“You may remember, as I well do … there were, on board, ten or a dozen slaves, shackled together with irons. That sight was a continual torment to me; and I see something like it every time I touch the Ohio … It is hardly fair for you to assume, that I have no interest in a thing which has, and continually exercises, the power of making me miserable.” —Confidential letter to Abraham Lincoln’s friend Joshua Speed, Aug. 24, 1855
I first discovered the startling connection between Abraham Lincoln and African Americans in Indiana on a trip to Southwestern Indiana a few years ago. I was in Indiana introducing Paul Gardullo, a curator at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture, to Lyles Station, an African-American farming community whose roots go back 200 years. On our drive we passed billboard after billboard advertising Lincoln’s boyhood home. I realized with a shock that I had been studying African Americans in the 19-century Midwest for so long that I had somehow forgotten that this was also Lincoln’s Midwest.
Indeed, Lincoln would have had to work hard to avoid seeing African Americans, whether enslaved or free, in Southern Indiana. Given the fact that he lived there from the age of 7 until he was 21, the implications of the presence of these African Americans around Lincoln are intriguing.
To be fair, the 1830 census records only 13 free African Americans living in Lincoln’s own Spencer County, Ind., but they include some fascinating folks. One of them, a William Rickey, was married to a white woman. Another, a woman who went only by the first name of Sarah, was heading her own farm. But not every one of the “free” African Americans in Spencer County was as free as Sarah. Slavery was, of course, illegal in Indiana, and had been for years, but one of the “free” African Americans in Spencer County was only 10 years old, and living with a white family. When the census taker asked members of that family what the child’s name was, chillingly, they admitted that the only name he had ever been given was “Boy.”
However, the young Lincoln didn’t stay put in Spencer County. During his travels in the surrounding counties, he would have crossed paths with many African Americans. And those African Americans represented every facet of the black experience in antebellum America, from successful, land-owning farmers to slaves in chains.
All Lincoln had to do was visit his Uncle Josiah, a farmer who lived just outside the state capital of Corydon. In 1814, two years before the Lincolns moved to Indiana, more than 50 African Americans settled in Corydon, with dozens more settling over the next few years. This swelled Corydon’s population of only 200, and caused an uproar among many whites there. Yet, despite a racist petition to the territorial governor trying to force the African Americans to leave, they stayed, and many bought land and prospered.
And consider Vincennes. Lincoln’s father is known to have frequently traveled there in order to pay off the debt on his land. Every time he went there, he would have been surrounded by people in bondage kept by wealthy whites who blatantly held on to their human property, despite laws forbidding them to do so.
Then there was the Ohio River. In 1825, the 16-year-old Lincoln left Spencer County for the river town of Troy. He would live and work there off and on for three years. While he had seen African Americans before then, here their presence was constant and inescapable. As Nikki Taylor in her book Frontiers of Freedom points out, free African-American river-boat owners and steamship workers were common on the Ohio River, where they were known as “freesies.”
As a ferry-boat operator taking passengers to board those steamships, Lincoln would have been in almost constant contact with these freesies who worked many levels of those ships, from the boiler-room engineers to the beautifully dressed stewards on deck.
I have often wondered what the adolescent Abraham must have felt with his outgrown deerskin trousers and muddy feet, as he handed up his passengers’ luggage into the gloved hands of the elegant free black stewards.
Yet the African Americans whom Lincoln would have seen were not just “freesies,” for slavery was a common sight on the Ohio River.
Long before his trip down the Mississippi to Louisiana, the young Lincoln would have been brought face to face with one of the most appalling aspects of slavery: the shipment of people in bondage to be sold at market. And as his 1855 letter to Joshua Speed attests, he was profoundly affected by what he saw every time he touched the Ohio.
While Lincoln was always clear that he disliked slavery, he was also conflicted about the concept of free people of African descent living as equals in America. I can’t help but wonder how his time in Indiana shaped those attitudes.
Eric Foner, in his excellent book on Lincoln, argues that Lincoln had to change a great deal in order to become the man who could sign the Emancipation Proclamation. I now believe that Lincoln had to come much further than we could have ever imagined in order not only to sign that document, but to grow into the realization that this might be a nation where at least some African Americans could be free and equal citizens.
Anna-Lisa Cox is an active historian, writer and lecturer on the history of race relations in the 19th-century Midwest. She is the author of A Stronger Kinship, winner of a Michigan Notable Book award. Cox is currently an associate at Harvard’s Hutchins Center for African and African American Research, a research associate at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture and an honorary faculty member at Western Michigan University. She is currently completing a book entitled Lincoln's Neighbors.