Slavery as Practiced by the French in Illinois

Copyright 1995, 1998 by Leigh Kimmel

For permission to quote or reprint, contact Leigh Kimmel

The institution of slavery has long stretched a shadow across American history. However those scholars who make it their business to study the practice as it happened in the Americas have typically ignored the issue of slavery as it was practiced among the French settlers in the Illinois country. In fact many scholars do not realize that the French even practiced slavery in what is now the heartland of the United States. If they consider the issue of how the French practiced slavery, they look primarily at the French colonies in the West Indies or possibly New Orleans and other parts of the rice-and-indigo country of Lower Louisiana. Many present-day Illinois natives staunchly believe that the stain of slavery never touched their beloved state, or at least that what little occasional slavery there might have been was firmly expunged as a result of the Northwest Ordinance. However a careful study of the French records will reveal that a fair number of slaves were brought into the Illinois Country after it was transferred from Canadian administration to New Orleans and became "Upper Louisiana." As a matter of fact the first slaves in French Louisiana arrived in June of 1719, although they were not brought farther north than Natchez, but by 1720 a few had been brought into the Illinois Country. Renault used slaves in the mines and his settlement of St. Phillipe, but on the whole the number of slaves remained small relative to the number of free French.1 Furthermore the French settlers were permitted to continue keeping their slaves even after the Northwest Ordinance prohibited slavery in the Northwest Territory, and this situation continued even after Illinois gained its statehood.2 It should be noted in this situation the discussion of slaves does not include Native American slaves who were purchased from other, more powerful tribes who had captured them, but rather refers only to slaves of African ethnic origin.

Although the French did practice slavery in the Illinois Country, the institution was not the same there as it was in the Anglo-American colonies that most American students of history are familiar with. For the most part slavery in French Illinois was a far less severe slavery than that of such Anglo-American colonies as Virginia or the Carolinas. Under the French crown the slaves in the Illinois Country enjoyed a far wider range of priveleges and protections, including many that would have been unimaginable for a slave in the British colonies. However, due to the general lack of interest in the French colonial era among historians, there has been almost no investigation into the factors that made the difference.

So what were the factors that made the difference between slavery as practiced by the French in Illinois and as practiced by Anglo- Americans in Virginia and the other British colonies? There was no one single factor, but rather there were several factors that all worked together to ameleorate the severity of slavery among the French. Among these were the provisions of the Code Noir or "Black Code" which had been promulgated by the French Crown, the effect of the Roman Catholic Church in seeing to it that slaves were integrated into the spiritual life of the community and thus into its moral life, and the difference in the nature of the community in which they lived and the agricultural practices that they used. Certainly the French did not seem to feel the powerful need to justify the practice on racial grounds as did the English, so that while they regarded slaves as chattel property that could be bought and sold they were also able to recognize their slaves as human beings.3

In order to fully understand what factors were shaping the practice of slavery in French Illinois, it is necessary to have a sound understanding of exactly what slavery is. Far too many writers dealing with slavery, including politicians and professional historians, have fundamentally misunderstood just what slavery was really about. Orlando Patterson, in his excellent cross-cultural study of slavery as a social institution, Slavery and Social Death, pointed out that most people will tend to focus on one person being owned by another who has the power to buy and sell the first person like any other movable property as being the fundamental definition of slavery. However, as he pointed out quite well, the issues of title and ownership are actually not unique to slavery at all. Throughout history there have been many relationships between one person and another that were fundamentally propertarian but would never be confused with slavery. For instance, almost every culture gives husbands and wives property claims on the labor and services of one another, but to suggest that marriage is a slave relationship would bring out cries of shock and indignation from all involved. And in the present-day United States, a country that prides itself on its cultural advancement and abolition of slavery, there is a certain class of people who are in effect bought and sold and whose owners are literally permitted to depreciate their value over the length of their careers for tax purposes. These are of course professional athletes, who are actually some of the most admired and highly-paid personalities in America. No one for a moment would have said that being a professional athlete was slavery, even in the days before free-agency, when they were not permitted to switch clubs on their own initiative. So it is clear that ownership alone does not define slavery, although it is definitely a component of the relationship between slave and master.

Others, including the framers of the Thirteenth Amendment to the Constitution, have focused upon the involuntary nature of the servitude in slavery. The slave does not have the power to quit and go to another master as the free employee may turn in a resignation to one employer and seek a new one. However Patterson points out yet again that there are many other relationships that involve an involuntary servitude. For instance serfs on a medieval manor were tied to the land and did not have the power to simply pack up and seek a new manor and lord, and thus were constrained to continue performing the various duties and services to their lord. However they were not slaves and in fact there were many cases in Western Europe where both slavery and serfdom were practiced as totally separate institutions that were clearly distinguished by all members of the society. Serfs had various rights and claims in society which slaves did not, and to call a serf a slave was often a severe insult. Similarly, indentured servants and apprentices signed away their rights to quit their employment and thus were constrained to labor for their masters throughout the full term of their contract. However no one would have said that an indentured servant or an apprentice was a slave, for in societies such as the British American colonies which practiced these institutions alongside slavery there was a clear distinction between the two of them.

