In this sweeping saga that spans empires, peoples, and nations, M. Scott Heerman chronicles the long history of slavery in the heart of the continent and traces its many iterations through law and social practice. Arguing that slavery had no fixed institutional form, Heerman traces practices of slavery through indigenous, French, and finally U.S. systems of captivity, inheritable slavery, lifelong indentureship, and the kidnapping of free people. By connecting the history of indigenous bondage to that of slavery and emancipation in the Atlantic world, Heerman shows how French, Spanish, and Native North American practices shaped the history of slavery in the United States.
The Alchemy of Slavery foregrounds the diverse and adaptable slaving practices that masters deployed to build a slave economy in the Upper Mississippi River Valley, attempting to outmaneuver their antislavery opponents. In time, a formidable cast of lawyers and antislavery activists set their sights on ending slavery in Illinois. Abraham Lincoln, Lyman Trumbull, Richard Yates, and many other future leaders of the Republican party partnered with African Americans to wage an extended campaign against slavery in the region. Across a century and a half, slavery's nearly perpetual reinvention takes center stage: masters turning Indian captives into slaves, slaves into servants, former slaves into kidnapping victims; and enslaved people turning themselves into free men and women.
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Slavery and Freedom on the American Continent
It could be a difficult crossing. The Mississippi River spanned more than a mile between the French village at Kaskaskia, in present-day Illinois, and St. Genevieve, now part of Missouri. For much of the 1750s, the Reverend Father Alexandre Xavier de Guyenne, curé of Kaskaskia, frequently traveled between Catholic parishes on opposite banks of the Mississippi. Four parishes operated on the east bank of the river, and a new one had just opened on the west bank. But the parish in St. Genevieve had no priest, and so the Jesuit superior of the Kaskaskia mission tended to its members, instructing residents in the pillars of the faith, as well as "visiting the sick and in relieving the poor." As he went to and fro, he trusted his fate to a "slave, who alone guided the canoe." The crossing was no simple undertaking. The current would challenge even seasoned rowers, and the wind gusts brought "danger of perishing, if in the middle of the river" the canoe "had been overtaken by a violent storm." Despite the challenges, a sense of mission brought Father Guyenne back and forth across the Mississippi. But what motivated the unnamed slave to keep returning time and again between the banks of the river and not trying to head off to freedom?
Answering this question would require teasing out some of the details of the enslaved rower's life, which proves to be a difficult task. Pinning down the identity of this single slave, as well as surmising his or her motivations, is so challenging because a range of enslaved experiences existed in Illinois. Slavery was at once a form of coerced labor and a method of indigenous politics, and these different ways of organizing enslavement operated simultaneously. During the 1750s, the Jesuit fathers in Illinois owned over thirty slaves, some of them of African descent, some of them indigenous slaves, and it is impossible to know which or how many of them ferried Father Guyenne back and forth across the Mississippi. When Jesuits or other slaveholders spoke of slaves, they could have meant people of African descent brought to the region to labor on the fields, people of Indian descent adopted into French society through a politics of captive exchange, or an enslaved person born in Illinois who shared both Indian and African ancestry. Enslaved people coerced to serve the Jesuit fathers could have had an array of different racial origins and be held in slightly different statuses, and that fact uncovers the reality that slavery never operated in any one framework or served any one function.
Taking stock of the slaves that the Jesuits owned and speculating about the identity of this enslaved rower shed light on the different processes of enslavement that trapped people in bondage in this colony. For instance, the rower could have been Louis, an enslaved man of African descent who appears to have observed at least some elements of the Catholic faith; he married in the church and together with his enslaved wife Therese had his daughter baptized. If Louis had been the unnamed navigator, perhaps a duty to the faith, the joy of seeing his wife and daughter, and a community he called his own could have kept him returning. However, enslaved Indian women also lived in the Jesuit parish in Kaskaskia and could have been guides to the missionaries in the Mississippi Valley. These enslaved people had not been brought to the region to clear and work the land. Instead, indigenous bondage operated as a form of Indian diplomacy and undergirded alliance systems in the region. Perhaps, then, if Guyenne's slave was a woman of indigenous descent, she returned time and again because her adoption into a new society, coerced though it was, gave her some tie of kinship that she would not want to sever.
