Hickory Hill Plantation

History comes out of hiding atop Hickory Hill

Springhouse Magazine

    HICKORY HILL (Dec. 21, 1996) — The key to proving whether blacks were held against their will on the third floor of the Old Slave House lies in discovering the character of the home's original owner, John Hart Crenshaw. That key has been found. Rediscovered documents not only show that Crenshaw was a slave-holder of indentured servants, but was at least twice indicted as a kidnapper of free blacks. In effect, Crenshaw was a conductor of an Underground Railroad that operated in reverse, from north to south, from freedom to slavery.
    According to the Complete History of Illinois published in 1876, "the crime of seizing free blacks, running them south and selling them into slavery from this State, for a long time was quite common.... [P]ortions of southern Illinois for many years afforded a safe retreat to those kidnapping outlaws. We cannot cite the numerous cases of kidnapping."
    The book also tells how it was done. "[I]n the majority of cases the poor ignorant blacks, by fraud and deceit, were inveigled [tricked] into a trip south on a flat boat, or other errand, and at some pre-arranged point on the river, they would be turned over to confederates, forcibly and rapidly taken to the interior and there sold into slavery... Another mode was to seize a black and forcibly convey him to a rendezvous either on the Ohio or Mississippi, but not out of the State, where a confederate would appear and carry him beyond."2
    A letter in the Henry Eddy manuscript collection tells how John Forrester stole one woman from Hamilton County and took her to Union County, Kentucky. In it, the letter writer relates the woman's story of being taken to that state and moved from "house to house" in an attempt to keep her hidden.3 This implies an organized network of kidnappers, an effort apparently more organized than the legitmate Underground Railway. The letter also proves that the victims were held in homes. In Gallatin County, legend identifies at least two such houses: Crenshaw's Hickory Hill plantation home and a mansion on Sandy Ridge south of Shawneetown. In the second house the victims were kept in cells in the basement and likely chained to large iron rings that were set into the basement walls in each cell.4, 5
    Although Illinois was a free state, slavery was legal in two forms. Not until 150 years ago did the Illinois Supreme Court finally rule that all slavery in the state must end.6 Illinois' first constitution approved by Congress in 1818, allowed the leasing of slaves for the salt works near Equality. It also kept intact the form of slavery known as indentured servitude.7 Slavery in Illinois didn't end until just 15 years before the Civil War.

    The main body of evidence discovered about Crenshaw dealt with the 1842 kidnapping of Maria Adams and her children. The case has been studied before, but only now do we know the victims' names. Another case is an 1825 case where Crenshaw was one of three defendents. We don't know what the outcome was on this one, let alone who the victims were.8 The Adams case is covered by both a newspaper editorial immediately following the trial and letters from legislators to the governor four years later. The writings tell how Crenshaw kidnapped the family as charged and sold them to a slave trader named Lewis Kuykendall.
    Crenshaw was acquitted of that crime by a Gallatin County jury in 1842, but kidnapping was a hard crime to prove. The prosecutor, Willis Allen of Marion, had to prove that the victims had been taken out of state. Although it was known that Crenshaw kidnapped Maria and her children, Allen could not prove that they had left the state. Thus, the jury could do nothing but acquit Crenshaw and Kuykendall.9
    George Flower, a leader of the English Settlement in Edwards County, wrote about how hard it was to legally find a kidnapper guilty. He compared it to finding guilty a common thief. At the time, a thief could be whipped, but a kidnapper simply fined. "A kidnapper, who would steal a free man, and plunge him and his posterity into everlasting slavery, could not be brought to trial. A murderer was sure to escape. But the poor creature who had not stolen to the value of a dime, was thus unmercifully dealt with."10
    The kidnapping of free blacks had long been a problem in Illinois. The Black Code of 1819 allowed a fine of $1,000 to be levied on behalf of the victim, but did not provide for any criminal convictions. Coupled with the fact that blacks could not testify in court against a white man, the two made any legal remedy almost useless. Only in a few counties where the pro-slavery sentiment wasn't so strong did free blacks win cases against white kidnappers. Usually it was for the crime of trespass and only with the help of friendly whites did they convince juries.11
    An early reference to the problem of kidnapping came in 1822, during Gov. Edward Coles' inaugural address when he asked the legislature to look into the problem. That same message also showed Coles' hostility towards slavery and opened up a two-year battle between pro- and anti-slavery forces in an effort to change the state constitution.12 In August 1824, Illinois residents voted against holding a constitutional convention and thus slavery. However, the pro-slavery question passed in the southern counties with Gallatin County being the strongest for a convention.13

