It’s hard to imagine a slave auction being held in what we consider the Great Emancipator’s hometown. But in their early days, both Illinois and Springfield were very mixed on the issue of slavery.
While we’re told that Illinois was a free state, it’s only partly true. Our state’s founders used Orwellian doublethink and sly constitutional wording to both outlaw and maintain slavery. They only outlawed future enslavement, which permitted current slaves and indentured servants to enter the new state and remain as such.
Many slave-holding southerners who immigrated to the state and Springfield brought their slaves or indentured servants with them. One of those was a man who helped found Springfield, according to local historian Richard Hart’s 2008 book, Lincoln‘s Springfield: The Early African American Population of Springfield, Illinois.
President James Monroe appointed former Illinois state senator Thomas Cox to head the land office here. He and three others bought and developed Springfield. Cox, his family and their slaves settled at the northeast corner of what is now First and Jefferson streets, where he developed a mill and distillery, according to Hart.
The distillery proved too intoxicating for Cox. “Debt and drink broke him,” wrote Carl Sandburg in his Abraham Lincoln: The Prairie Years, Vol. 1. Cox’s biographer, Harvey Reid, said Cox overspeculated in land and repeatedly borrowed money from others, including Illinois Governor Ninian Edwards who, like many, sued Cox when he defaulted. Carl Adams, a Pekin writer who has researched Cox and his slaves extensively, notes that Cox often pledged his property, including his slaves, as collateral and had “over 25 lawsuits filed against (him) from 1826 to 1829.”
On Jan. 5, 1827, he was fired as the Register of the Land Office for “official misconduct,” according to Hart. Seventeen days later, Springfieldian Nathan Cromwell won a lawsuit against Cox for defaulting on a loan and took his house.
Months later, Cox defaulted on a loan to Sangamon County Sheriff John Taylor, according to County Court records, and at least two of his slaves, teen-aged Nance and her approximately 11-year-old sister, Dice, were publicly auctioned to pay off his debt. The girls had been with the Cox family since birth.
Carl Adams believes the July, 1827 auction was held on the steps of the courthouse, which was located on the square at the northeast corner of Sixth and Adams Streets. According to county court records that quote Cox’s mother, Jane, a witness to the auction, the town’s coroner put Nance in chains after which the slave became “very sick.” Nathan Cromwell, the highest bidder, bought her for $151. The sheriff bought her little sister, Dice, for $150, according to Adams’ article in the Fall/Winter 2008 Journal of the Illinois State Historical Society.
“This sale created a great amount of talk and sympathy,” wrote early Springfieldian Zimri Enos in the 1909 Illinois State Historical Society’s Transactions, “not for the two (slave) girls, but for Mrs. Cox and her two children who were of the best and most intelligent class of the early settlers. They were turned out of house and home, stripped of nearly everything, and compelled to take shelter in a little deserted log cabin a mile and a half from town.”
Unfortunately, Springfield didn’t have a newspaper at the time of the auction, so there are no news stories to inform us about it. Even if there had been a paper, the editors may not have deemed the event newsworthy. After all, some Springfieldians approved of slavery. (Four years earlier, Cox helped lead efforts to have a pro-slavery amendment added to the state constitution, according to Hart.)
The story of Cox’s young slaves doesn’t end with the auction. Although little is known about the youngest, Dice, court records tell us more about Nance. She protested becoming a slave for her purchaser, Cromwell, and took the matter to the courts. Ironically, because Nance couldn’t sue a white person due to her race, her former master, Thomas Cox, had to help her sue Cromwell, according to Adams’ article.
Nance ended up suing for her freedom several times, with her cases being heard by the Illinois Supreme Court on three occasions. In 1841 Abraham Lincoln argued her case, Bailey v. Cromwell, to the high court. This time she won. Nance was finally free.