Whoever it was that brought Guyenne to and fro, it is clear that over time, slaves of diverse origins came to live side by side in the tiny Illinois outpost. Most of the Jesuit slaves probably worked in the colony's lucrative agricultural economy that could "produce all things needed to support life, and even to make it agreeable." Enslaved Indians who had been carried into the region through a system of captivity, exchange, and adoption joined enslaved Africans in these tasks. Rather than indigenous and African slavery existing as separate institutions, masters drew on different kinds of enslavement and held slaves of diverse origins on the same estate. In the process, they forged different kinds of enslavement into one localized form of slavery that trapped diverse people in bondage. Indian- and African-descended slaves at times intermarried, bore children, and shared birth and death rites, and the two different forms of bondage worked alongside one another as masters turned many slaveries into one. By the turn of the nineteenth century, this community of enslaved people would become the "French Negroes," an invented legal category for a diverse group of people enslaved in Illinois. But they would not be the only types of slaves in the Prairie State.
Sometime around 1818, William Wilson moved from the Missouri Territory into the Illinois Country, and he brought with him two enslaved young "negro" women, Judith and Lindah. By terms of the 1787 Northwest Territory Ordinance, the U.S. government had made "slavery and involuntary servitude" illegal in Illinois. In summer 1818, just as Wilson made it to the state, politicians and other local notables met to craft a new state constitution, which would ban slavery's future introduction into Illinois. Yet slavery's illegality did not mean Wilson had to free Judith and Lindah. Instead, he converted them into indentured servants, which entitled him to hold them to terms of labor for ninety-nine years without pay. He also had the right to hold any children they might have as servants until adulthood. Once he registered their contracts with the local county clerk, Illinois law permitted Wilson to buy and sell his servants as chattel. Their status as servants did very little to spare them from bound labor's brutality. Wilson had nearly unfettered power over them: he could beat and whip them or violate them sexually. Across the state, servants like Judith and Lindah were clapped into chains, sold as property at auction, and brutalized in a variety of ways.
The adaptations to slaving practices were on full display when masters like Wilson turned slaves into lifelong servants. While politicians met to create a new state charter that purportedly banned slavery, masters signed slaves into lifelong indentureships to keep human bondage alive by other means. This legal dodge operated under the fiction that the two enslaved women consented to their servitude and signed onto new terms, making their unfreedom nominally voluntary. Even though the two women were enslaved at the time they signed these contracts, the law treated them as voluntary servants. Wilson could then put them to work either in the state's agrarian districts or in its salt mines, where hundreds of servants and slaves did the brutal work of harvesting, processing, refining, and shipping salt. In time, the Illinois Supreme Court would uphold indentures like Judith and Lindah's as legal and not interpret them as a violation of the ban on slavery or involuntary servitude. Just as indigenous and African-descended people both fell victim to different slaving practices, Judith and Lindah's experiences point to another framework, contract bondage, that shaped the life of enslaved people in southern Illinois. As one of Illinois's leaders later observed, the servitude system "is but another name for slavery."
Masters found ways to manipulate the law of slavery, but slaves like Judith and Lindah rarely accepted their status. Time and again, slaves with servitude contracts found ways to contest their subordination: some bound workers managed to accrue small amounts of money and purchase their freedom, others ran north to escape slavery, and still others sued in court for freedom claiming that their master violated specific conditions of their contracts. Judith and Lindah may have lived out their lives in servitude or risked running away and escaping into freedom. Whatever the fate of these two particular slaves, men and women trapped in forms of contract bondage contested their unfreedom, and those disputes provided the bedrock of a wider political struggle over slavery and freedom. At first, this attack on slavery rarely relied on help from abolition organizations and, unlike in other states that had gradual emancipation statutes on the books, Illinois's laws concerning slavery and servitude made escape all the more daunting. Still, as the nineteenth century pressed on, conflicts over the "French Negroes" and lifelong servants would help to transform the state's politics.
