Bondage in Egypt: Slavery in Southern Illinois

By Schwartz, James | Journal of the Illinois State Historical Society, Summer 2012 | Go to article overview

Bondage in Egypt: Slavery in Southern Illinois


Schwartz, James, Journal of the Illinois State Historical Society


Bondage in Egypt: Slavery in Southern Illinois. By Darteli Dexter. (Cape Girardeau, MO: Center for Regional History, 2012. Pp. 316, bibliography, appendices, index. Cloth, $25.00.)

Illinois is not usually considered a slave state. Yet the Land of Lincoln was home to the peculiar institution for over a century and contained more slaves than any state north of the Ohio River. While scholars have produced numerous studies of the politics and conflicts that slavery generated in early Illinois, few have provided a comprehensive examination of slavery's history in the state. Darrell Dexter's Bondage in Egypt seeks to remedy this neglect.

Dexter relies heavily on census data, legal proceedings, and other printed sources. The book's first five chapters provide a historical overview of chattel slavery, in which slaves were possessed like livestock, and other forms of bound labor. The next three chapters document battles between proslavery and antislavery forces in antebellum Illinois. The book's final chapters explore runaway slaves, the Underground Railroad, and other issues.

As Dexter's title suggests, slavery was concentrated primarily in southern Illinois. Known as Egypt, this region was settled largely by southerners. Dexter begins by exploring slavery under the French who brought the first African bondsmen and women to Illinois in about 1720, using them primarily as agricultural laborers. Although the Northwest Ordinance prohibited slavery in 1787, territorial residents interpreted the ordinance as permitting slavery where it existed, but banning the importation of new slaves. To sidestep this restriction, settlers revived the old practice of indentured servitude, temporarily freeing slaves before forcing them to sign contracts, often for a lifetime of labor.

Slavery's demise began with the state constitution of 1818. Although the document did not emancipate those already enslaved, it did reiterate the Northwest Ordinance's ban on slavery and "ended the practice of indenturing slaves. …

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