There is no simple way of summarizing attitudes and opinions on slavery in the antebellum midwest. However in general it seems obvious that the strongest feelings held by the largest majority occurred in the Far North (abolitionist) and the Deep South (pro-slavery). As you wander closer to the middle of the country, opinions became more and more varied, and the law completely failed to govern peoples actions. Kentucky and Missouri became a neutral zone in the war against slavery, by some regards. They sought funds from both the agricultural South, and the industrialized North. Some fell into the slave export business, raising black families and selling them to plantation owners.

Illinois was one of the southernmost free states, joined at both sides by the Ohio and Mississippi River - a natural strategic stronghold for the Underground Railroad. However, Southern Illinois sits pretty much in the middle between the North and the South, and as I said earlier, opinions on slavery could not be easily summarized, and laws governing slavery were weak. Since 1787, slavery was illegal in Illinois, but an act enabled in 1807 allowed slaves to be transitioned into indentured servants, or to be "leased" to the salt mines. Free black families were sometimes robbed, sometimes attacked, and sometimes kidnapped to be smuggled south, and sold into slavery. In lines running parallel to the underground railroad, a reverse track was set up.

One of Southern Illinois most famous slavers, and key operator of the reverse underground railroad, was John Crenshaw. Crenshaw grew rich off of the slave trade. He owned salt mines which were worked by indentured servants, and he made an undisclosed fortune from arranging the kidnapping and sales of free black families. He had a large, eerily beautiful three story mansion built for himself in a Southern Illinois town ironically named "Equality".

I have been to this mansion, known as "The Old Slave House". It sits on a small green hill, surrounded by miles of beautiful pasture. The bottom two floors have wooden front balconies and numerous windows, paned with old, wavy glass. The house is filled with antique furniture and the opulence of the era. The second floor contains a large ballroom where guests were entertained. A small narrow hallway leads to the third floor, where suddenly the scenery changes. The walls become bare, and the rooms become cells. Slaves were held here, some as house servants, some as breeders, and some as passengers on the reverse underground railroad, doomed to be sold back into slavery.

Crenshaw was indicted twice for the kidnapping of black families. The first time was in 1825, and the second was in 1842. It is estimated that Crenshaw stayed in the business of kidnapping for at least 25 years.

Crenshaw was one of three defendants in the 1825 kidnapping case. Unfortunately, it is unknown what the outcome of the trial was, let alone the identities of the victims. In 1842 Crenshaw kidnapped Maria Adams and her children, and sold them to a man named Lewis Kuykendall. The prosecutor had to prove that the victims had been taken out of state for the charge of kidnapping to have any legal meaning at the time. Although it was known that Crenshaw kidnapped Maria and her children, it could not be proven that they had left the state. Therefore, Crenshaw and Kuykendall were acquitted.

Some victims of the reverse underground railroad were kidnapped in the dead of night, stolen from their homes. However, most were probably tricked into boarding a ship as laborers, and delivered into slavery before they knew their fate.

For more details concerning the Old Slave House, John Crenshaw, laws concerning slavery or the underground railroad (reverse or otherwise), I refer you to the following excellent sources:

  • - Hickory Hill, Illinois
  • - History comes out of hiding atop Hickory Hill
  • - Africans in America
  • - Kentucky and the Question of Slavery
  • - Underground Railroad ran both ways in Southern Illinois

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