In 1848, three men kidnapped Wade, an African American man from Cairo, Illinois, and trafficked him to Missouri. Southern Illinois was notorious for its racism, and it might have been easy to assume that few people would have cared about his captivity. Yet Wade had lived in the state his whole life. According to one account, he "is what is usually in this State denominated a 'French Negro,'" whose mother had been kept in bondage under a legal loophole. In 1818, lawmakers barred the future introduction of slavery but did not make that prohibition retroactive to include people like Wade's mother. As a result, Wade inherited his mother's status and had lived as a slave for much of his life. He most likely had family and friends that worked to liberate him. Whatever the inspiration to act, local officials secured kidnapping indictments for Wade's three captors in the Alexander County Circuit Court. Yet because the three men had gone to Cape Girardeau, Missouri, with their hostage, local officials needed the Illinois governor in their quest to free Wade. Illinois's governor at the time, Augustus C. French, was a Democrat who never embraced abolition, and he was no ally in the slave's cause. Perhaps surprisingly given his politics, Governor French wrote Missouri Governor Austin King to request "that said individuals shall be arrested." The Illinois governor got involved in the extradition request because he felt that "kidnapping has been carried to a disgraceful extent in this state." Through kidnappings like this one, Governor French declared, the enemies of emancipation could "reduce free men to Slavery." The Missouri governor denied the request, and although there was a protracted political struggle between the two governors, Wade's captors never stood trial in Illinois.
The kidnapping came at a fortuitous time in Illinois's history of slavery and emancipation. Only a few years earlier, Jarrot v. Jarrot, a marquee ruling from the state supreme court, had promised people like Wade their freedom. "French Negroes" had been kept in slavery under a reading of state law that only forbade the future introduction of slavery but did not require all slaves to be freed. In the eighteenth century, the "French Negroes" referred largely to the people of African descent whom French masters enslaved, as opposed to the indigenous slaves or enslaved African captives from the Anglophone world who also lived in the region. Yet by the nineteenth century, the term "French Negroes" had ceased to refer to a social group within the enslaved population and had come to have a specific legal definition. By the time of Wade's kidnapping, it referred generally to all enslaved people who had lived in the Illinois Country during its colonial history, regardless of their racial origin or country of birth. The first state constitution in 1818 exempted these people from emancipation, and people like Wade became "French Negroes," regardless that he was born in Illinois long after the French empire ceased to claim it. But that local arrangement regarding "French Negroes" grew tenuous over time. Joseph Jarrot, one such "French Negro," sued his master, and in 1845 the Illinois Supreme Court issued a new directive. In Jarrot v. Jarrot, it found that children born of "French Negroes" were unquestionably free. The court went further to make Illinois free soil; it ruled all forms of slavery illegal and promised "to break the fetters of the slave and declare the captive free." Lyman Trumbull served as attorney for Joseph Jarrot. While in time Trumbull would go on to push forward the Republican Party's platform for national emancipation and chair the Senate committee that drafted the constitutional amendment to abolish slavery, at this earlier date, he engaged in a local freedom politics in Illinois involving lawsuits in local courthouses and the daily work of asserting black freedom.
Yet just as Trumbull would confront after the Civil War, the promise of total emancipation had to contend with local communities who defined slavery and freedom in their own terms. In southern Illinois, "French Negroes" like Wade had long been considered slaves. Notwithstanding important antislavery victories, like the one in 1845, proslavery groups constantly opened new fronts in the attempts to preserve slavery. Facing the prospect of emancipation, masters reinvented how slavery would function, and black kidnapping kept forms of bondage alive. Just as masters adapted to incorporate indigenous bondage and lifelong servitude into their slaving practices, black kidnapping was another way in which masters exerted power over African Americans to enslave them. In the eighteenth century, enslaved people of African descent, like Wade's ancestors, traveled upriver from New Orleans to Illinois as part of a French design to create a plantation economy. By the eve of the Civil War, the flow had reversed, and African Americans in a variety of conditions of unfreedom, including some like Wade, traveled downriver as captives, falling victim to slavery's latest reinvention.
