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J. Eric Robinson, Historical Research and Narrative

Even in the dirt of 1820s frontier politics, few accusations matched this: Edward Coles of Edwardsville, candidate for governor of Illinois and one of the leaders of the state's anti-slavery forces, held "many young and valuable [slaves] in a neighboring state." Coles had freed his slaves as he moved from Virginia to Illinois in 1819. But in the spring of 1822 the accusation appeared in an anonymous letter to Vandalia's Illinois Intelligencer. As was the custom of the time, its appearance in one newspaper meant its reprinting in others throughout the state.

For Coles and for free blacks, the accusation could not have appeared at a worse time. It threatened to expose the tenuous position of free blacks and their white friends and neighbors, a position that was established as a reaction to Illinois law. Illinois had been embroiled in a debate over what to do with its African residents since the French introduced slavery to the area in the early 1700s. Both the British, who took control in 1765, and the Americans, whose conquest in 1778 became legitimate with the Northwest Ordinance of 1787, permitted slavery in Illinois. The state's first constitution, effective in 1818, permitted slavery in Massac County and legalized the institution among slaves brought to Illinois by the French. The practice of slavery in Illinois, despite its illegality, arose from two sources—the desire to satisfy Congress, which tended to deny admission to a state from the Northwest Territory, and as a reflection of the strength of the pro-slavery element in Illinois. Moreover, Illinois was a frequent hunting ground for slave catchers looking for escaped slaves who hid in its uncharted areas often with the help of Native American tribes. Slave catchers received help from local officials.

Accompanying the state's sanctioning of slavery were restrictions placed upon free blacks. The first General Assembly denied blacks the right to vote and required all to possess a certificate of freedom, or "freedom papers." Although free blacks could be taxed, they could not testify in court, serve on juries, hold office, or join the militia. Unlike other groups, free blacks caught in groups could be whipped under the assumption of being runaways—and whipping could cripple. All of this happened in Illinois towns and villages.

Free blacks sought refuge wherever it could be found. In Illinois, that was often in rural areas. Free black communities sprang up throughout southern Illinois, the most heavily populated region in Illinois in the early 1800s.

Though there are few written records of these communities, they can be reconstructed using existing records (mostly church and school records), genealogical studies, oral traditions, and geographic clues. Free black communities shared basic characteristics. Because of the need for water, they— like other frontier communities—were situated along streams and creeks. But unlike other frontier communities, the streams and creeks, which followed a generally north-south course, also facilitated the escape of runaway slaves. In the midwest, heading upstream along a stream or creek is a more dependable guide north than moss on a tree, which may be thickest on any side, or using the North star, which is not visible on overcast nights. Though there are no statistics, the addition of runaway slaves would explain the population growth that free black


communities experienced within a generation or two. Aside from the waterways and the occasional road, these communities were virtually inaccessible.

Life in a community of free blacks was fairly complete and not unlike other rural communities. There were worship services, schools, and tradesmen who practiced such crafts as smithing that would have been restricted elsewhere under the Black Codes. As was the practice of the day, children were delivered by midwives who also practiced a "folk medicine" based upon herbs and roots and learned by the earliest frontiersmen from the Native Americans. The economy was agricultural, and given the social constraints, based on subsistence farming. Currency was based upon precious metals and in short supply, so goods and services were apparently exchanged for barter. According to folk records, trips to town were for paying taxes and acquiring supplies.

Free black communities seem to have operated much like other frontier communities. As in other frontier communities, self-government was based upon popular consensus. There were, however, leading citizens who functioned as "wise men." "Wise men" were especially important to free black communities. Mediators of disputes and representatives to the outside world, "wise men" used their own prestige to support and even protect Illinois' free black communities before the law, much in the same way that patrons supported and protected their clients in ancient Rome. Because free blacks lacked such status, an Illinois "wise man" was, more often than not, white.

Such a "wise man" was Edward Coles, who functioned in that capacity for the free black community of Pin Oak Colony, a settlement he founded, defended, and championed. The particulars of Coles and the Pin Oak Colony give substance to our descriptions of free black communities in Illinois.

Coles's background is fascinating. A native of Virginia, Coles was part of the planting few who owned more than two slaves. At his father's death, Coles inherited "about twenty" slaves, he said in his response to the Illinois Intelligencer accusation, printed in the June 24, 1822, Edwardsville Speculator. Based upon the tax records of that day and applied to 1990s standards, this was a number equivalent to owning eighty quarterhorses. How many other slaves his family owned is not known. Seventeen of the slaves were under thirty— and likely among the most valuable, for they were still of, or under, childbearing age.

Coles declared that his entire inheritance—"except two old and superannuated women"—was freed in Illinois in the years before 1822. Most likely, this occurred before the first constitution, which prohibited slaveholders from bringing slaves to Illinois with the intention of manumission. The three over thirty received 160 acres each from Coles, "as a remuneration for their past services."

