Slavery in Illinois after the American Revolutionary War

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

Saline spring in the woods near Shawneetown, where slavery 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 slavery, the territory retaliated with laws limiting the rights of free blacks. When Illinois Territory was created in 1809, it continued to enforce laws requiring blacks to provide proof of freedom and limiting their rights to own property and conduct business. Slaves could be threatened with sale if they refused to sign long indentures of forty to ninety-nine years. Free blacks were kidnapped and sold in St. Louis in Missouri Territory and southern states where slave sales were legal. In addition to regional support for slavery in Southern Illinois, the salt works near Shawneetown exploited more than a thousand slaves hired from masters in slave states. After statehood in 1818, Illinois law continued to allow importation of African slaves to the salines until 1825. When the exemption expired, slavery was replaced with indentured servitude. 

Edward Coles, second governor of Illinois

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