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Slavery in Indiana Territory
Article VI of the Articles of Compact in the Northwest Ordinance of 1787 prohibited slavery and involuntary servitude. Slavery, however, remained in the Indiana Territory. It was a continuing political issue as citizens prepared for statehood.
Beginning in the Northwest Territory, Article VI was generally interpreted to apply on passage in 1787. Slaves in the territory before that date, therefore, remained slaves.
Many petitions were sent to Congress from pro-slavery citizens in the territory asking for relief from Article VI for economic reasons. Congress did not allow slavery, but territory officials continued to evade Article VI with indenture laws.
From extensive evidence, "it is evident that for some purposes slaves and indentured servants had the status of property - to be bought and sold and bequeathed by will." Territorial courts did, however, try cases that freed blacks wrongfully held.
The 1800 federal census recorded 135 slaves and 163 free blacks in the territory. The 1810 census recorded 237 slaves and 393 free blacks.
Anti-slavery citizens gained a majority in the General Assembly after the formation of Illinois Territory in 1809 since "the eastern portion of the territory, [was] populated largely by settlers from eastern states and by those from the southern states who had emigrated because of their dislike of slavery." In December 1810, the General Assembly repealed the slave laws. It did not, however, end existing indentures, and abuses continued.
This document, signed by Peter McDonald, Coroner, is the official certification of James N. Wood and Charles Beggs as delegates from Clark County to the Vincennes convention on slavery in December 1802. This most probably is the first election by the citizens of Indiana Territory.
On November 22, 1802, Governor William Henry Harrison called for an election of delegates from the four counties for a convention in Vincennes on December 20, 1802. The convention was to consider "the propriety of repealing the sixth article" of the Northwest Ordinance, which prohibited slavery.
The convention "petition to Congress dated December 28 requested the suspension [of Article VI for ten years] on the grounds that desirable settlers were forced to move west of the Mississippi [River] because they could not bring their slaves into Indiana Territory. It was also requested that the slaves and their children that would be brought into the territory during the proposed suspension should remain slaves after the ten years had passed." Congress did not act favorably on the petition.
Petitions on the slavery question continued to be sent to Congress from Indiana Territory. In 1808, General W. Johnston, chairman of the congressional committee that had reviewed many of the petitions, presented an emotional report (excerpted following) against slavery:
"[morals and manners may be affected] when men are invested with an uncontrolled power over a number of friendless human beings held to incessant labor; when they can daily see the whip hurrying . . . the young, the aged, the infirm, the pregnant woman, and the mother with her suckling infant to their daily toil . . . when they can barter a human being with the same unfeeling indifference that they barter a horse; part the wife from her husband, and . . . the child from its mother . . . . At the very moment that the progress of reason and general benevolence is consigning slavery to its merited destination . . . must the Territory of Indiana take a retrograde step into barbarism . . . .
"your committee are of opinion that slavery cannot and ought not to be admitted into this Territory."