The following article was first published in the ISGS Quarterly, Volume 36, Number 1, pp. 9-25, Spring 2004.
Riding the Contraband Train
Raleigh Sutton
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 letterannounced 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 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 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
"The Contrabands
          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:
Name       Birth date       Birth location
ADAMS, JOHN       1841       Kansas
ALEXANDER, TERESSA MARY       1845       Indiana
ALLEN, WILLIAM B.       1811       North Carolina
ANTHONY, F.       1830       Mississippi
ARTIS, CLINTON       October, 1839       Alabama
AUSTIN, AMBROSE       1843       Virginia
AUSTIN, MARY       1844       Missouri
BARKER, AVON       1797       unknown
BARNBE, HENRY       1830       Mississippi
BATES, CAROLINE       1840       Virginia
BATES, EMMA       1864       Kentucky
BATES, FRANK       1830       Kentucky
BELEW, -------       unknown       unknown
BELL, SAMUEL       August,1829       Tennessee
BIBBS, LOUISE       1860       Alabama
BOGER, CALVIN       March,1850       Georgia
BONNER, HENRY       1830       Tennessee
BOSLEY, JOSHUA       1835       Alabama
BRADFORD, WILLIAM       1838       Mississippi
BROOKS, PERRY       July,1837       Kentucky
BROWN(l), JOHN       1833       Kentucky
BROWN(2), JOHN       1849       Virginia
BROWN, -------       unknown       unknown
BROWN, AUGUSTUS       1859       Virginia
BROWN, CHARLES       1855       Alabama
BROWN, E.       1840       North Carolina
BROWN, EPHRIAM       April,1830       North Carolina
*BROWN, GEORGE       1847       Mississippi
*BROWN, JAMES H.       1852       Maryland
BROWN, JOSEPHINE       1851       Missouri
Brown, Rigdom Washington       1855       Kingston, South Carolina
BROWN,SAMUEL       1853       Canada
*BROWN,WILLIAM       1830       Kentucky
BROWN, WRIGHT WASHINGTON       1856       Kingston, South Carolina
BUCHANAN, FANNIE B.       1870       Illinois
BUCKNER, ELIZABETH       1786       Missouri
BUCKNER, HENRY       1850       Kentucky
CAMPBELL, JAMES W.       1838       Pennsylvania
CARNEY, SAMUEL       1845       New Jersey
CARR, BRYANT       June, 1850       North Carolina
CARTER, BURNETT       November,1850       Tennessee
*CARTER, HENRY W.       1842       Kentucky
CARTER, SARAH       1837       Mississippi
CATLETT, CATHERINE       November, 1830       Tennessee
CHAMBERS, ANDERSON       1839       Tennessee
*CHAPPEL, HENRY       1827       Kentucky
CHURCH, M. E.       unknown       unknown
*CLAYBROOK, JOHN W.       October, 1846       Owensboro, Kentucky
COLE, ALEXANDER       1859       Kansas
COLE, LEANDER       1858       Kansas
*COLEMAN, JOHN JOSEPH       1830       Virginia
COOPER, THOMAS       January,1841       Virginia
CORBETT, THOMAS       unknown       unknown
CORCORAN, ROBERT, SR.       1817       Missouri
COULY, ROBERT       1847       Alabama
CURTIS, A.B.       1846       Kentucky
DAVIDSON, LETTIE       1852       Alabama
DAVIS, EM       1857       Virginia
DAVIS, WILLIAM, SR.       1836       Kentucky
DAWSON, HENRY       1853       Arkansas
DECOURCEY, E.       1856       Illinois
DeCOURCEY, M.       1832       Ohio
DeCOURCY, D.       1816       Tennessee
DeCOURSEY, MILTON       1835       Illinois
DEMMERY, OSCAR       1869       Illinois
DEMPSEY, --------       1853       Illinois
DEREG, DANIEL       1840       Canada
DONALD, JOSEPHINE       1840       New York
DOUGHERTY, HENRY       1856       Missouri
DOWNS, JACOB H.       Bet.1839-1840       Africa
EDWARDS, I.       1840       Virginia
EDWARDS, PETER       March,1834       South Carolina
EDWARDS, WILLIAM       December, 1833       Virginia
ELLIOT, THOMAS       1854       Maryland
*FORD, JOHN       Bet. 1836-1840       Virginia
FORTNER, JOSEPH       1825       Mississippi
FRENCH, MARY       1844       Alabama
GARRETT, -------       unknown       unknown
GARRETT, BETSY       1845       Missouri
GARRETT, ROBERT       April, 1861       Alabama
GAUTNEY, SYVIA       1817       Virginia
GELLMAN, GEORGE       1822       Missouri
GIBSON, ELLIOT       1854       Virginia
GIBSON, HENRY       1841       Mississippi
GLOVER, WILLIAM       1850       Mississippi
GONNER, ----------       1800       Missouri
GRAHAM, ROBERT       1837       New York
GRAVES, REBECCA       1837       Mississippi
GREEN, ANDREW       1842       Kentucky
GREEN, H.       1830       District of Columbia
*GREEN, HENRY       1831       Washington, D.C.