    During this time Crenshaw operated a salt well supplying water to the salt works of Guard, Choisser & Co. in addition to his own.14 In 1825, Crenshaw, John Forrester and Preston W. Davis were indicted for kidnapping. We know because Crenshaw sued Davis four years later to get him to pay his part of the defense attorney's fees. However no more is known.15 In 1827 or 1828, the Illinois Spectator newspaper of Edwardsville may have referred to the trial because they hint at Crenshaw's involvement in kidnapping. The newspaper reference comes as a footnote in N. Dwight Harris' 1904 book, the History of Negro Servitude in Illinois. The book paraphrases from the newspaper a list of three men from Illinoistown (what's now East St. Louis) as being kidnappers. It also mentioned a "prominent resident of Shawneetown, Mr. John C" as being a kidnapper. The footnote also indicated that "Mr. John C" kept the slaves in a cave on the Wabash River near his home.16 There is no major cave on the Wabash in Gallatin County, but there is a major cave near Crenshaw's home and salt works along the Saline River. (It should also be noted that the Salines, although along the Saline River, were often described as being along the Ohio River near the mouth of the Wabash.) Equality Cave on Cave Hill is just a few miles from both the salt works, and the land where Crenshaw lived as a teen.
    In 1828, a black woman by the name of Lucinda was kidnapped and taken to Kentucky. She identified her attacker as "John Granger." She also mentioned William and Abraham Granger. Henry Eddy did not get the letter until 1843.17 Yet, when he wrote the legal brief in the Davis vs. Crenshaw case in 1829, he first wrote "John Granger." He drew a line across "Granger" and then wrote "Crenshaw."18 Since Abraham and William are two of John Crenshaw's brothers, was John Crenshaw also known as John Granger? Also, Eddy was the state's attorney that prosecuted Crenshaw in 1825.
    Another kidnapping of that time showed the type of harrassment that existed against free blacks. The Shawneetown newspaper carried an item July 27, 1829, about the kidnapping of Maria, an 8-year-old. She had been freed the year before by the heirs of John McAlister of Montgomery County, Tennessee. Because freed slaves could not remain in that state, 62 of the slaves were brought to Illinois and freed.19 Prior to the kidnapping someone stole two horses from the family preventing them from making a crop.20 Harassment of free blacks continued to worsen. To the north in the English Settlement, Flower organized passage and permission for 30 free blacks to move to Haiti. At that time Haiti was the only independent black country in the Western Hemisphere.21
    By 1830, Crenshaw's wealth had increased and he was owner of a steam mill near Equality and three of the nine salt works in the area.22 During the 1830s, the harassment of blacks increased to include murdering whites who interfered. Benjamin Hardin died in 1834 or 1835. Although killed by a black who was hired by another black, it was strongly believed that a white businessman was behind the murder.23 Sometime in late 1835 or early 1836, James Lynch was on his way from Shawneetown to Equality to file emancipation papers for a family slave when he disappeared. He had tried to file them earlier but had been discouraged because he was not yet 21.24

