The following article was first published in the ISGS Quarterly, Volume 36, Number 1, pp. 9-25, Spring 2004.
Riding the Contraband Train
Being Black in Illinois during the early years of the 19th century was not a pleasant experience.
In 1767 when the Penns and the Baltimores couldn't resolve their colonial border disputes, two British astronomers, Charles Mason and Jeremiah Dixon, were called in to survey the borders to settle the conflict. From a border dispute it evolved into the line that separated the free state of Pennsylvania from the slave state of Maryland.
The line, originally meant to be a straight line from the bottom of the State of Pennsylvania westward, took strange bends following the Ohio River more often than not.
Southern Illinois took an unusual twist being populated mainly by people from Virginia, North Carolina, Kentucky and Tennessee. The attitudes about slavery were in line with their origins. As a matter of fact, Williamson County (Carbondale) supplied a company of troops for a Confederate 41st Tennessee Regiment.
1717-1721: Illinois was a free state even though the French land promoter Renault imported slaves to provide labor for the existing French settlements and mines in Southern Illinois.
Many slave owners from the border states of Tennessee, Missouri and Kentucky rented their slaves for labor to people in Illinois. A main concentration was at the Saline Salt mines in and around Equality, Illinois. William Morrison was the only Illinois resident to rent out slaves in Illinois to Illinoisans.
Abraham Lincoln's Emancipation Proclamation did little to help the slavery issue in Illinois as slavery had "officially" been abolished in 1837. Gary DeNeal of Springhouse Magazine has more than adequately explored the conditions of John Crenshaw's activities at the "Old Slave House" north of Equality, Illinois.
The Black Codes of Illinois
The British, defeating the French in the French and Indian war, allowed slavery to exist in Illinois and it continued after George Rogers Clark's victory in 1778.
1787: French slaves were still slaves in spite of the Northwest Ordinance of 1787 and when Illinois became a state in 18 18 it was still legal to own and use slaves and was allowed by the state constitution especially in the Saline Salt Mines. The new constitution, however, gave freedom to the children of slaves.
1829: The constitution carried provisions designed to discourage Blacks from settling in Illinois. The 1829 law demanded that any Black residing in Illinois had to post a $1000.00 bond to insure good behavior or to not become a burden to the community. They had to register in the county of residence. Few could afford such a high price and were forced to be sponsored by a white person who would financially bear any expense that the Black would cause.
In 1845,the courts ruled that all Slaves within Illinois were free, closing the French slave loophole.
In 1847 a new constitution was proposed with provisions that would prevent free Blacks from immigrating to Illinois and would make it illegal to import Black slaves to free them although it was often done. Many opposed the inclusion of such a clause and the opposition grew. Nevertheless, the clause was included with a wide range of support. Slaves were not allowed to enter the state to be freed.
1850: The Fugitive Slave Act of 1850, a Federal Law, demanded that any escaped slave found anywhere in a free or a slave state be returned to their owner. Many free blacks were kidnapped and sold into slavery legally. The best known example was Solomon Northup, a free citizen of New York who was lured to the border state of Maryland on the promise of work, was drugged, his freedom papers taken from him and sold to a succession of owners, ending up in Louisiana for 12 years. A sympathetic white man passed on a letter by him to his friends in New York who rescued and reunited him with his family. ("Twelve Years a Slave") Slave catchers were numerous in Illinois with easy access to the slave states of Kentucky, Tennessee and Missouri.
1851: Despite an injunction to exclude the offending clause of the 1829/1847 act, the Illinois legislature refused to eliminate it.
1853: Under the leadership of John Logan the legislative branch passed the Black Law of 1853 which imposed fines of $50.00 on out of state blacks who stayed in Illinois for more than 10 days. If the fine could not be paid, the offender was sold to the highest bidder who would then pay the fine placing the "guilty" black into indentured servitude until the "debt" was paid off. The Illinois Black Law continued to be in force until the end of the Civil War.
