By Mary Giorgio
In 1816, Indiana entered the Union as the 19th state. The new state’s constitution declared slavery to be illegal. This provision was a triumph for abolitionists, given that slavery had existed in Indiana prior to statehood. Although the written territorial law discouraged the use of slave labor, in practice, slavery was often overlooked by the territorial government.
The first slaves to enter Indiana territory were brought by the French in the late seventeenth century. Following LaSalle’s discovery of the Mississippi River Basin and subsequent colonization of surrounding areas, a colony of Frenchmen settled in present-day Vincennes, Indiana. Many held slaves as a matter of common practice.
At the end of the American Revolution, the land comprising Louisiana Territory was ceded to the new United States government. In 1787, the Northwest Ordinance established the Northwest Territory as a slave-free area. However, the law only applied to new slaves, so existing slaves were not freed by the government.
In practice, many people turned a blind eye to slave ownership, regardless of when a slave was purchased. In a few instances, territorial courts freed slaves from bondage. However, by and large, the territorial government did not seriously pursue slave owners.
The same held true in 1800 when Indiana Territory was carved out of the Northwest Territory. The first territorial governor (and future president), William Henry Harrison, was a former slave owner. Harrison pushed Congress to allow the people of Indiana to vote on the issue of slavery. The matter was put to a vote in 1803, 1807 and 1809. It never got enough votes to pass.
Around 1805, abolitionists began to organize in Indiana. Slowly, they positioned themselves within the Indiana territorial government and the first state legislature. As a result, when Indiana’s first Constitutional Convention met in 1816, slavery was outlawed. Indiana entered the union as a free state. The first governor of Indiana, Jonathan Jennings, was an outspoken abolitionist.
Despite the abolishment of slavery in 1816, anti-slavery laws were never strictly enforced. This was likely because slaves remained a small population in Indiana and never had a major economic impact on the state.
It wasn’t until 1820 that the remaining slaves in Indiana were finally freed. That year, the state Supreme Court made a ruling in the case of Polly v. Lasselle that ultimately ended the practice of slavery.
In the years leading up to the Civil War, Indiana became an important stop on the Underground Railroad. Many fugitive slaves journeyed through the state on their way to Ontario, Canada, and ultimately, to freedom.