"Is it possible that men, women, and children are to be doomed to life-long Slavery for the simple act of coming into the State of Illinois? Are we to be forever proscribed, harassed, annoyed, and persecuted this way?"
Frederick Douglass, 1853
As time went on, the use of indentured servants proved to be a useful alternative for those who wished to keep servants. Slave owners appeared in court with their slaves, who had no choice but to "voluntarily" agree to serve their former owners for set periods of time. Some indentures ran for as many as 99 years, and indentures involving young children and even infants were common. Indentured servitude in Illinois became the equivalent of slavery. Cahokia Courthouse records are full of these indentures.
Indentures were not limited to French descendants or to southern Illinois. In 1835, Abraham Lincoln's brother-in-law, Ninian W. Edwards (son of Illinois' third governor), entered into an indenture agreement with an 11-year-old girl named Hepsey:
Witnesseth that Hepsey a mulatto girl aged eleven years on the 28th day of October 1835 having no parent or guardian of her own free will bound herself to Ninian W. Edwards -- to learn the art and mystery of domestic housewifery -- and with him to dwell and continue to serve until the said Hepsey shall attain the full age of eighteen years.
In 1845, the Illinois Supreme Court case of Jarrot v. Jarrot abolished slavery and its various forms of indentured servitude in Illinois. The 1848 Illinois Constitution then formally declared "there shall be neither slavery nor involuntary servitude in the state."
The 1845 case involved Joseph Peter Jarrot. He had belonged to Nicholas Jarrot, a French-born businessman who owned 10 to 12 slaves when he died in 1820. In 1843, Joseph Jarrot sued his owner's widow for back wages, arguing that he was not a slave. The state Supreme Court eventually ruled that anyone born after the 1787 passage of the Northwest Ordinance, which prohibited slavery, had been born free.
"It was that which gave promise that in due time the weights should be lifted from the shoulders of all men, and that all should have an equal chance. This is the sentiment embodied in that Declaration of Independence."
Abraham Lincoln, 1861
Cahokia Courthouse State Historic Site, Cahokia
Built as a residence about 1740, the Cahokia Courthouse became a county courthouse in 1793. It was the center of territorial political and legal activity for twenty-four years. It is the oldest courthouse in Illinois, built in the French vernacular architecture style of vertical log construction known as poteaux-sur-solle (“post-on-sill”). When the Northwest Ordinance of 1787 outlawed slavery white masters brought their slaves to court, where they “voluntarily” entered into indentures of service for set numbers of years. Few slaves had any choice, and indentures for ninety-nine years were common, even amongst infants and children.
Cahokia Courthouse State Historic Site
107 Elm Street
Cahokia, IL 62206
Holy Family Church, Cahokia
The Church of the Holy Family at Cahokia was founded in 1699 by Canadian Catholic missionaries. The log church, built in 1799, is a National Historic Landmark and is the oldest church west of the Allegheny Mountains. Constructed of black walnut timbers in the traditional French Creole style, it is one of only five built in this style that still exist in North America.
The mission at Cahokia, along with the Jesuit mission at Kaskaskia, was one of the largest slave holders in the Illinois Country. However, the presence of Catholic clergy in the Illinois Country affected the living conditions of the slaves who lived there. The missionary priests saw to it that slaves were baptized and often married; they attended church and were reared in the Catholic faith. Holy Family Church records document these ceremonies amongst enslaved Africans, noting that white masters often were in attendance or served as godparents.
Both the French Code Noir and the influence of the Catholic clergy made it clear that the early Illinois slaveholding French recognized their slaves as human beings, with souls in need of salvation, resulting in a more paternalistic, though still inherently racist, attitude toward their care and governance.
Church of the Holy Family
116 Church Street
Cahokia, IL 62206-1852
Phone: (618) 337-4548
Fax: (618) 332-1699
Nicholas Jarrot House State Historic Site, Cahokia, Illinois
The Nicholas Jarrot House, now a National Historic Landmark, was built between 1807 and 1810 by Nicholas Jarrot and his wife Julie Jarrot, who lived in the home with their six children. Jarrot was a French-born businessman and land speculator who amassed large tracts of land in Randolph and St. Clair counties. The Jarrot family was among the local elite, and their lifestyle relied heavily upon slave or “indentured” labor.
Census documents reveal the Jarrots owned between ten and twelve slaves at the time of Nicholas Jarrot’s death in 1820. After her husband’s death, Julie Jarrot began to sell some of the family slaves. When part of her husband’s estate was auctioned in 1821, at least seven slaves were sold: “1 Yellow woman Mary...355.00,” “1 Black Man Francis...550.50,” “1 Ditto John Mary and his Wife Suset & Child...900.00,” “1 Black Girl Kezzett...351.00,” and “1 Ditto Louis...533.00.” By 1830, Julie Jarrot’s household included only three slaves, which continued to be the case in 1840.
In 1843, one of her slaves sued her in court for back wages. The case, which essentially boiled down to whether or not Joseph “Peter” Jarrot’s pedigree made him a slave, went all the way to the Illinois Supreme Court. The Court ruled that the 1787 Northwest Ordinance prohibited slavery in the Illinois Territory, and any slave born after 1787 had been born free, setting the precedent for all Illinois slaves to seek their freedom.
Julie Jarrot continued to live in the home until 1850, and the house remained in the Jarrot family until 1943. Today the home is owned by the Illinois Historic Preservation Agency and is open for special events.
Nicholas Jarrot House State Historic Site
124 E. 1st Street
Cahokia, Illinois 62206
Illinois Servitude and Emancipation Records, Illinois State Archives