On October 13, 1862, the 52nd Regiment, Illinois Volunteers helped defeat a superior force of the Confederate Army at Corinth, Mississippi, Lt. Colonel John S. Wilcox commanding. After the battle a considerable number of escaped slaves began to accumulate at Camp Montgomery, the Union headquarters. Many of the able bodied men were pressed into service with the army as teamsters, blacksmiths, or ordinary laborers who were used to build fortifications and work as required. Some became servants to various officers. Many of the escaped slaves had followed the army from Alabama.
The balance were women, children, the elderly or the infirm. The "contrabands" were generally a burden to the military that had no adequate way to care for them. As the number grew so did the concern over disease and the lack of shelter.
The Reverend Benjamin Thomas, the chaplain of the 52nd took up the matter with the Reverend Adoniram Judson Joslyn, the editor of the Elgin Gazette and Reverend Thomas' substitute at the Baptist Church in Elgin.
In a letter dated April 22, 18621 Chaplain Thomas announced that he was in charge of the contra-band camp on Island No. 10 and asked for donations of clothing. Another letter2 announced his intentions of bringing some contrabands to Elgin. The reply was:
"Rev. B. Thomas
Your letter announcing your intention to bring a train load of refugees to this State has been received. You may be assured that Illinois will shrink from no duty which patriotism imposes. She has sent one hundred and fifty thousand of her noblest sons to uphold the authority of the Government, and she will, if necessary, receive and provide for one hundred and my thousand of these helpless captives of war.
The citizens of Elgin met yesterday and appointed a committee as follows: ....."
On September, 1862, Chaplain Thomas wrote3:
"Camp Montgomery, Miss. Sept, 1862.
Dear Bro. Joslyn:-I expect to be at Cairo with a train load of Contrabands next week, will leave here with them on Thursday or Friday. How many do you think can find homes at or near Elgin? Shall I bring a carload of these poor creatures, who have just had the fetters taken from their limbs, to your place with any assurance that they can have food and clothing? Many of them are active women and Children, women who are good cooks, boys who can cut wood, and feed and do much work.....
We are told that we dare not bring these persons north. I do not believe that the north will object to have rebel cattle or horses or mules or negroes or any other elements of power they have......
Who will complain? None but sympathizers with treason! I will by order, from the General bring these to Illinois, if I die in the attempt....
Some of them are really smart, I had almost said bright, but I feared you would find them dark when they came, some of them are white, but more yellow and most black.......
Yours, B. Thomas"
On October 22, 1862, the Contrabands arrived in Elgin on the Illinois Central Railroad. It was announced in the paper.4
Excitement in Elgin
One Hundred and Twenty five
Contrabands in Town
Generosity of the People
Malice of the Sneaks
They Wake up the Wrong Passenger
Last Wednesday as soon as our paper was made up we started for Alton to attend some anniversaries which detained us nearly a week. Soon after we left our office a dispatch came from Chaplain Thomas saying that two car loads of Contrabands would arrive on the next train. About an hour later the train and the fugitives came. The friends barely had time to arrive at the depot to meet them.
But the kindness and generosity of the people of this city can hardly be overdrawn. In a very little time the Kimball House was engaged and its large dining room fitted up in a comfort-able manner and provisions enough brought in to keep the...party for three days.
The next morning they were placed in different families according to the wants or benevolence of each.......The citizens generally have treated these unfortunate victims of oppression with care and sympathy......So few in Elgin very foolishly undertook to annoy Mr. Thomas for acting the part of a Good Samaritan, as well as that of an obedient officer."
Almost immediately there was trouble.5
"One man went before Justice Burritt and swore out a warrant against the Chaplain for bringing negroes into the state. But when a dozen loafers gathered around the depot, as he was about starting for Chicago, to see him arrested, he informed them that he was acting under military orders, and they molested him at their peril ....It may be of some importance to the man who in swearing out the warrant, swore to what he did not know to be true ....to be informed that Mr. Thomas did not bring these negroes into the State, buy only from one portion of the State to another. (Cairo). He came to Corinth with a load of wounded soldiers and placed them in the hospitals at Cairo and from there was sent with these Contrabands."