So what is the real distinction between true slavery and all these other relationships and practices that resemble slavery in various ways? Patterson points out that the most important issue here is the nature of the relationships that these people have with other persons in the community, and particularly familial relationships. With all the slavery-like relationships, the individual in them continues to be connected with other family members. For instance the young boy who was apprenticed to the blacksmith in order to learn the trade of the smithy was not as a result cut off from his relationship with his parents and all the claims that were inherant in it. Although he was now known in the village as the apprentice to the smith, he continued to be recognized as the son of his parents as well. Similarly the familial relationships of serfs to one another were recognized on the medieval manor, and whatever property claims may be inherent in the relationship between husband and wife do not involve cutting them off from their ties of birth with their parents. And however offensive to the sensibilities of a modern person a custody battle such as the Baby Richard case which essentially treats the child as an owned object whose rightful owner must be identified may be, it is actually diametrically opposite to slavery because instead of being about the breaking of the familial bond it is actually about establishing it. By contrast the slave is considered to be cut off from all ties of family, to cease to exist save in relationship to the master. In fact in many societies the relatives of a person who was captured into slavery would make no effort whatsoever to rescue him, but would instead regard him as one dead and go on with their lives. Thus Patterson settles upon the working definition of the slave as a person who is socially dead, alienated from all the rights and claims of birth so as to have no place in the social order in one's own right and can be socialized only in relation to their master.5

What does all this theoretical discussion of the nature of the institution of slavery have to do with the specific issue of why slavery as practiced in French Illinois should have differed so strikingly from slavery in Anglo-American society? An examination of the provisions of the Code Noir will reveal that it explicitly stated that slaves should be encouraged to receive religious instruction and to be baptized into the Apostolic Catholic Church, and that slave marriages were to be performed by a priest and have legal sanction. Similarly spouses could not be sold apart from one another, nor could pre-pubescent children be sold away from their mother.6 This stands in stark contrast to the laws of British America, where slave marriages had no legal force and were conducted privately in a ceremony that was referred to by the slaves as "jumpin' da broom." Because slave marriages, baptisms and deaths among the French were recorded by the parish priest (although separate from the marriages, baptisms and deaths of free persons, as was deemed appropriate to their lower station in society) it becomes possible to trace slave families in a way that it simply wasn't in English America. By using Marthe Faribault-Beauregard's superb study of the population records of the French settlements, one can see certain common patterns among slaves. Most slave couples were both owned by the same master and were identified under his surname, and many of the slave children whose baptisms were recorded were the offspring of parents whose marriages had been solemnized by the priest. To provide one concrete example out of many, at Vincinnes there were a couple by the name of Joseph and Susanne, owned by an habitant by the name of CrŽpau, whose son Antoine was explicitly listed as being the child of both of them rather than simply of the mother.7

However the fact that slave marriages and births (since the Catholic Church practices infant baptism, a baptism record is in effect a birth record) were recorded does not in and of itself mean a great deal. After all, many domestic animals have pedigrees so that it is possible to trace their ancestors and descendants, but that does not mean that a pedigreed horse or hound thus becomes an equal member of the family and community. What is important is the fact that these slave marriages and baptisms are recorded by the Church, with all the ramifications of religious community that they carry. While the Protestant clergy in the British colonies (with the notable exception of the Quakers) were largely indifferent to the state of slave souls, the Catholic clergy were actively determined to bring slaves into the Church and thus integrate them in the community to some degree.8 Even the Baptist minister and abolitionist activist Reverend J. M. Peck, who published a series of newspaper articles on slavery in Illinois in 1847, noted the lack of racism in the French attitude toward their slaves and how master and slave alike knelt at the same Roman Catholic altar, even as he characterized the French as lacking Puritain virtue and linked the introduction of black slavery with the Mississippi Company fraud perpetrated by John Law and his cronies.9 Therein lies perhaps one of the most critical points of difference between these two modes of slavery. While the British and Anglo-Americans were satisfied to leave their black slaves in a state of heathen ignorance, the French were strongly encouraged by their parish priests to see to their slaves' spiritual welfare and subsequently saw them receiving the same sacrements at the same altar of the Catholic church that was the central fixture of the village's social life, instead of leaving their slaves to get what little religion they could in a rude church of their own. Thus the process of social rebirth began quickly among the French, paving the way for manumission and integration into society in a way that didn't appear in Anglo-America.