    While kidnapping continued to be a growing problem throughout Southern Illinois, Crenshaw's wealth increased. In 1833, he first hired the contractor to start on Hickory Hill Plantation, the three-story home locals later knew as the Old Slave House.25 During this time southeast Illinois was plagued by more than kidnappers. The region was home to a sizable criminal element that included counterfeiters and highwaymen. The leaders of these groups were some of the same outlaws that had been at Cave-in-Rock at the turn of the century. Gov. Thomas Ford in his history of Illinois described the outlaws as "an ancient colony of horse-thieves, counterfeiters and robbers."26
    The leader, or one of the main leaders, was James Ford of Ford's Ferry fame. A minor leader when the outlaws were still based in Cave-in-Rock prior to 1806, he was still leading his group when he was assassinated by the Regulators in 1833. Ford lived at times on Hurricane Island opposite Elizabethtown, Illinois, and at times at his plantation in Livingston County, Kentucky. Because Ford was a civic leader, even sheriff at one time, he either remained above suspicion or beyond the reach of the law.27 On the Illinois side in Hardin County, the legendary outlaw Billy Potts was the real-life Isaiah Potts, a justice-of-the-peace.28
    In Pope County, known kidnapper Caleb Slankard operated a gang that abducted blacks. His boss, or partner, at one time was William H. Vaughn, a Bay City storekeeper. Vaughn was believed to have been a pirate on the Gulf Coast before moving to his storeboat in the Ohio River. He was tied to at least two kidnappings involving a total of seven children. After he testified at a grand jury that Slankard and others had actually done the abduction, he died from an unexpected seizure. It was believed someone poisoned his whiskey.29
    As Crenshaw grew richer his reputation became mixed. The children of one of Crenshaw's brothers claimed that he cheated his nieces and nephews out of their share of their father's estate.30 The Illinois Republican newspaper in Shawneetown described public attitude toward Crenshaw this way in March 1842, "although he is a member of the church, and may be considered a saint by those who are in the church, is not considered very much of a saint by those who are out of the church" (italics are from the original).31
    Not until the 1842 Maria Adams case do we start getting details about the kidnappings. Crenshaw purchased the indenture contracts for Maria Adams and her husband Charles in late 1829 or early 1830. He purchased the contracts from Col. A. G. S. Wight who was moving to Galena. Also included in the sale was a son named Nelson, a daughter named Ellen,32 and possibly some younger children. In October 1829, Maria gave birth to another daughter, Nancy Jane. Charles had less time on his contract and filed his freedom papers on April 29, 1834.33
    Maria was born in 1790. She was indentured in Randolph County, Illinois, on July 14, 1810, for 45 years, when she was 15 years old.34 Charles was born about 1794. In late 1813 or early 1814, he moved from Maryland to Illinois with his owners. On March 19, 1814, he was indentured to Dr. Conrad Will, who had moved to the Big Muddy River the year before. Charles was lucky and his indenture was only for 20 years. Sometime during the next four years, Illinois Territorial Gov. Ninian Edwards purchased Charles' contract. During this time Charles also married Maria. Possibly as a wedding present, on March 6, 1818, Edwards filed a statement in Randolph County Court at Kaskaskia pledging that he would let Maria go free when Charles' contract expired.35
    Ellen Adams was born in 1823.36 Nelson is believed to have been born earlier, but definitely prior to 1825.37 That year Edwards was talking with Col. Wight in Vandalia and mentioned that he was thinking about selling them. Later that summer, Wight sent an agent to Edwards to arrange purchase of Charles and Maria. Either the parents, the children, or both, threw such a fit over being separated that Edwards agreed to send the children with the agent for a short time.38 Edwards spent the next four years writing letters to Wight trying to get the children back or at get least some type of payment for them.39 Maria cooked for Edwards nearly eight years and at least started as a cook with Wight.40 She probably continued as a cook in Crenshaw's employ. After Charles received his freedom, Crenshaw refused to follow Edwards' statement filed in Randolph County since the governor never filed an amended indenture with the court. That left Maria still in the service of Crenshaw. Nelson also received his freedom sometime during the 1830s, or at least by 1842.41 By that year, Ellen was also still working as an indentured servant, but likely in Michael K. Lawler's household where she was freed in 1845.42 Crenshaw likely gave Ellen to his daughter and son-in-law Lawler as a wedding present in 1837.
    Early in 1842, Crenshaw kidnapped Maria and her children from their home while Charles and Nelson were away. According to the Illinois Republican newspaper in Shawneetown, Crenshaw kept them hidden for several days until Kuykendall arrived for them in the middle of the night. In an editorial Publisher Samuel D. Marshall wrote that the "aged mother" and her children were handcuffed or tied, then placed into a wagon and driven out of the state by Kuykendall. Because the state's attorney could not prove what everyone knew, Crenshaw and Kuykendall were acquitted.43
    Shawneetown attorney Henry Eddy fleshed out Marshall's story with more details in an 1846 letter to Gov. Ford.44 After the kidnapping, Nelson Adams and another black man named Fox45 stopped Crenshaw on the road as he was coming back from the iron works in Hardin County. With Fox holding a rifle, Nelson demanded to know where Crenshaw had taken his family. We don't know if they got an answer, but Crenshaw quickly had Nelson, Fox and Charles Adams, who wasn't even present, arrested46 and convicted of assault with the intent to murder.47 They were sentenced to either four or five years in the state penitentiary in Alton.48
    After Ellen received her freedom from Lawler, she likely worked with sympathetic whites like Eddy to find her family. Eddy, Wight and the two sons of late Gov. Edwards, one of whom was a former attorney-general for the state, petitioned Gov. Ford to pardon the Adamses so they could help rescue their family. Both the letters and the pardon were dated Dec. 8, 1846, the last day of Ford's administration. In the letters, Eddy stated that Maria and the children were in Texas.49 Regrettably, we don't know if they were ever saved. The 1850 Census of Gallatin County shows only Charles Adams. He is listed as living with a white family at the time.50
    Two years after the Adams' kidnapping, a group of men kidnapped 10-year-old Peter White of Equality and three other younger children, and sold him into slavery. Walter White, a nephew of Gen. Leonard White rescued the children.51 Although Walter was white and Peter was black, the two may have been related. Later census records show at least three Whites whose race were listed as mulatto.52
    The black White family was likely the freed slaves of the Whites that lived in Gallatin County. Southern Illinois historian G. W. Smith interviewed White in 1903, when he was 70. White was living in Equality at that time. Although Smith wrote that White provided him with a lot of information, Smith never told who kidnapped White and the other children.53 By 1934, when White's descendants were still living in Equality, James Lyle Sisk designed signs for the Old Slave House stating that Peter and the children were kept in a third floor cell for a time. Sisk, an uncle to the current owner George Sisk, was the long-time principal of Champaign's Franklin Junior High School.54