GREEN, MOLLY       April,1833       Missouri
HALL, ABRAHAM T.       1822       Pennsylvania
*HALL, JOHN HENRY CLAY       1846       Illinois
HAMMOND, THEODORE       1849       Illinois
HARDIN, ALEX, SR.       1818       Kentucky
HARDING, ALEXANDER       July,1814       Kentucky
HARDING, CHARLES S., SR.       September 4, 1847       Bolivar County, Mississippi
HARRIS, REBECCA       1818       Ohio
HARRIS, SANDFORD       1846       Mississippi
HATTON, GEORGE       March, 1830       Virginia
HAYES, MARIA       1820       Kentucky
HAYWARD, ELIZA       1855       Tennessee
HODGES, JOSEPH       1840       Alabama
HOLLAND, LIZZIE       1850       Alabama
HUNTER, GEORGE       1840       Mississippi
*HUNTER, KING G.       November, 1845       Tennessee
HYDE, Daniel       1835       Franklin. Alabama
HYDE, ELIZABETH       1810       Tennessee
JACKET, ABRAHAM       1853       Alabama
JACKSON, JOSHUA       1830       Pennsylvania
*JOHNSON, FRANCES J.       March, 1839       Pennsylvania
JOHNSON, JOHN       1800       Maryland
JOHNSON, JOHN ANDREW, SR.       September 16, 1852       Murfreesboro, Tennessee
JOHNSON, JOHN C.       1849       Tennessee
JOHNSON, THOMAS       1855       Kentucky
JONES, ALLEN       1845       Tennessee
JONES, FRANK       1852       Alabama
*JONES, JAMES       1848       Tennessee
*JONES, LEWIS       1845       Virginia
JONES, MARTHA       1853       Kentucky
JONES, RED       1850       Tennessee
JONES, STEPHEN       1818       Virginia
JORDAN, JENNIE       1866       Illinois
JORDAN, JOHN       1835       North Carolina
JORDEN, JAMES       unknown       Ohio
LAMAR, MOSE       1844       Alabama
LAMAR, MOSES       1830       Alabama
LAMAR, PETE       1830       Tennessee
LANE, HANNAH       1848       Alabama
LATMIRE, MOSE       1843       Alabama
LIMERY, DAVIS       1811       Tennessee
LINDSEY, FANNY       1815       Kentucky
LMUGGU, C.       1862       Mississippi
LOUNAN, PETER       1837       Mississippi
MAHALA, T.       1850       Alabama
MARTIN, THOMAS       March, 1840       Tennessee
MARTINS, GEORGE W.       1828       unknown
*MASON, HENRY       1820       Virginia
MASON, WILLIAM       1862       Illinois
MATSON, HENRY       1856       Alabama
*MAXON, JOHN       1834       District of Columbia
*MAYWEATHER, ALFRED JAMES       August, 1853       Tennessee
McGRUDER, JAMES       1840       Kentucky
MEADOWS, JOSEPH       1832       South
*MEREDITH, JOSEPH       1830       Virginia
MILLIGAN, LYMAS       1852       South Carolina
*MONRO, JAMES M.       1838       Virginia
MOON, JOSEPH       1846       Tennessee
MOORE, JOSEPH R.       1844       West Virginia
*MOORE, PAGE       1834       Virginia
*MURROES, DOCTOR       1838       Tennessee
NEWSOME, ABRAHAM       April, 1835       Raleigh, North Carolina
*NEWSOME, ARTHUR       May, 1832       North Carolina
NEWSOME, DREW       unknown       unknown
NEWSOME, MINGLE       unknown       unknown
*NEWSOME, PETER       November, 1826       Alabama
NORTHCROSS, NERO       1826       Alabama
OATES, MILLIE       1832       Cherokee, Alabama
OATS, FELIX       unknown       Alabama
OATS, GRANVILLE       1866       Illinois
OATS, PRISCILLA       1842       Franklin, Alabama
*OSIER, JOHN M.       May, 1830       Virginia
OUTHOUSE, EDWARD       1834       Canada
PALMER, GEORGE WASHINGTON       April, 1839       Tennessee
PALMER, SASRA       1863       Illinois
PARKER, WILLIAM       1812       Virginia
PARKS, ALICE       1845       Alabama
PATTERSON, JOSEPH       1855       Illinois
PATTERSON, MADISON       1813       North Carolina
PERRY, GEORGE       1860       Indiana