Each of the three scenes above arrives as a postcard from a different time and place, and each offers a different picture of how slavery functioned in Illinois. Yet they have some things in common. In each case, masters had to adapt and innovate their slaving practices to reckon with the larger political and legal realities in Illinois. Frenchmen had to accommodate systems of indigenous bondage, southern migrants into Illinois reinvented slavery under the guise of servitude, and masters responded to landmark antislavery rulings by kidnapping African Americans into bondage. Viewed in succession, they encourage readers to set aside a very common idea: that slavery was an institution. The "institution of slavery" stands out as a ubiquitous phrase in our histories. Yet, slavery in Illinois lacked institutional trappings because no common purpose shaped the various types of slavery that marked the region, masters enslaved people to serve a host of different social and economic functions, and no one framework for defining slavery ever prevailed for long.
Together, these three snapshots from the archive reveal that slavery in Illinois existed as an adaptable set of practices. Louis, Judith, Lindah, Joseph Jarrot, and Wade each experienced a different side of human bondage that marked Illinois over a century and a half. All of them were slaves, and yet the set of slaving practices that defined their lives in bondage differed drastically. Over this long stretch of time, slavery was not a fixed status but a dynamic power relationship that enveloped a diverse cast of people, subject to endless contestation and reinvention. As a consequence, slaves occupied a variety of different statuses, and the power over them took new forms and responded to new threats. Slavery was at various times a system of indigenous diplomacy, the bedrock of a colonial economy designed to enrich distant merchants, a means to support racial hierarchy and white supremacy, and a form of coerced, degraded labor.
What follows is a tale of alchemy that traces the ins and outs of slavery's nearly perpetual reinvention. It is a story that shows how slaveholders turned one form of bondage into another. Masters changed Indian captives into slaves, a polyglot cast of Indian- and African-descended slaves into "French Negroes," black slaves into lifelong servants, and free African Americans back into kidnapped captives, and they used this array of shape-shifting slaving strategies to adapt to changing political and economic realities. For more than a century, masters turned to many slaveries and slaving practices to make a single, localized slave system. The final act of transformation in this tale is in some ways the most enduring: enslaved people changed themselves into freed men and women. At each moment in this history, enslaved people had powers and allies of their own that they could summon to make their own alchemy, helping to turn Illinois from a society dedicated to slavery into one committed to its abolition.
The Alchemy of Slavery foregrounds the interactions of enslaved people who had different routes into bondage—be they Indian captives in the eighteenth century or kidnapped freedmen in the nineteenth century—to show that slavery existed as a fiendishly adaptable power relationship. Slavery across the Atlantic world varied immensely, and human bondage in West Africa, the Caribbean, native North America, the Chesapeake, the Deep South, New France, and New Spain all had different defining traits. Rather than studying different regions to see how different forms of slavery took shape, The Alchemy of Slavery tells an entangled history of human bondage in one region that foregrounds how different iterations of enslavement mutually played out simultaneously. Instead of analyzing indigenous and Atlantic slaveries, lifelong servitude, and black captivity as separate institutions of slavery and then tracing their connections, The Alchemy of Slavery reveals a kaleidoscope of different coercive practices that together comprised the work of enslaving people, allowing masters to render a diverse cast of Indians, Africans, servants, and captives into enslaved people.
In light of this changing landscape of enslaving people, The Alchemy of Slavery offers a continental perspective on human bondage and emancipation in mainland North America. Rather than tracing slavery's expansion from the Atlantic world into the heart of North America, The Alchemy of Slavery turns that analysis inside out. It looks at the long history of human bondage in the interior of North America and traces its connections out to the larger and changing empires that controlled the region. It argues that the adaptations to human bondage in French and native North America shaped the landscape of slavery and freedom in the United States. Illinois's political leaders, like Lyman Trumbull, had to contend with France's colonial legacy as they confronted a population of enslaved "French Negroes" in the nominally free state. On the eve of the U.S. Civil War, political leaders, including Abraham Lincoln, Stephen Douglas, and Richard Yates, worked to liberate the descendants of enslaved people brought to the region generations before. Freeing these slaves necessitated more than passing laws and winning court battles; it required a robust set of local freedom practices to keep African Americans out of bondage. Across a century and a half, masters, slaves, servants, and free residents, including some of the nation's most important leaders, clashed over the boundaries of slavery and freedom, which led human bondage to take so many different forms. In Illinois, slavery never became an institution and abolition barely became a movement.
