house, located on Second Street between Elizabeth and St. Mary. Thomas’ son John was the school teacher. The same year, Thomas built Pekin’s first warehouse.

The most significant of 1831’s milestones for Pekin was the transfer of the county seat from Mackinaw to Pekin. When the Illinois General Assembly created Tazewell County in early 1827, Mackinaw was designated as the county seat because it was near what was then the geographical center of Tazewell County. But Pekin’s location as a port on the Illinois River meant Pekin was less remote than Mackinaw. That greater accessibility gave Pekin better prospects.

Another thing that may have played a role in the decision to move the county seat was a memorable extreme weather event: the incredible “Deep Snow” of Dec. 1830, a snowfall and sudden freeze that had turned life on the Illinois prairie into a desperate fight for survival. Pekin was closer to other, larger towns and settlements than Mackinaw, and therefore safer for settlers.

With such considerations in mind, the county’s officials decided to relocate to Pekin even though Illinois law still said Mackinaw was the county seat.

Pekin remained the de facto county seat for the next five years. During that time, Illinois Supreme Court Justice Samuel D. Lockwood presided over the Circuit Court in Tazewell County. Court at first took place in the Snell school house, but later would convene in the Pekin home of Joshua C. Morgan, who simultaneously held the offices of Circuit Clerk, County Clerk, Recorder of Deeds, Master in Chancery, and Postmaster. That house was later the residence of Pekin pioneer doctor William S. Maus.

The Black Hawk War, Illinois’ last conflict with its Native American population, broke out in 1832. The war lasted only a few months. It began disastrously for the Illinois militia with the debacle at Stillman’s Run in northern Illinois, where the untrained and undisciplined militia recruits quickly succumbed to panic and fled, leaving behind the few brave men in their number to be butchered and scalped. As Bates sardonically put it, “The balance of the command, so history hath it, saved their scalps by doing some exceedingly rapid marching to Dixon on the Rock River.” Among the fallen was Pekin co-founder Major Isaac Perkins.

The town of Pekin itself was not directly affected by the fighting, although the townsfolk did build a stockade around the Snell school house as a precaution, renaming it Fort Doolittle. The fort never had to be used, however, which was a very good thing, because, as Bates commented, it “was so constructed, that in case of a siege, the occupants would have been entirely destitute of water.”

Despite the war’s inauspicious start, the Illinois troops quickly gained the upper hand and Sauk war leader Black Hawk (Makataimeshekiakiak) was forced to give up the struggle. The outcome of the war was the greatest calamity for the remaining Indian tribes of Illinois, who beginning in 1833 were almost to a man forcibly relocated to reservations west of the Mississippi – including the Pottawatomi and Kickapoo bands who lived in Tazewell County. Tazewell County’s Pottawatomi were soon joined by the harried remnants of their kin from Indiana, whom state militia soldiers forced to march west from their homes in Indiana in 1838 along a route that is remembered as the Pottawatomi Trail of Death.

In July 1834, an epidemic of Asiatic cholera struck Pekin, causing the deaths of several pioneers, including Thomas Snell and the wife of Joshua C. Morgan. The victims were hastily interred in the old Tharp Burying Ground, the former site of which is now the parking lot of the Pekin Schnucks grocery store.

Given the challenges and upheavals of the first five years of Pekin’s existence, it should not be surprisingly to learn that there are no surviving records of the town’s elections prior to 1835. On July 9, 1835, the townsfolk elected five men as Trustees: David Mark, David Bailey, Samuel Wilson, Joshua C. Morgan, and Samuel Pillsbury. Two days later, Pekin’s newly elected Board of Trustees organized itself, choosing Morgan as its president and Benjamin Kellogg Jr. as clerk.

One of the first acts of the new board was passing an ordinance on Aug. 1, 1835, specifying the town’s limits. At the time, Pekin’s boundaries extended from the west bank of the Illinois River in Peoria County eastward along a line that is today represented by Dirksen Court, reaching out as far as 11th Street, then straight south along to 11th to Broadway, then westward along Broadway back across the Illinois River to Peoria County. It is noteworthy that land in Peoria County has been included within the limits of Pekin ever since 1835.

This detail from an 1864 map of Pekin has been cropped to match the town limits of Pekin as they stood in 1835 — extending from the west bank of the Illinois River eastward to what is today 11th Street, and from Broadway north to what is today Dirksen Court. Many of the 1864 streets did not yet exist in 1835, of course.

Pekin’s first Board of Trustees continued to meet until June 27, 1836, when the county seat was formally relocated by Illinois law to Tremont, where a new court house had been built. Pekin then elected a new board on Aug. 8, 1836, the members of which were Samuel Pillsbury, Spencer Field, Jacob Eamon, John King, and David Mark. King was elected board president and Kellogg was again elected clerk.

Board members served one-year terms in those days, so Pekin held elections every year. Getting enough board members together for a quorum was evidently a real challenge. The board addressed that problem by passing of an ordinance on Jan. 4, 1838, stipulating that any board member who was more than 30 minutes late for a board meeting would forfeit $1 of his pay.

Another notable act of Pekin’s board around that time was a resolution of Dec. 29, 1840, adopting “an eagle of a quarter of a dollar of the new coinage” as the official seal of the town of Pekin.

On Dec. 29, 1840, the Pekin Board of Trustees officially adopted an American eagle like the one shown on this mid-19th century quarter as the seal of the Town of Pekin.

Throughout these years, Pekin continued to see economic developments. The first bank in town, a branch of the Bank of Illinois, was established in 1839 or 1840 at the rear of a store on Second Street. There was not yet a bridge across the Illinois River, but ferries were licensed to operate. Alcohol distilleries also were established in the area that is still Pekin’s industrial district, and around those years Benjamin Kellog also built the first steam mill near the river between Margaret and Anna Eliza streets.

In spite of a scarlet fever epidemic in winter of 1843-44, these economic developments were signs of Pekin’s continuing growth and progress, notwithstanding the loss of the county seat to Tremont. The pioneer town was poised to attain the status and rank of a city.

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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 gale 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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