Thompson on slavery
Black and white

From the history book "Stories of Indiana" by James Maurice Thompson, published in 1898. The Fairfield-born author doesn't spare his disdain for the French in this narrative about slavery. Thompson, who served in the Confederate army in the Civil War, was not an abolitionist and some of his early writing suggests he was a bit of a racist, at least consistent with people of his time. The textbook was aimed at Hoosier history students:

We have seen that Indiana was earliest settled by Frenchmen, and it seems pretty certain that what they first did was to establish trading relations with the Indians. A class of roving men called coereurs de bois, which means "wildwood rovers," took up the habits and customs of the savages, lived with them, married squaws, went almost naked; and it was these coereurs de bois, who to some degree set the fashion of life for the dwellers at the widely scattered French posts, and gave the good Catholic priests great trouble with their lawlessness.

Among other evils introduced by these men, to the lasting injury of the Indians, was human slavery; for even our wild savages had never fallen so low as to "traffic in the bodies and souls of men" before the white people set the horrible example. The spirit of freedom seemed to dwell in the woods and prairies, and there was nothing else so highly prized by Indians as their personal liberty, the right to come and go at will, to call no man master. They guarded most jealously their absolute independence and their unlimited control of what they considered their birthright. But from the first the French settlers were favorably inclined toward slavery, provided always that it was not the Frenchman who had to wear the chain and collar of a master.

Louisiana Territory was largely settled by slaveholders, and the taint of thraldom was not long in creeping deep into the wilderness, especially after the line of trading posts between Canada and New Orleans had been well established. Slave labor was highly remunerative to masters; moreover, it suited the gay, romantic, and somewhat shiftless French character to have servants at command. A tradition of European civilization, with its hereditary titles, its exaggerated estimate of what "nobility" was worth as a mere social term, and its scorn of manual labor, was fixed in the Gallic mind. A French family always had, or what was much the same, professed to have, a coat of arms and a patent of nobility tucked safely away in its strong box, which strong box had, as a rule, not yet crossed the Atlantic.

Naturally enough, in the beginning of Western civilization this French spirit was the predominant one, and its influence continued until some time after the population of Indiana Territory had a considerable majority of English-speaking people. Nor was it ready to submit, even when our State had been formed and Americans were coming in from every direction in swarms of wide-awake, energetic farmers, artisans, and tradespeople, all characteristically opposed to the easy-going, unthrifty, gayly social life of the French villages.

The American pioneer began work with ax and saw and plow and hoe as soon as he found the spot of ground he had come to occupy. Not so with the Frenchman: he had no taste for clearing a farm and splitting rails; his preference was for smoking his pipe on a rude veranda, while he chatted with a group of his vivacious fellow-villagers. Plowing the root-bound soil of a new field was to him next to impossible.

Another characteristic of the Frenchman was his aversion to accepting anything in the way of new implements, modes, or activities. "Let things go on as they always have" was his motto. Nor could he fairly understand that, being a Frenchman, he was yet bound to obey the laws made by Americans. Not that he was evil-minded or inclined to be unpatriotic; his trouble lay in adapting himself to the civilization gathering around him. He was a jolly fellow, honorable, trustworthy, and brave; but he saw life through Gallic eyes, and all his emotions and ambitions were antagonistic to the plans and methods of the rough and sturdy Anglo-Saxon.

The French were not the only slaveholders in Indiana after slaveholding had been made unlawful; but it doubtless was very much owing to their stubborn clutch upon the negroes held by them that gave other offenders heart to resist the humane law. Time and again the courts of our State decided that slavery was in violation of our constitution; but each case seemed to go no further than the liberation of the particular negroes involved in it. As to the laws on the subject, they were conflicting and very confusing when taken together. From the earlier days of Indiana Territory attempts had been made by the Legislature to legalize slavery under another name. Negroes brought into the Territory by their masters were permitted to enter into a so-called voluntary servitude by a contract binding them for a long term of years, and the courts had been inclined to hold these contracts enforcible on the authority of the old English common law.

But when Indiana became a State with a free constitution there could be no ground for such decisions, and slavery could exist only by force in defiance of all law. Yet it is an historical fact that slavery actually existed in Indiana and was the subject of a decision of the Supreme Court, reported in Blackford's first volume of Supreme Court decisions. And even so late as 1840 the United States census credits Indiana with three slaves, one in Putnam County, two in Rush.

It is hard to understand how this could be true under a State constitution, one section of which read as follows :

"There shall be neither slavery nor involuntary servitude in this State, otherwise than for the punishment of crimes whereof the party shall have been duly convicted. Nor shall any indenture of any negro or mulatto hereafter made and executed out of the bounds of this State be of any validity within the State."