Taking stock of slavery's adaptability, The Alchemy of Slavery escapes the institutional framework that often frames the inquiry into human bondage. For decades, historians of North America and the Atlantic world have relied on Orlando Patterson's trailblazing work and adopted a conception of slavery that all too often transcended time and space and treated slavery as a status that served a single purpose. The Alchemy of Slavery joins a growing scholarship that goes beyond Patterson's framework, in an attempt to explain the dynamic, changing variety of conditions that enslaved people experienced. If scholars now recognize that slavery had many different forms, The Alchemy of Slavery shows that those different types of bondage coexisted alongside one another in the same community. Masters adapted to the reality that slavery never had any one single purpose, and out of many slaveries, they made a single, localized slave system over time. It shows that the power to hold people as slaves was never fixed and stable, but it changed and adapted across different epochs. Foregrounding how masters, chameleon-like, enslaved people in many different ways invites a rethinking of the enslaved experience, the struggle for freedom, and the power of the law to define both bondage and emancipation in North America and the United States.
The Alchemy of Slavery tells the history of human bondage in the heart of North America and connects that story to the wider forces of the Atlantic world. To that end, it takes what one scholar calls a "surf and turf" approach that can explain how changes in the Mississippi Valley took place because of Atlantic processes that played out over great distances. It explores how slave labor took root in colonial societies without plantation economies, far from the Atlantic basin. Some of the hallmarks of Atlantic economies also defined the Mississippi Valley: the use of slave labor to produce a commodity that could command an international market, the free and forced migration of people across imperial boundaries, and the making of new people and new cultures far from colonial metropoles. Traders, travelers, merchants, and laborers across the Atlantic world connected previously remote locales, and that connectivity extended to include large swaths of the Illinois prairie. The Alchemy of Slavery joins a growing list of works that show how processes commonly thought of as Atlantic and confined to the oceanic basin transferred deep into the heart of North America.
Looking at slavery beyond the Atlantic basin sheds light on an entangled history of indigenous and European colonial slaveries. Scholars of indigenous bondage have identified structural differences between the two forms of slavery, stressing that one was a kin-based system of captivity and alliance formation that colonizers appropriated to coerce labor out of Indians, and the other was a racially coded, legally defined system primarily run on the plantation complexes of the New World to profit the master class. In light of these structural differences, scholars have often taken to writing of slaveries to note the diversity that prevailed in different times and places. However, in Illinois, masters forged a single, localized system of slavery that drew on diverse origins. While key distinctions between types of slavery did exist in certain times and places, The Alchemy of Slavery grapples with the reality that indigenous and European colonial slavery were never entirely separated, did not always operate in different geographies or chronologies, and were not always remote from each other. Masters enslaved people of diverse origins for a variety of different reasons, and those adaptations to slaving practices gave rise to an economy where Indian- and African-descended slaves lived and labored alongside one another.
By foregrounding how slaves of diverse origins, like those owned by the Jesuits, found themselves bound together in a larger set of slaving practices, The Alchemy of Slavery sees beyond the institutional frameworks that orient much of the scholarship to date, and it highlights similarities between the kinds of power that plundered enslaved Indian and African bodies. Rather than looking at the transitions and tension between two institutions of slavery, The Alchemy of Slavery integrates the experiences of enslaved Indians into a larger story of U.S. slavery and freedom. Scholars of slavery have lately produced excellent work on the movement into a "second slavery" in the nineteenth century that saw slavery adapt into capital-intensive, technologically innovative, modern, and productive labor relations that generated enormous wealth in the cotton economy in the U.S. South, the sugar economy in Cuba and Puerto Rico, and the coffee economy in Brazil. The Alchemy of Slavery tells an earlier tale of reinvention. It traces how indigenous bondage interacted and overlapped with forms of slavery that targeted African-descended people and how adaptations to enslavement in the eighteenth century shaped the contours of slavery and freedom in the nineteenth-century United States.
