Slavery in Douglas County

This article was published in the Journal of the Illinois State Historical Society (1908-1984), Volume 11. It was written by James L. Reat.

When Illinois was organized into a State in the year 1818 slavery had existed in the Illinois territory for more than a century and remained here over thirty years after a State Constitution had been adopted.
The historian tells us that African slaves were brought into what was called, for a time, "Illinois Country" as early as 1720, and slavery was recognized, legalized and trafficked in by the French government under Louis XV, king of France, that nation claiming the country by right of discovery.
When the English secured possession of it by the treaty of Paris in 1763, Great Britain, under the rule of King George the First, confirmed the title of the inhabitants in their slave property. The United States, in 1784, recognized the right of slave property in the deed of cession, and the territorial authorities immediately passed laws favorable to the slave holders and rigidly enforced them against every protest; the Governor, Ninian Edwards, being a slave owner himself.
When the territory was admitted as a State the first legislature passed what was denominated a "Slave Code," and while it can not be said that at that time a majority of the people were opposed to the institution of slavery, yet there was a determined and aggressive number of citizens arrayed against the system.
However, for the welfare of the community, the principles of comity and good fellowship continued to exist among them, yet an incompatibility of mind and purpose prevailed on the subject of slavery that led inevitably to the development of the "irrepressible conflict" that now had entered the political arena, and which was destined to shake the foundation of the republic.
A preliminary battle between the forces of slavery and freedom was waged in 1822, when Edward Coles was elected Governor. This preceded a general election in 1824, when the pro-slavery party was defeated.
This marked the first triumph of freedom over slavery in the United States after the Declaration of Independence in 1776. Slavery as an institution was now outlawed, but not ostracized. For, notwithstanding the ordinance of 1787 pledged that there should be no slavery in the Northwest Territory, certain families coming from the South brought their slaves with them and settled in different parts of Illinois, some locating within the bounds of what now constitutes Douglas County. Robert Matteson was one of these slaveholders. He came from Bourbon County, Kentucky, and settled on land that he had previously entered in 1835, lying near the noted " Horse Shoe Bend" on the Embarras River, close to the old town of Hugo, two and a half miles south and east of Camargo.
Matteson came upon this tract of land in 1840, accompanied by his family, and bringing with him twelve or fifteen slaves that labored for him in building houses, erecting barns and improving a large farm.
After a few years, from some cause — probably on account of the insecure tenure by which he held his slave property — Matteson decided to return to his old home, but to his disappointment and chagrin his servants, led by a young colored man named Simeon Wilmot, refused to go with him. Matteson, in an evil hour, swore out a writ of habeas corpus and had them all arrested as fugitive slaves.
This precipitated litigation and astounded the untutored minds of the colored people, but sympathetic white men came to their assistance with mental and material aid. After one of the greatest forensic battles that was ever fought in this part of the State a district and a Supreme judge decided the case against the plaintiff, Matteson, setting his slaves free.
"What became of these ex-slaves, with one exception, little concurrent testimony of a trustworthy character could ever be obtained — tragic stories of wild flights by night in covered wagons, kidnapping, ransomed, and hairbreadth escapes, contrast strangely with other statements of greater probability — that of their obtaining homes and employment in the nearby farm houses and learning the lesson that while they were freed from the thralldom of unrequited toil they must still earn their bread by the sweat of the face and strength of the arm. But there was never any uncertainty as to the principal actor in this contest for liberty, for Simeon Wilmot remained near where his master had brought him years previously to his securing his freedom. He worked for different farmers in the neighborhood, was a quiet, sober, industrious man, saved his wages, laid by a little money, purchased and sold several pieces of real estate, improved a farm for himself, where he lived one-half mile south and west from Camargo.
In 1884 he employed William E. Price, county surveyor, of Tuscola, to survey and plat his land, which was afterwards sold to Eugene Bice.
When the writer first knew "Uncle Sim," as his friends called him, he had become an old gray-haired man. Born into slavery, he struggled up from slave to freedman and lived a respected citizen of the United States for half a century after the great war President, Abraham Lincoln, had issued the emancipation proclamation, the most momentous State paper of his administration, freeing a race that had been held in bondage in this country for two hundred and forty years.

Extracted 15 Nov 2016 by Norma Hass

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