The final major factor that made such a difference in the French practice of slavery was the fact that the land grants in the Illinois Country were universally small. There were none of the huge plantations where the impersonal vastness led to such infamous abuses. Rather most masters were able to know their slaves at some personal level, since the slave quarters was almost always right behind the main house so that master and slave were in constant contact. Also the fact that the French habitants in Illinois lived in nuclear villages rather than on isolated farmsteads helped to curb the worst abuses of slavery. The sheer sense of community that this style of living and farming created tended to produce a cooperative, nonviolent outlook on life, and it was far less likely that one could indulge in slave-abuse with impunity when one's neighbors were just across the street or on the opposite side of the picket fence and knew all of one's doings. And since most sales of slaves occurred within the community, the affected slaves weren't uprooted so severely as would be the case with a system of isolated farmsteads.10

The concrete effects of all these factors can be seen in any examination of the records regarding slavery among the French in Illinois. Again and again one will find stories of things that would have been simply unthinkable in the British colonies. For instance there is the case of Jean Baxe, a black slave who in 1730 was charged with assault for having restrained a free white man during a scuffle. The investigating officer, Terrisse de Terran, found his actions justified and urged that he be given no judgement.11 Although his judgement was later overturned and Baxe was flogged and forced to make a public apology to the free man, the mere fact that an officer could suggest that he was justified is remarkable in comparison to what would have likely been the outcome in an English colony like Virginia. In fact it is quite likely that a white Englishman in the situation would have taken matters into his own hands and never even placed it before the magistrates.

In general the French allowed their slaves a great deal of latitude. In Ste. Genevieve the VallŽ brothers even went so far as to permit their slaves to carry guns. When the authorities made an issue of it they won their case by arguing that the woods beyond the village were very dangerous and they as masters stood to lose a great deal if their slaves were slain by wild beasts or hostile Indians.12

Also the community appears to have felt a strong sense of responsibility toward slaves who were left without anyone to care for them. In Ste. Genevieve there was a case of an elderly slave who was left in the estate of a man who had no heirs to receive him. The city fathers than held a sort of "auction" to find a lowest bidder who would take on the obligations of caring for this non-productive slave with money from the estate.13 This stands in contrast to the disingenuous practice of freeing slaves that were no longer capable of earning their own keep which was often found among the English, and in fact at various times became so notorious that laws had to be passed to prevent masters from relieving themselves of the burden of superannuated slaves in this manner.

Because the activities of the Roman Catholic Church and the structure of the community tended to mitigate the absoluteness of the slave's social death, it was easier for the slave to be freed, whether by self- purchase or by manumission, and then to become integrated into the society at large. Although it was not so easy as was the case among the Spanish colonies such as Columbia, it was certainly far easier than it was among the Anglo-Americans. And in the contrast lies perhaps the most damning evidence against the way in which English-speaking America freed its own slaves at the end of the Civil War. Although given their freedom in the legal sense, the freedmen were not given the opportunity to re-establish the social ties that were necessary for their rebirth as members of society. Instead they and their descendents continued to remain to some degree or another marginalized members of society, never able to fully join in its life. That is of course the great shame of the African-American in the United States of America.


  1. Charles J. Balesi. The Time of the French in the Heart of North America. (Chicago: Alliance Franais Chicago 1992) P. 246.
  2. Paul Fickelman. "Slavery, the "More Perfect Union,' and the Prairie State." Illinois Historical Journal. v. 80 (1988) P. 250.
  3. Carl Ekberg "Black Slavery in Illinois, 1720-1765" Western Illinois Regional Studies v. 12 (Spring, 1989), P. 10.
  4. Orlando Patterson. Slavery and Social Death (Cambridge: Harvard University, 1982) P. 5-6.
  5. ibid. P. 9.
  6. Balesi, P. 248-9.
  7. Marthe Faribault-Beauregard. La population des forts franais d'AmŽrique. vol. 2 (MontrŽal: Bergeron 1984) Pp 26, 63.
  8. Balesi, P. 249.
  9. Roger D. Bridges, ed. "John Mason Peck on Illinois Slavery" in Journal of the Illinois State Historical Society. v. 75 (Autumn, 1982) Pp. 179, 190-1.
  10. Balesi. P. 250.
  11. Ekberg, Pp. 15-16.
  12. Ekberg, Colonial Ste. Genevieve: An Adventure on the Mississippi Frontier (Gerald, MO: Patrice, 1985) P. 210.
  13. ibid. Pp. 222-3.


Primary Sources

Faribault-Beauregard, Marthe. La population ales forts franais d'AmŽrique volume 2. MontrŽal: Bergeron 1984.

Secondary Sources


Balesi, Charles J. The Time of the French in the Heart of North America, 1673-1818. Chicago: Alliance Franaise Chicago 1992.

Ekberg, Carl J. Colonial Ste. Genevieve: An Adventure on the Mississippi Frontier. Gerald, MO: Patrice Press 1985.

Patterson, Orlando. Slavery and Social Death. Cambridge: Harvard University 1982.


Bridges, Roger D., ed. "John Mason Peck on Illinois Slavery." Journal of the Illinois State Historical Society v. 75 (Autumn, 1992) Pp. 179-217.

Ekberg, Carl J. "Black Slavery in Illinois, 1720-1765" Western Illinois Regional Studies v. 12, (Spring 1989) Pp. 5-19.

Finkelman, Paul. "Slavery, the 'More Perfect Union,' and the Prairie State." Illinois Historical Journal. v 80 (1988) Pp. 248-269.

Copyright 1995, 1998 by Leigh Kimmel

For permission to quote or reprint, contact Leigh Kimmel

Originally written for a course in French Illinois taught by Professor Carl Ekberg, Illinois State University.

Last updated November 5, 2010.