Recognizing that slavery, Atlantic or indigenous, operated as a dynamic, adaptable power relationship requires a reimagination of the kinds of freedom politics needed to emancipate people. To date, a rich vein of scholarship has re-created the struggle against slavery before the Civil War by focusing on the U.S. North, mostly along the eastern seaboard, and the protracted battles over abolition that played out there for decades. These historians have documented how abolition organizations sprang up in the wake of the U.S. War for Independence and pushed to make their societies free from slavery. Across New England and the mid-Atlantic, abolition societies pressured legislatures and eventually won the passage of gradual emancipation acts. These acts freed all children born after a certain date, so-called post-nati emancipation. With these laws as tools, members of abolition societies shifted their focus. They tried to enforce the laws and guard African Americans from kidnapping and reenslavement, and some abolitionists argued for black citizenship in the Early Republic. African American communities in northern cities were no bystanders in these developments, and they played a crucial role in dealing slavery a deathblow. Yet this analysis argues that the peculiar institution could be abolished by winning court rulings or passing laws and then working toward their rigorous enforcement.
Looking at slavery as a series of adaptations requires looking for different struggles for freedom, ones that had local roots, ones that required a diverse array of freedom practices, and ones that did not need abolition laws or antislavery institutions to succeed. In Illinois, the central drive for emancipation came out of enslaved people's resistance to their subordination and the help from residents of a series of all-black towns in rural southern Illinois. Residents of these towns succeeded in building lives apart from slavery, despite the fact that for many years in Illinois, no abolition law or society existed. These black villages acted as incubators of emancipation in the rural landscape.
This new conception of a local freedom politics necessitates a revision of the relationship between slavery, freedom, and the law that decouples the power to enslave people from the legal authority afforded masters. The Alchemy of Slavery does not rely on the law for its definitions of slave and free spaces. Over a century and a half, residents in Illinois wielded a local knowledge that often could trump laws passed by legislatures, congresses, parliaments, and kings. French settlers ran their slave economy according to local arrangements and not in ways envisioned by the Code Noir, the legal proclamation meant to govern slavery in the French empire. When the British claimed the region, no civil jurisdiction or law of slavery extended to cover Illinois. Yet the region's bound workers remained enslaved, despite the absence of a law defining slavery. Similarly, settlers in antebellum Illinois, like William Wilson, kept hold of their slaves through local power arrangements, and they spawned a society with slaves not envisioned by the U.S. Congress or Illinois State Constitution, both of which forbade slavery. Over this long stretch of time, masters held people as slaves without specific sanction from the law, and slave status was less a legal fact to be applied and more a set of power relationships that at times operated independently of the law.
The system of slavery that existed in Illinois required masters to adapt to changing legal regimes. As the French, British, and Americans attempted to create a law of slavery, settlers on the ground navigated those changing landscapes to make a slave economy that suited their own designs. In Illinois, the law had social and cultural dimensions that extended far beyond the courtrooms. Over a century and a half, the courts and laws played a contested role in slavery's perpetual reinvention: they did not only act as a tool of the master class or as a vehicle for emancipation. At times, masters used the law to sanction bondage and reinvent slavery in new guises, while at other times, slaves like Joseph Jarrot turned to the courts and undertook the challenging work of finding freedom. Laws and legal institutions mattered enormously in the great battle over emancipation, if only because they gave both masters and enslaved people the tools to advance their own interests. But the law did not determine the course any one community would take.
