Slavery in the Middle West (ND, SD, IL, IA, KS, MI, MN, NE, OH, WI)

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Slavery in the Middle West (ND, SD, IL, IA, KS, MI, MN, NE, OH, WI)

While most people equate the practice of slavery with the South, where it reached its peak during the mid-nineteenth century, a number of other territories and states had slaves in the years leading up to the Civil War (1861–1865). Though there was little slavery in the Middle West or Midwestern states, both Illinois and Indiana supported slavery even though they were admitted to statehood as slave-free states.

The Spread of Slavery from the Original Colonies

Slavery involving Africans began as early as the 1600s in Europe and spread to North America first with the Spanish, then with the British who came to colonize America. As more Britons crossed the Atlantic to establish homesteads in the new land, larger numbers of slaves were brought along to build the settlements. There were few laws governing slavery—just a handful of strictures enacted in certain localities, plus others that stemmed from Britain. There was no dispute amongst the settlers, however, over the notion that Africans were savages who needed to be tamed and taught how to behave. As the new settlers pushed westward, captured Native Americans fell into the same category as Africans and were put into servitude as well.

In 1705 the residents of Virginia created more comprehensive codes to control slaves, denying them any basic rights as human beings and ensuring their designation as the property of whomever had purchased them. The success of tobacco farming pushed the need for labor to extremes and the slave trade flourished along the east shore of the colonies. Once cotton plantations took hold in the Southern states, slaves were in high demand. Some plantation owners also began to train slaves for specialized tasks, both within and outside of their homes, including cooking and cleaning, childrearing, sewing, blacksmithing, tending horses, and driving carriages. This selection inadvertently created a hierarchy among the slaves themselves, a social order with field hands—who toiled the hardest and the longest—at the bottom of the newly emerging class system.

When men and women were selected for work outside of the fields, they were granted more privileges and respect. While this respect made life easier for some, it did not entitle them to freedom. Even as the colonists called for freedom from British tyranny—a call that led to the Revolutionary War (1776–1783) and the eventual establishment of the United States of America—they did not extend the notion of freedom to African slaves or other non-Europeans. Emancipation was many, many decades down the road.

Conscience Grows in the North

Even if freedom largely remained merely a buzzword following the Declaration of Independence, the issue of slavery gradually began to become more significant for the new Americans. It became increasingly divisive and enough of an issue to force new territories applying for statehood to be subject to restrictions regarding slavery. By the time the Northwest Territory was admitted in 1787, the question of slavery had become central: States to the north of the Ohio River were required to be slave-free, whereas those to the south of the Ohio River were permitted to uphold the rights of settlers and citizens to trade, sell, and own slaves.

Though the Northwest Ordinance tempered the spread of slavery somewhat in Indiana, Illinois, and Ohio—and in what later became Michigan (1837), Wisconsin (1848), and part of Minnesota (1858)—it did not eradicate the practice in those areas. Both Indiana and Illinois remained slave states for a time, often covertly. When slaves became too plentiful by the end of the eighteenth century, Congress finally banned their international importation, a practice that wound down between 1807 and 1808. This did not, however, prevent states from selling and trading slaves among themselves, and this continued unabated, especially in the Southern states.

By the time cotton harvesting reached its zenith in the 1840s and 1850s, the issue of slavery had become a major source of conflict for the United States. A number of states admitted after the Northwest Ordinance, located south of the Ohio River, helped the slave trade extend itself further south and westward, including: Louisiana (1812), Mississippi (1817), Alabama (1819), Missouri (1821), Arkansas (1836), Florida (1845), and Texas (1845). As the issue increased in volatility and the Mason-Dixon Line became the divider between North and South—and soon the Union and the Confederacy—the Midwest was forced to support the antislavery position, even though some of the Midwestern states had willfully defied the Northwest Ordinance and kept their slaves even after it was illegal to do so.

After the Civil War

Among territories west of Illinois, many were only in the early stages of settlement before and during the Civil War, so slavery was never really a subject of concern. Several new states came into the United States after the war had ended, and in these areas slavery—at least slavery involving Africans—was not an issue. Relations with Native Americans were a larger concern in these states, which included Nebraska (1867), Idaho (1890), and North and South Dakota, which did not become official states until 1899.


Boyor, Paul S., Melvyn Dubofsky, and Stanley L. Engerman, eds. "Slavery." In The Oxford Companion to United States History. New York: Oxford University Press, 2001.

Stroud, George M. A Sketch of the Laws Relating to Slavery in the Several States of the United States of America. Philadelphia: Kimber and Sharpless, 1827.

Wheeler, Jacob D. A Practical Treatise on the Law of Slavery. New York: A. Pollock, Jr., 1837.

                                        Nelson Rhodes

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Slavery in the Middle West (ND, SD, IL, IA, KS, MI, MN, NE, OH, WI)

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Slavery in the Middle West (ND, SD, IL, IA, KS, MI, MN, NE, OH, WI)