Slavery in Indiana

February 8, 2007

In the spirit of Black History Month, here is some info I dug up on slavery in my home state, Indiana.

In 1787, slavery was made illegal in the Northwest Territory, which included the present states of Ohio, Indiana, Illinois, Michigan, Wisconsin, and part of Minnesota.

That, however, did not mean that someone who was already a slave would automatically become free upon crossing the Indiana border. On the contrary, slaves were not only still slaves even if they entered Indiana, they could also be returned to their slave owners. Eventually, this became the law: that slaves must be returned.

Therefore, in the underground railroad, Indiana was just a “rest stop” as opposed to a destination. A fugitive slave would not have guaranteed safety unless he crossed the Canadian border into Ontario.

On February 12, 1793, President George Washington, a slaveholder himself, signed the first Fugitive Slave Law of the United States. This law, providing for the return of fugitive slaves from any state or territory in the Union, was weighted heavily in favor of the slaveholder. In 1821, Indiana instituted “An Act Authorising the Writ of Replevin”; pursuant to this statute anyone found guilty of detaining “goods or chattels” could be sued for double the amount of the “property.” Three years later Indiana passed its own Fugitive Slave Law. The 1824 statute delineated the procedure slaveholders and Indiana law officials must follow in claiming “property.” Abolitionists and those active with the Underground Railroad fell victim to these laws.

(see here)

This clearly contradicts the Indiana State Constitution of 1816 and 1851:

There shall be neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, within this State, other than for the punishment of crimes, whereof the party shall have been duly convicted. No indenture of any Negro or Mulatto made and executed out of the bounds of the State, shall be valid within the State.

In this case, federal law obviously superseded the state constitution. So, even if it was the intent of Indiana lawmakers to “liberate” slaves (of which I am not convinced), federal law prohibited it.



  1. I’m from Indiana too, and this is very sad.

    Now how about them Colts!

  2. Even though the Indiana Code or Law at the time prohibited it tresidents of several of indiana’s counties had slaves and actively bought and traded slaves. Considering that the state laws may have been the official political position of the general assembly many of the county officials on the local levels ignored the edicts in favor of their constituencies who were pro-slavery and were related to the rich tobacco interests from kentucky as well as those wanting to escape having to pay for labor. Many of those slaves never knew that they were in Indiana due to the fact that they were kept by slave owners who prohibited them from learning , schooling or teaching . and when one or more made complaints to local law enforcement personnel eg. sheriff’s J.P.’s and or Commisioners they were severely punished by beatings and torturous mistreatment. Their is even some speculation that 2 general assembly members in 1866 still owned slaves in vanderburgh county, and in switzerland county.

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