That 480 acres in Pin Oak, a congressional township just east of Edwardsville and organized under the Northwest Ordinance, was the beginning of the Pin Oak Colony, which was situated near Silver Creek on the Marine Road. Beginning with seventeen newly freed blacks before 1818, the colony grew to three hundred in 1845. Its growth was due to immigration, as opposed to birth, and most likely the immigration featured both free blacks who moved into the area to escape restrictions and runaway slaves seeking shelter.

During Coles's lifetime, it was known to people in the Pin Oak area that he was a conductor in the Underground Railroad; it is reasonable to assume that some free blacks were conductors as well. Arguably, Coles's prominence in the frontier kept authorities from penalizing Pin Oak's residents. Prominence was not an unknown shield to the laws and was not limited to the frontier. In Alton in the 1830 and 1840s, for example, the booster and developer Major Charles Hunter was well-known for his anti-slavery activities. He was one of the few land owners to support the abolitionist Elijah Lovejoy, and he was one of the very few to allow blacks to live on his property. Major Hunter was also reputed by his contemporaries to be a conductor in the Underground Railroad.

Less prominent whites involved in the Underground Railroad on the frontier did not fare so well. According to some stories, whites found sheltering runaway slaves were egged, attacked by mobs, and tarred and feathered (leading to the victim's suffocation). Entire families might be driven out of the county because a member was found helping slaves escape.

Interestingly, those on the frontier most likely to participate in the Underground Railroad and to support free blacks were those who had witnessed slavery at its


worst—in Virginia, Alabama, and Mississippi. For example, Thomas Brown, a Brighton, Illinois, doctor, was a former Alabama resident. He became so active in the Underground Railroad that some Missourians wanted to burn down Brighton.

Pin Oak also had white residents. Most were not as prominent as Coles, but they were just as important, if not more so. For the free black in the frontier, the word of a neighbor carried greater value than that of the certificate of freedom because many frontiersmen were poorly read and some certificates of freedom were known to be forged. A neighbor stating a person was free meant the person was free, just as someone stating a person was a slave meant the person was a slave; any dispute could be settled in court, and no free blacks were allowed to testify. For free blacks sheltering runaway slaves, the word—or at least, the silence—of white neighbors was vital, for a free black caught sheltering runaways was subject to enslavement, or worse.

Other important residents of Pin Oak were Native Americans, said by some to be Kickapoo. These natives augmented the free black population via intermarriage. (They included my own ancestors, and may account for my family's reddish skin undertone.) Intermarriage between free blacks and natives, and natives and whites, lacked the prejudice and negative reaction associated with that between free blacks and whites.

The exact rate of this intermarriage is difficult to ascertain. In census records of the early 1800s, products of free black and native intermarriage were recorded as "mulatto," the same as lighter-skinned blacks and products of black and white parents. It was also the practice in some families (such as my own) to claim native ancestry rather than white ancestry when the white ancestry may have been introduced to the family violently.

Beyond intermarriage, the Native Americans helped free blacks and runaway slaves in Illinois, a practice that differed greatly from such nations as the Cherokee in Georgia, who were slave owners. Nevertheless, it was a matter of time before all Native American tribes were forced west of the Mississippi.

By 1845 the Pin Oak Colony numbered almost 300 black residents; that same year, 19 out of 610 Edwardsville residents were black. Pin Oak had Mount Zion School, which at one time had eighty students, and African Methodist and black Baptist churches. After the Civil War, the school and churches—like many of the people themselves—relocated "in town," that is, to Edwardsville. In an interview given to Ella Tunnell and Jessie Springer of the Madison County Historical Society in 1959, ninety-year-old Edwardsville blacksmith Thomas Tandy, a former Pin Oak Colony resident, stated that families also moved to St. Louis, Litchfield, and Decatur. Though the interview does not give a reason for the migration, it is important to note that in the years of industrial growth following the Civil War, many rural communities lost people who went to work "in town." Pin Oak was not unusual.

Why was Pin Oak Colony never formally incorporated? The answer is both simple and complicated. There was the established, nebulous state of free blacks in Illinois, but that status in and of itself did not prevent free blacks from incorporating communities. Lovejoy, Illinois, was incorporated as a free black community in the 1840s and it seems that others existed deeper in southern Illinois. Those free black communities did not share the unusual location of Pin Oak colony. Lovejoy, for example, existed in a no-man's-land on the county line between Madison and St. Clair counties. Other free black communities were remote. The Pin Oak Colony butted against Edwardsville, the county seat. Perhaps the residents thought incorporation would merely red-flag their existence. Maybe residents thought that there was nothing to gain from incorporation. And maybe the free black residents believed that the informal relationships with their white neighbors offered better protection. Who knows? Whatever the explanation, Pin Oak Colony has remained unincorporated in recent years. Though there has been some development of the area, for the most part it remains rural, with at least one family still living on Pin Oak Colony land.


Stan Mendenhall


Main Ideas

Free blacks lived in a precarious legal status with few, if any, civil rights. Abolitionists faced obstacles in helping blacks. The following lessons will help students understand the complexity of these issues during Illinois' frontier period.