Although the law alone did not sanction slavery's existence, and slavery never took on institutional form, human bondage still had a definition. Taking stock of the variety of slaveries that marked Illinois, it is clear that human bondage was distinct from other forms of unfreedom, such as apprenticeship or forms of debt peonage. The Alchemy of Slavery looks at the various iterations that slavery took in the Illinois Country but largely excludes other kinds of coercion and unfreedom. Slavery was more than captivity, and it also cannot be reduced to a system of commodity production. First, slavery in Illinois was a long-term, usually lifelong, and frequently an inheritable and generational status. This set it apart from other forms of servility, which tended to be shorter and more episodic. Second, slaves were transactable. Most notoriously, this took the form of the "chattel principle" that allowed masters to sell human beings as mere property. Indigenous systems of bondage did not have a similar concept to chattel, but slaves in Indian communities could be moved, transferred, adopted, or displaced within political and social networks at their superiors' will. So it was with lifelong servants, who were traded and trafficked by masters to make a society and economy that suited their designs. Third, slavery in Illinois empowered a few to define who belonged to free society and who stood outside its boundaries. By defining outsiders, slavery let masters establish themselves as insiders, and in that way, enslaving people gave them a measure of power over society. Slavery's function allowed a class of freemen in Illinois to accrue profit and power through their long-term mastery over a salable, foreign people, no matter if that took the form of trading in indigenous captives, signing slaves as lifelong black servants, holding African Americans as inheritable bondsmen, or kidnapping black freed men and women.
Slavery exhibited this dynamism in part because Illinois had different and changing political boundaries that helped to inform what function bondage would have. Over a long period, Illinois went from Indian Country to European colony, from borderland of the U.S. South to bulwark of the free North. In each period of reconception, slavery changed to meet new situations. In order to follow the long story of human bondage in Illinois, The Alchemy of Slavery for the most part focuses on the land between the Mississippi and Wabash Rivers, as well as between the Ohio River and the Great Lakes. Before the nineteenth century, the Illinois Country had more expansive boundaries, and understanding how slavery functioned requires looking west of the Mississippi, south of the Ohio, and east of Lake Michigan. After 1787, the Mississippi and Ohio Rivers became nominal dividing lines between slavery and freedom, and The Alchemy of Slavery follows the history of slavery's adaptations in that newly minted free soil space, leaving the story of what became Kentucky, Missouri, and Indiana to others.
Even as Illinois's boundaries became increasingly fixed over time, migrations played a critical role in the region's reinvention. In the eighteenth century, Indian slavery relied on travel that sent Illinois Indians on captive raids, carrying their hostages back into the Illinois Country. Before long, European migrations brought Frenchmen and women into the region. These newcomers imported enslaved people of African descent to work in staple agriculture. With rival groups moving into the region, different forms of bondage came into contact, and Illinois was at once Indian Country and part of a European empire. By the nineteenth century, U.S. migration again transformed slavery's place in the Illinois Country. White southerners from Virginia and Kentucky poured in, and many of them brought their slaves in tow. Before 1830, settlers coming from the Upper South populated Illinois and arrested attempts to end slavery. Instead, local white communities looked for ways to keep human bondage alive, and they largely succeeded. Yet after 1830, a new wave of migration reworked those local arrangements that kept slavery in southern Illinois. Free African Americans came out of Tennessee and Kentucky and settled in all-black towns in the state's southern districts. These enclaves of black freedom took root in the same communities where slavery survived. As free African Americans worked to liberate enslaved people, they found new allies among the white immigrants who poured into Illinois. By the 1840s and 1850s, settlers from New England, the mid-Atlantic, and Western Europe had come to call Illinois home, and they again remade the state's politics of slavery. They joined the small abolition societies, pressed for new antislavery laws, and helped to make Illinois a free state by supporting a local freedom struggle in southern Illinois. Across this long arc, the movement of people in and out of Illinois made, remade, and eventually unmade slavery's place in the state.
As Illinois's borders and population changed, masters reconstituted their power to enslave others, but they never achieved total dominance. They did not have a monopoly on state authority, and they likewise could not control religious institutions or civic society. Notwithstanding the limits to their influence, masters living in this marginal slave economy still managed to coerce labor from generations of enslaved people and to work their slaves in a wide array of industries. Slaveholders wielded political power in local courts and state legislatures, and before 1830, inhabitants routinely elected slaveholders to statewide office. Those officeholders passed draconian Black Codes that degraded black citizenship. By the 1850s, the state legislature had banned black immigration into the state. As a diverse cast of free and enslaved adversaries beat back slaveholders' power, masters turned to systems of black kidnapping to keep slavery alive in new guises.