Opposition also took the form of letters to the paper6:
"What One Black headed Worm did
"That's a splendid sycamore!" said a gentleman to his friend, to whom he was showing his grounds.
"Yes," replied his friend, who was a naturalist; "but see here is a wood worm forcing its way under the bark. If you let that worm alone it will kill the tree."
The worm was a mean looking black-headed thing about three inches long........
In the following spring, disaster struck the Contrabands and many of the families that took them in.7
Some months since the Chaplain of the 52nd, acting under orders, brought to this place two carloads of colored refugees from Alabama. They consisted almost entirely of women and children, the men being retained to work for the army. They came just as winter set in, debilitated by exposure in the barracks at Cairo ...Many of them were sick with lung fever of which a number soon died……
They had not been here long when the small pox broke out among them and was communicated to several families where they had been distributed. This of course, increased the prejudice against them.
They have been here about six months--perhaps twenty of them have died."
Mingle and Emma Newsome lost all their children to smallpox and they were buried in the old cemetery at Channing Street in Elgin: Sarah, aged 14; Becky, aged 8; Calvin, aged 4; Penny, aged 4 all died.8
The precise identity of the members of the Contraband Train are not known as the records are missing or never existed but any family from Mississippi and Alabama or even Tennessee are possible members.
The new arrivals were forced to live in a low swampy area of Elgin known as "the settlement" bordered by what is now Hill, Franklin, Gifford, and Fremont including Hickory and Ann streets. As the residents have become more affluent in modern times the area is being settled by immigrant Mexicans.
While some families remained, many others went west. The towns further south were an attraction, Batavia, Aurora being favorites. The following are their heads of households for the original 246 families (1 860- l880), birth year and origin:
* Known to have served during the Civil War for the Union.
Some descendents of the Contrabands have done well in modem times. One of the Johnson families, moved to Detroit where Albert built a successful construction company. Laverne E. Newsome left Elgin to become lead violin for the Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra. Doctor Lloyd Augustus Hall became the creator of Food Science and held 105 patents. The (Lewis) Wheeler Trucking Company was successful for many years. Robert Garrett ran the pressroom for one of the local newspapers.
Most became ordinary law-abiding citizens and supported their families and owned numerous businesses, became ministers, teachers, housewives and fathers. From a clouded beginning one hundred and fifty years ago to living in a modern world most have faced life with courage and dedication. Not a bad legacy for the sons and daughters of illiterate slaves!
The term "contraband" came from General Benjamin Butler, a Union General, who had seized confederate property during one engagement that included some slaves that had been building defenses. The Confederate colonel asked that his slaves be returned as personal property. General Butler replied, "I shall hold these Negroes as contraband of war since they are engaged in the construction of your battery and are claimed as your property."
* * *
Raleigh Sutton lives in Elgin, Kane County, Illinois. Has spent the last 17 years working on the first black families in Kane County, constructing family trees and historical frame-works for the first 238 families that settled in Kane County between 1856 and 1880. In 2002, he was a recipient of the "Mayor George Van De Voord Outstanding Service Award" for historic preservation on this subject from the City of Elgin.
1 Elgin Weekly Gazette, August 30, 1863
2 Elgin Weekly Gazette, October 8, 1862
3 Elgin Weekly Gazette, October 8, 1862
4 Elgin Weekly Gazette, October 22, 1862
5 Elgin Weekly Gazette, October 25, 1862
6 Elgin Weekly Gazette, July 29, 1863
7 Elgin Weekly Gazette, March 18, 1863
8 Bluff City Cemetery Records, Elgin, Illinois
Acknowledgement: A big thank you to ISGS members Howard Manthei and Sherry Jones for scanning and transcribing this ISGS Quarterly article.
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