A Slave in Chicago

Twelve Years a Slave won the Academy Award for Best Picture a few years ago. The film was a based on the memoir of Solomon Northup, a free black man who was kidnapped and sold into slavery during the 1840s.  Four decades before Northup’s ordeal, something similar happened in Chicago.

In 1804 John Kinzie moved into the old DuSable cabin on the north bank of the Chicago River and began trading with the local Native tribes. Thomas Forsyth Jr, his half-brother, was in business with him.  That spring the partners took on an indentured servant named Jeffrey Nash.

John Kinzie

The indenture papers describe Nash as a “Negro man.” According to that contract, he was to serve Kinzie and Forsyth for a period of seven years.  For their part, the two traders were to provide him with “meat, drink, apparel, washing, and lodging fitting for a servant.”

In return for these benefits, Nash bound himself to faithfully obey the commands of his “masters.” He would do no damage to them or their goods, and would keep their secrets. He would be on call, day and night, for whenever his service was needed.

Nash agreed to a personal code of conduct as well. During the seven years of his indenture, he would not play cards or dice.  He would not frequent taverns without permission from Kinzie or Forsyth.  He also pledged neither to “commit fornication nor contract matrimony.”

On May 22, 1804 Nash put his mark to the indenture. Since Illinois was not yet a state, the papers were sent to the territorial capital at Detroit.

Kinzie and Forsyth operated a second trading post in Peoria. That was Forsyth’s principal residence.  Sometime after the 1804 indenture was instituted, Forsyth took Nash there.  And sometime later Nash ran away.  He eventually made his way to New Orleans, married, and started a family.

The traders were not about to let Nash go.  In 1813 they began proceedings in Louisiana to get him back.  The case was labeled Kensy (sic) and Forsyth, plaintiffs v. Jeffrey Nash, defendant.

Now the plaintiffs claimed that Nash was not a free-born servant under indenture, but actually their slave. Residents of Peoria had recognized Nash as Forsyth’s slave.  Nash himself was said to have admitted being a slave, and had run away when Forsyth broke a promise to free him.  The traders also produced a bill of sale transferring the slave Nash to them, dated September 5, 1803.

Solomon Northup (since there’s no picture of Jeffrey Nash)

Looking at the case so many years later, some historians have concluded that the 1803 bill of sale must have been a forgery.  If Nash were already their slave, why would Kinzie and Forsyth go to the trouble of having him put his mark on an indenture document?

Other historians don’t buy this argument. They reason that the indenture document was a type of “insurance policy” for Kinzie and Forsyth.

In 1804, with new territories being organized, the partners weren’t sure whether they’d be allowed to keep Nash as a slave. If he were an indentured servant, then they could hold onto him for seven years.  Later, when Nash escaped to Louisiana, they dug up the 1803 slave bill of sale.  Since Louisiana was a slave state, the partners were confident they’d be able to reclaim Nash.

In 1816 the case was decided by the Supreme Court of Louisiana. Judge Francis Xavier Martin rendered the decision.  He accepted the September 5, 1803 bill of sale as legitimate.  Kinzie and Forsyth had indeed purchased Jeffrey Nash as a slave.

Now for the big “However . . . ”

However, the Northwest Ordinance of 1787 banned slavery from the territory that would eventually become Ohio, Indiana, Michigan, Illinois, and Wisconsin. The only exceptions were for persons convicted of a crime, or fugitive slaves escaping from a slave-holding state.  Nash did not fall under either of these categories.  Therefore, the court found in his favor.  He would remain a free man.

“Thus did the Supreme Court of the slave state of Louisiana uphold the free character of the soil of Illinois and rescue a man from bondage,” historian Milo Milton Quaife later wrote.  As for Kinzie and Forsyth, they had to pay the court costs.

—30—

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2 Responses to “A Slave in Chicago”


  1. 1 Beth Johnson October 25, 2018 at 8:53 pm

    Very interesting! Thanks John.

  2. 2 Frank October 29, 2018 at 3:03 am

    An historical event confirmed by facts is always a good lesson to learn


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