PERRY, LUCINDA       1820       Mississippi
PEYTON, FANNY       1857       Mississippi
PORTER, ANN       1852       Kentucky
PORTER, JAMES       1845       Tennessee
PORTER, LOUIS R.       1836       Missouri
PRATT, LORIAN L.       1846       Virginia
PRICE, CHARLES       1855       Illinois
*PRIDE, GEORGE       1840       Virginia
PRIDE, JERRY       unknown       Alabama
PRIDE, MARTHA       1825       Mississippi
PRIDE, NANCY       1860       Alabama
PRIERSON, PETER       1825       Georgia
PROCTOR, GEORGE W.       1857       Mississippi
RAKES, ROBERT       1850       Tennessee
RAY, ALICE       1853       Tennessee
REDDICH, THOMAS       1845       Kentucky
REED, MALACHI       1840       Kentucky
RICHARDSON, W.       1868       Mississippi
RICKS, ROBERT       Oct., 1828       Alabama
RIDLEY, JOSEPH       1828       Virginia
ROBERTSON, JOSEPH       1834       Ohio
ROBINSON, JAMES       1832       Virginia
ROBINSON, SILAS       1835       Cuba
RUD, MALCHIOR       1840       Kentucky
SACKET, P.       1849       Alabama
SADLER, HANNAH       1850       Alabama
SANDERS, GEORGE, SR.       1843       Mississippi
SCHELL, S.       1820       Kentucky
SCOTT, WILLIAM       1837       Maryland
*SLATER, HENRY       1846       Virginia
SMITH, CECELIA       1850       Alabama
*SMITH, JOHN       1821       Kentucky
*SMITH, LEWIS       1831       Virginia
SMITH, MATTIE       1850       Kentucky
SMITH, SCOTT LEONARD, SR.       December 25, 1857       Cherokee, Alabama
SMITH, STEPHEN       December, 1820       Kentucky
SMITH, SUSAN       1823       Missouri
SMITH, WARREN       1825       Virginia
SMITH, WILLIAM H. H.       June, 1800       Alabama
SOTHERN, GEORGE       1830       Kentucky
STANTON, KATE       1851       Illinois
STEPHENS, ALPHA       1823       Canada
STEWART, FLEMING, SR.       1845       Virginia
*STEWART, WILLIAM T.       1822       North Carolina
TAGAN, JOSEPH       unknown       unknown
TAYLOR, E.       1825       Kentucky
*TENANT, LEVI, SR.       March 3, 1847       Alabama
THOMAS, ANDREW       1849       Virginia
THOMAS, I.       1820       Washington D.C.
THOMAS, PHOEBE       1830       Africa
THOMAS, S. W.       1820       Washington, D.C.
THURSTON, ROBERT       1836       Mississippi
TINON, LEV1       1847       Mississippi
TRIGGS, M.       1815       Virginia
TURNER, JAMES       1841       Kentucky
TURNEX, CLABEN       1842       Virginia
VAUGN, NANCY       1794       Virginia
WALKER, ALFRED       1820       Tennessee
WALTERS, SAMUEL       1856       Mississippi
WARD, HENRY       1834       Maryland
WARD, WESLEY       1854       Alabama
WASHINGTON, L.       1846       Virginia
WASHINGTON, OLIVER       1840       Mississippi
WATSON, JOHN       1850       Tennessee
*WATTS, JAMES       1828       Virginia
WEATHERS, GEORGE       1841       Tennessee
WEAVER, DAN       1841       Missouri
WEBB, MOSES       October, 1827       Kentucky
WELLS, HENRY       1820       Tennessee
*WHEELER, LEWIS       May, 1848       Vincennes, Indiana
WICKS, VINIE       1845       Virginia
WILLIAMS, ALBERT       1840       Missouri
WILLIAMS, J. P.       1832       Haiti
WORTHAM, WESLEY       1830       North Carolina
WRIGHT, DANIEL       1843       Tennessee
* 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.
Elgin Weekly Gazette, August 30, 1863
Elgin Weekly Gazette, October 8, 1862
Elgin Weekly Gazette, October 8, 1862
Elgin Weekly Gazette, October 22, 1862
Elgin Weekly Gazette, October 25, 1862
Elgin Weekly Gazette, July 29, 1863
Elgin Weekly Gazette, March 18, 1863
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.
©2011, copyright Illinois State Genealogical Society