Connection with the Curriculum

These lessons are appropriate for a variety of grade levels, courses, and curriculum units. They could be taught as part of a U.S. history course, Illinois history, a civil rights unit, or an Illinois government unit.

Teaching Level

Grades 7-12

Materials for Each Student
• The narrative portion of the article
• Handouts 1-6

Objectives for Each Student
• To analyze the positions taken by individuals prominent in the article.
• To evaluate the issues that dominated Illinois politics in the early 1800s.
• To gain an insight into American and Illinois culture and society in the early 1800s.


Opening the Lesson

After having reached a point in the curriculum where the general topic of the article is appropriate, students may be introduced to this lesson by reading the narrative portion of the article. Further background information on the legal status of blacks can be found in black codes; see Roger D. Bridges, "The Illinois Black Codes," Illinois History Teacher 3:2 (1996), 2-7. A discussion of the constitutional crisis caused by the slavery question is found in, Robert M. Sutton, "Edward Coles and the Constitutional Crisis in Illinois, 1822-1824," Illinois Historical Journal, 82:1 (1989), 33-46.

Developing the Lesson

• The teacher may select one or both of the following lessons.

Lesson 1
• Read the narrative portion of the article.
• The maps in Handouts 1 and 2 are an aid in understanding Illinois in the 1820s.
• Discuss and identify the various positions held by the individuals and groups prominent in the article.
• Assign each student one of the four roles in Handouts 3-5 and follow the instructions at the top of the page.

Lesson 2
• Read the narrative portion of the article.
• Employ the maps in much the same manner as in Lesson 1.
• Discuss and identify the various positions held by the individuals and groups prominent in the article.
• Assign each student or small groups the assignment as outlined in Handout 6.

Concluding the Lesson

On the chalkboard, overhead, power-point, or other medium, list the general points students make in their answers for each of the handouts. From the lists, groups of students may draw conclusions as to the motives and values of the various individuals and groups identified in the article. The instructor may write the conclusions of each group to form a general class consensus of free black communities and the Illinois slavery controversy of the mid-1820s.

Assessing the Lesson

• The individual handout sheets may be graded based on a teacher-designed rubric.
• The group work employed in reaching a class consensus may also be graded using a teacher-designed rubric or specific question sheet.


After Olin D. Morrison, Illinois Prairie: State Historical Atlas, (Athens, Ohio: Morrison, 1960), p. 52.


After Olin D. Morrison, Illinois Prairie: State Historical Atlas. (Athens, Ohio: Morrison, 1960), p. 59.


You are a resident of a free black community in southern Illinois during the mid-1820s. Answer the following questions and give your impressions and opinions of the conditions under which you live.

1. How do you make a living?

2. How would you describe your standard of living?

3. Have you had to rely upon a member of the white community to maintain your freedom? If so, how?

4. Describe the daily limitations you bear due to your social, political, and legal status in Illinois.

5. What actions have you taken to improve your political or legal status?


You are a prominent white landowner in southern Illinois during the mid-1820s. You are actively seeking to eliminate slavery in Illinois and elevate the legal and political status of black inhabitants. Answer the following questions giving your impressions and opinions of the current situation in the state.

1. What are your reasons for opposing slavery? (social, religious, economic, etc.)

2. Have you ever owned slaves? If so, what were the circumstances under which you freed them?

3. What actions have you taken to change the status of blacks in Illinois?

4. Have you or would you take illegal actions to assist black residents in your area? If so, what might they be?


You are a reporter for a local newspaper in southern Illinois during the mid-1820s. Your editor has sent you on an assignment related to the current crisis surrounding slavery. Write a brief report for your editor on one of the following assignments.

1. Visit a free black community. For your readers, describe the living and working conditions of the community. Emphasize the opinions of local residents regarding their political and legal status.

2. Interview an individual who is opposed to slavery in Illinois. Find out his or her background, motives for his or her position on slavery, and his or her proposed plans for influencing the state legislature.

3. Interview an individual who is in favor of slavery becoming legal in Illinois. Find out his or her background, his or her motives for his or her position on slavery, and his or her proposed plans for influencing the state legislature.


1. Locate the community or area in question on a map. If no map exists, create one that includes key elements of information for the reader.

2. What is the first evidence of the community's settlement?

3. Identify the first inhabitants. If available, include information about their background, occupation, etc.

4. What factors contributed to the community's growth?

5. What were the primary methods of making a living in the community?

6. What cultural, social, political, or other institutions were found in the community?

7. What influences brought about change within the community?

8. What caused the community to decline?

9. Did the community cease to exist? If so, what physical evidence of it still exists?

10. Did the community evolve into a new level of development? If so, what physical evidence of the "old" community still exists?

The larger picture

1. What social, political, economic, or other influences cause communities to change?

2. What roles do individuals play in the growth and decline of communities?

3. How may growth and change in cities and neighborhoods be controlled? Or should it be controlled?


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