Editor’s note: This is one in a series of essays leading up to the celebration of the Indiana Bicentennial in December 2016.
Although the state constitution expressly prohibited it, slavery existed in early Indiana. Two court cases filed by enslaved black women put an end to the practice.
In the early 19th century, Polly Strong and Mary Clark challenged prevailing attitudes to claim their civil rights as U.S. and Indiana citizens.
“People get really uneasy about saying Indiana practiced slavery,” said Eunice Trotter, a Clark descendant who has researched the story. “This is our history, and we don’t ignore it like it never happened. We embrace it, we learn from it and we move on.”
In a legal sense, slavery was always forbidden in Indiana. The Northwest Ordinance of 1787 prohibited slavery’s spread north of the Ohio River into the future states of Ohio, Indiana, Illinois, Michigan and Wisconsin.
In practice, slavery not only existed but was accepted by leading citizens. Pioneers moving to Indiana from Virginia or Kentucky, where slavery was legal, considered slaves property and brought them along, sometimes as “indentured servants” whose contracts exceeded their life spans. The 1810 census counted 237 slaves and 393 free blacks in the Indiana Territory.
Any questions about their status should have been settled by the Constitution of 1816, which declared, “There shall be neither slavery nor involuntary servitude in this state, otherwise than for the punishment of crimes.” But it took two lawsuits to enforce the constitutional protection.
Strong had been a slave since birth and became the property of Hyacinth Lasselle of Vincennes around 1808. Lasselle was a tavern keeper and an officer in the Indiana militia. After Indiana became a state, Strong filed for her freedom in Knox County Circuit Court.
Judge Jonathan Doty’s ruling reflected the attitudes of many who lived in the former territorial capital: Despite living in a free state, Strong was Lasselle’s property because she was born into slavery and had come legally into his possession.