Enslavement in Illinois after the American Revolutionary War

French colonists had introduced enslavement to Illinois early in the eighteenth century, acquiring both enslaved Native Americans and Africans. Britain continued to permit enslavement following the French and Indian War. Following the American Revolutionary War, the Northwest Ordinance of 1787 forbade enslavement in the Northwest Territory, but territorial governors chose not to enforce it. Although enslavement was not permitted by law, French settlers who remained in Illinois and others were allowed to keep the enslaved people that they already had.

Saline spring in the woods near Shawneetown, where enslavement was still allowed after 1818, photographed by Wikimedia Commons user Nyttend

Illinois became part of the Indiana Territory in 1800. Unsuccessful in petitioning the United States to permit enslavement, the territory retaliated with laws limiting the rights of free Black people. When Illinois Territory was created in 1809, it continued to enforce laws requiring Black people to provide proof of freedom and limiting their rights to own property and conduct business. Enslaved people could be threatened with sale if they refused to sign long indentures of forty to ninety-nine years. Free Black people were kidnapped and sold in St. Louis in Missouri Territory and southern states where sales of enslaved people were legal. In addition to regional support for enslavement in Southern Illinois, the salt works near Shawneetown exploited more than a thousand enslaved people hired from masters in states allowing enslavement. After statehood in 1818, Illinois law continued to allow importation of enslaved Africans to the salines until 1825. When the exemption expired, enslavement was replaced with indentured servitude. 

Edward Coles, second governor of Illinois

Not everyone in Illinois supported enslavement. Some, like second Illinois Governor Edward Coles, moved to Illinois to free enslaved people. A planter from Virginia, Coles became an anti-enslavement advocate at the College of William and Mary, where he was influenced by American Enlightenment ideals that considered enslavement morally indefensible. Hoping to free the people enslaved by his family, Coles hid his views from his ailing father to secure his inheritance. Because Virginia law required freed people to leave the state within a year and restricted the ability of free Black people to make a living, Coles ultimately relocated to Edwardsville, Illinois, where he freed nineteen enslaved people in 1819 and acquired land for them. He continued campaigning against enslavement in Illinois and advised Thomas Jefferson and James Madison to free people they enslaved.