Slavery In Illinois

Illinois was a Free State, right? Well, yes. And no.

Laura Plantation

Laura Plantation

The first people to settle Illinois were Native Americans. Then the French moved in and brought slavery with them. The first lieutenant governor of Illinois, Pierre Menard, owned slaves. You can visit his home in Ellis Grove, Illinois. Unfortunately, the slave cabins no longer exist. The French Colonial architecture is similar to the Laura Plantation in Vacherie, Louisiana. But yes, the French brought slaves into Illinois. In fact, the oldest towns in Illinois are French towns like Cahokia (1699), Kaskaskia (1703), and Prairie de Rocher (1722). It’s worth pointing out that many people in southern Illinois have their roots in Kentucky and Virginia, so they were sympathetic toward slavery.

Fast forward to the 1800s. Slaves were auctioned off in Market Square in Galena, Illinois, now a historic town in northwestern Illinois known for romantic getaways. It’s also home to several Civil War generals; the best known is Ulysses Grant. Rich Southerners owned mansions in Galena and brought their “servants” with them. Galena thrived from the 1840s until after the Civil War. It was a lead mining town, but many miners left once gold was discovered in California.

Illinois also allowed slaves to perform hard labor. John Crenshaw, a Southerner, in Equality, Illinois had slaves work his salt mines. He also captured free blacks and sold them into slavery. His house, known as Hickory Hill, will be the subject of another post.

Finally, the Dred Scott case of 1857 opened the door to slavery in all states. So slavery did exist in Illinois from French Colonial times onward. Southerners also brought their “servants” with them when they visited the North or lived up North.

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