Many men were found, however, especially in the southwestern part of the State, who believed, or pretended to believe, that even this strong section of the constitution did not wholly wipe out property in slaves. They contended that a constitution could not wrest a man's valuable chattels from him without just compensation. And so they held on firmly to their negroes, hoping that the courts would come to their relief. Others, who did not wish to lose the money represented by slaves in their possession, took the shortest road to the Ohio River, and crossed over into Kentucky, where the unfortunate negroes had but a poor opportunity to assert their freedom. Many masters took the constitutional provision in good part, however; and not only did they set their negroes free; they went further, even providing for the wants of the old ones and paying fair wages to the others for their work.

It frequently turned out that the slaves themselves refused to accept freedom, preferring to continue their state of servitude, and it is probable that most of the late cases of slavery were the results of such preference on the part of the negroes. Still, some of them were not of this character, as appears from the history of a trial which took place at Vincennes several years after the adoption of our State constitution. The defendant in this case was Colonel Hyacinthe Lasselle, the keeper of a hotel at Vincennes, who had been an Indian trader to the extent of amassing a considerable fortune, a good part of which was in slaves, set free by the constitution, but still held in bondage by the doughty colonel.

Lasselle was the son-in-law of Major Francis Busseron, an old French resident of Vincennes whose services to Clark in capturing the posts and satisfying the Creoles with the terms of American domination have inseparably connected his name with our early history. Before coming to live at Vincennes, Lasselle had traded with the Indians at Detroit, Fort Wayne, Godfroy's village; on the Wabash at Piankeshaw village, and at Chepaille. It was during this time that he purchased his negroes from the Indians, who had captured them from the whites.

When the State constitution was accepted by the convention, Lasselle made a show of freeing his negroes, but, somehow, at the same time he kept them. Among these negroes was Polly, a pretty mulatto girl, whose pleasing manners and excellent disposition'had attracted much local attention. She was a great favorite in Colonel Lasselle's household, and the story went forth that she had refused to accept her freedom. At all events, she was not free, a fact not pleasant to the coterie of abolitionists in Vincennes, who had not forgotten the colonel's active opposition to the freedom clause in the constitution; besides, there was said to be some objection to the treatment Polly received in the Lasselle family.

It seems, however, that Polly herself cared very little about the matter when finally a legal proceeding was begun to test Colonel Lasselle's title to her. This was the case which went to the Supreme Court, and is set forth in Blackford's first Report. Polly was adjudged free; but, strange to say, not by the court at Vincennes, which in fact held that she was the lawful property of Hyacinthe Lasselle! An appeal had to be taken to the highest court in the State to settle the question. After the final decision in her favor, Polly accepted her freedom and went to St. Louis to live. Years later she came back to Indiana on a visit to the Lasselle family, and was kindly received. And it was thus that slavery died a slow death in a State whose very foundation was freedom.

But the fact that slavery existed just beyond the Ohio River caused still further and different trouble in Indiana. Negroes ran away from their masters in Kentucky, and, crossing the river by night, sought the aid of abolitionists to prevent their recapture. And so, in time, what was called the "underground railroad" to freedom was established. This was an arrangement by which runaway slaves were hidden in houses of friendly white people, who furnished them with food, and oftentimes with money, and helped them on their perilous way far beyond the reach of their pursuing owners. This was illegal, for the courts had held that a man's property could be reclaimed wherever found, and so to hide it from him was, technically, a kind of stealing.

Still, many good people, whose hearts brimmed over with sympathy for the fugitives from perpetual tyranny, could not feel that mere law, absolutely repugnant to human conscience, should override the imperative claims of justice in so important a matter as the freedom of a man, a woman, or a child. When a negro swam the Ohio by night and came wet and hungry and exhausted to the door of a citizen of Indiana, asking for shelter from a pursuing master who claimed to own him body and soul, who can wonder, who can which the hearts of simple, uneducated men are stirred to a frenzy of sentimental emotion, so that calm reason and the logic of law are forgotten.

But he was, as well, a lawyer of remarkable learning and acumen for the times and the environment in which he lived. His friends gave him the nickname of the "Sleeping Lion," on account of the almost terrific change of bearing and countenance which came over him when suddenly called upon for a supreme effort of oratory. He was a man of singular personal magnetism, although somewhat uncouth in physique. His head was immense; his face broad, heavy, excessively masculine; his hair looked like a lion's mane, and his eyes could flash with all the intensity of his ungovernable feelings. He was born in Kentucky, but came to Indiana when twenty-eight years old.

When the great war between the North and the South came on, it turned out that Abraham Lincoln, the poor plowboy of Spencer County, was the great liberator whose hand wrote the Proclamation of Emancipation, and swept slavery forever from the whole land. To-day there is not a slave in America. Black and white live together under our flag of freedom with equal rights guaranteed by carefully constructed amendments to our national constitution.



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