The History Of Slavery In Illinois: Part I

The Jamestown area of Virginia received the first documented slaves brought over by England, but the rest of the colonies also saw slavery as a valuable resource through which they could acquire new wealth and work land more easily. Although northern states were always somewhat more “enlightened” on the topic of slavery, it didn’t start out this way. This is the first part in our series on the history of slavery in Illinois.

England couldn’t keep the entirety of North America to itself. There was a great deal of competition to take and populate this land (that was already populated by Native Americans). Although the British Empire took control of much of present-day America, the French were far more dominant in the northern territories of present-day Canada. They also had a foothold in present-day Illinois — at least for a while.

Back then, Illinois was more formerly known as “Illinois Country.” And it was far bigger, too. It was part of a vast swath of land that included Wisconsin and Missouri. This region was only one component of “New France.” We believe the first slaves arrived in this region around 1720 — around a century after Jamestown imported its first Africans that were considered “property.”

There were laws that determined many aspects of slavery. It was called Code Noir, which translates to “Code Black.” It wasn’t just about slavery. It helped set rules and regulations on religion, sexual relationships, marriage, punishment, and prohibition.

One aspect of Code Noir that might surprise you is that even though slaves were largely considered property, it was stipulated that they must be baptized in a Roman Catholic Church upon arrival. Both slaves and masters who worshipped any other god or religion would be punished under these laws. Another sad reality? Those of Jewish ethnicity were banned from all French colonies in the New World.

Code Noir acknowledged that sexual relations between slaves and free men were inevitable. If children were born as the result of these romps, then an unmarried father would be forced to marry the slave — which would also result in the slave’s freedom. Children of the slave would also be granted freedom. Barring marriage, the slave’s master and his or her father would be subject to an enormous fine of 2000 pounds of sugar.

Slaves were allowed to marry, but only at the owner’s discretion — and only if they consented to the marriage themselves. Forced marriages were forbidden. Any children born to these slaves would also be born into slavery. Sexual abuse between freed men and their slaves ( was commonplace in colonial Illinois.

There were a number of prohibitions that slaves were told to accept. These ranged from the strange to the cruel. For example, slaves were barred from carrying weapons, selling sugarcane, gathering, assaulting a master, etc. A master could not sell a married slave couple’s prepubescent children. A slave who struck a master or his family would be killed under the law.

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