    In 1846, Crenshaw was involved in what was known as the Prather case.55 Martha Prather had moved from either South Carolina or Tennessee to Gallatin County in 1826. On Feb. 7, 1827, she signed emancipation papers for her 23 slaves and put up a $23,000 bond to the county.56 Some time later a group from Tennessee followed the slaves and tried to prosecute them as "fugitive runaways." Newton E. Wright and others filed a federal lawsuit.57 From the Eddy collection, we have summaries of the depositions filed by Eddy on behalf of the freed slaves. An eighth deposition, that of John Crenshaw, was mentioned but not summarized. From the letter, researchers can infer that Crenshaw was testifying on behalf of Wright, or may have even been a party to the lawsuit.58 The U.S. District Court ruled against Wright. Not much is known about Wright other than how he is described in the 1876 state history as a "shrewd bad man" living on Wolf Island "who had long been engaged in kidnapping."59
    Wolf Island was a 15,000 acre island in the Mississippi River. It was the fifth island south of the confluence of the Ohio and Mississippi Rivers. Early descriptions of the island dating back to 1808 tell of dense woods with a prairie on a hill in the center. Its owner at the time was a professional gambler named James Hunter.60
    Also in 1846, another Crenshaw was connected with a kidnapper. This time it was eldest daughter, Mary Hart Crenshaw, the wife of John E. Hall. On July 12, 1846, Mary held a "frolic" during the afternoon at her home and a dance that evening. According to her sister-in-law Ada, who was married to Crenshaw's eldest son William T. Crenshaw, one of the guests at the dance was "kidnapper Sands."61 John E. Hall served as the circuit clerk of Gallatin County from 1848 to 1856. During that year he was shot in the back62 and assassinated63 in his office. The jury acquitted his killer, Robert C. Sloo, on the grounds of temporary emotional insanity.64
    Kidnapping continued in Southern Illinois up through the Civil War. At least one kidnapping took place near Marion in 1857,65 and kidnappers were named in Union County in 1859.66 Not until after the war did the practice stop. During the 1840s and 1850s, Crenshaw became more involved in farming his thousands of acres of land. He also diversified into other industries such as lumber, railroads, banks and distilling. As he grew older he likely gave up his secret life of crime. Quite possibly, he might have even become the "good Methodist" people claimed him to be.

    What we have found is that the role of slavery played a much greater part of our history than what we like to admit. Very few sites remain today from that era. Crenshaw's Hickory Hill Plantation, which we know as the Old Slave House, is one of the few, if not the last, left. For that reason alone, it should be saved.

The above story was published in the December issue of Springhouse Magazine.
©1996 Jon Musgrave

Old Slave House once station on "reverse" Underground Railroad
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Created Dec. 29, 1996 by Jon Musgrave