The Alchemy of Slavery relies on a diverse assemblage of archival sources spanning the late seventeenth to the mid-nineteenth centuries. The opening chapters draw most heavily on diplomatic correspondence and other records from the French and British colonial archive. These official records tell a story of imperial expansion, explaining why the empires invested so heavily in making a slave economy in the region. However, the travel descriptions, Jesuit accounts, notarial documents, baptism entries, and occasional business record books that survive from this period reveal how slaveholders adapted to the circumstances they discovered in Illinois. By the turn of the nineteenth century, when the newly minted United States claimed the region, the balance of the source base had changed. Owing to the county and state governments that the United States created, officials in Washington, D.C. spent less time administering the region, giving rise to a rich set of local legal records that comprise the archival base for most of the rest of the period under study. Most of these legal records reside in county courthouses in southern Illinois, where they sit crammed under staircases, shoved into crawl spaces, often suffering every imaginable form of neglect. Another key change came in the second decade of the nineteenth century, when newspaper editors set up the first printing presses in the region. By the 1820s, the state had a handful of newspapers that usually printed weekly. In time, the volume of print culture exploded, and by the mid-nineteenth century, daily newspapers abounded in the state. Over this long stretch, correspondence between colonial officials in three empires, baptismal records, notarial records, travel descriptions, bills of sale, merchant's accounts, "negro registries," books of emancipation, criminal indictments for kidnapping, probate inventories, freedom suits for slaves demanding emancipation, newspapers, and speeches and debates from the state's leaders all tell a new tale of slavery and freedom in the United States.
Each set of sources offers its own window on the contours of slavery and freedom in Illinois, and each has its own set of limitations. The colonial archives reveal how slavery in this one region belonged to a wider history of New World colonialism, and they reveal that different imperial contexts inspired slaveholders to reinvent the slave economy time and again. Yet if these records help unearth the alchemy of enslaving, they also project an imperial control over the region that local settlers rarely had. The thin remnants of the local archive from eighteenth-century Illinois only point to the general outlines of the ways that slaveholders adapted to the local slaving practices of the region's powerful indigenous inhabitants. Almost none of these sources speak directly to enslaved people's thoughts, identities, or motivations, making their voices and experiences all the more obscure. As the volume of local sources exploded in the nineteenth century, the fine grain of the power struggles over slavery and freedom comes into fuller view. Yet, these records only provide a fiction of a complete and true record of the lives of masters and enslaved people. Local legal case files rarely make mention of the major changes—from industrialism, new political alignments, changing ideas of racial hierarchy, and sweeping demographic influxes—that shaped enslaved people's lives. Throughout the long span of this project, global forces and local adaptations played off of one another and propelled the movement from slavery to freedom, even if the archives rarely tell the full story in their own right.
Drawing on such a wide array of sources, Illinois's case shows how slavery and freedom were perpetually renegotiated and redefined according to local politics, economics, and social norms. Throughout this long history, grand forces of nations and empires never determined the outcome of struggles over slavery. Instead, local knowledge and local arrangements commonly held sway. The history of slaveries in this one location unearths new dimensions of the work of enslaving that for so long drove much of U.S. history. Illinois was not a world that slaveholders made, but neither was it free soil. The transition from slavery to freedom is a familiar one in U.S. history, but in Illinois, that movement ran its own course and had its own logic. Understanding that movement requires grappling with the reality that slaveholders drew from many different kinds of slavery, stretching back centuries, in order to make a single, localized slave economy. Over a long span, slavery, then, was not a fixed status but a changing and contested power relationship that masters forged over indigenous captives, African bondspeople, African American servants, and many others. This story of seemingly perpetual reinvention begins at the turn of the eighteenth century, with the making of the "French Negroes."
Table of Contents
Introduction. Slavery and Freedom on the American Continent
Chapter 1. Making the French Negroes
Chapter 2. Another Law and Empire
Chapter 3. Remaking the French Negroes
Chapter 4. Contesting Bondage in the Slave North
Chapter 5. Paths to Independence
Chapter 6. Freedom Practices, Freedom Politics
Conclusion. North of Slavery, South of Freedom