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September 2, 2012

HISTORICAL PERSPECTIVE: Revisiting the Struggles of Polly Strong

TERRE HAUTE — On at least two occasions, we have written about the successful effort by attorney Amory Kinney before the Indiana Supreme Court to secure freedom for Polly Strong, a slave of Vincennes innkeeper Hyacinth Lasselle.

One of Indiana’s first abolitionists, Kinney later became a Terre Haute lawyer and judge. Lasselle was one of the five proprietors of the Terre Haute Land Company.

Thanks to research by Dani Pfaff, manager of the historical marker program for the Indiana Historical Bureau, the subject deserves further comment. Pfaff’s essay was published in the Spring 2012 issue of “Traces,” the magazine of the Indiana Historical Society.

Pfaff examined court records, newspapers and other documents in Knox County, Indiana, between 1805 and 1823, to add understanding to Polly's story.

Be reminded that the Northwest Ordinance — crafted by the Confederation Congress in 1787 to create and govern the Northwest Territory — prohibited slavery and involuntary servitude. Future Midwest states, including Indiana, governed by the Ordinance treated most of its provisions with reverence but slavery persisted, particularly in Vincennes  

Indeed, Gov. Arthur St. Clair, president of the Congress when the Ordinance was passed, assured residents that the provision did not free slaves of families who had lived in the territory before 1787. George Turner, the first territorial judge of the Northwest Territory, disagreed.

Turner, who co-authored the Territory’s first criminal code with St Clair and John Cleves Symmes, issued an order granting freedom to Peter and Queen McNelly, slaves of Knox County Probate Judge Henry Vanderburgh.

Judge Vanderburgh had the couple kidnapped and concealed. Judge Turner threatened impeachment but received no support from Gov. St. Clair. In May 1796, a petition signed by 49 members of the House of Representatives sought to remove Turner. The judge resigned the following year.

Despite the constitutional prohibition, in 1805 the Territorial General Assembly enacted a statute allowing slave owners to bring African-Americans into the Territory so long as they registered each slave and his term of service with the clerk. Two years later, another law allowed owners to sell the term of an indentured servant to third parties.

The 1816 Indiana Constitution affirmed that “there shall be neither slavery or involuntary servitude” in the state. Despite such clear language, many felt the provision was not retroactive. That did not stop several from testing the restriction in the courts. Several cases were filed in 1817and 1818.

In May 1817, “Julia a mulatto girl,” and “Lucy, a woman of color,” sought freedom from Evan and Isaac Shelby in the Knox Circuit Court. The case was continued several times but, on Sept. 14, 1819, the court, with presiding judge Jonathan Doty dissenting, ruled that Julia must be returned to Shelby.

Associate judges John Ewing and John B. Drennon, both non-lawyers, opined that the Constitution could not annul the preexisting indentures. Drennon owned at least one slave. Yet, on July 11, 1818, the same court had discharged “Katy, a girl of color” from the custody of her “owner,” Jean Laplant

On July 15, 1818, a habeas corpus writ was sought by attorney Moses Tabbs on behalf of Jenny, an enslaved woman, and her children, James, age 17, and Polly (Strong), age 22. According to the petition, Jenny had been kidnapped by Indians and held captive until after the Treaty of Greenville of 1795, when she was sold to French trader Antoine Lasselle. James and Polly belonged to Antoine’s nephew, Hyacinth Lasselle.

Judge Thomas Holdsworth Blake, soon a resident of Terre Haute, directed Lasselle to bring James and Polly to his chambers on Aug. 4, 1818. Between the date of the order and the court date, James and Polly appeared before a local justice-of-the-peace and acknowledged in writing that their indentures to Lasselle were voluntary.

Tabbs responded by asserting that the signatures were provided under “the force and duress of imprisonment.” No record of a Judge Blake's ruling, if it exists, has been found.

In February 1819, four habeas corpus cases were filed in Knox County. One was initiated by “Hannah, a girl of color” against Judge Drennon. General (a name not a title) Washington Johnston, Judge Blake’s successor and the owner of three slaves (according to the 1820 census), dismissed Hannah’s case.

At about the same time, “Francis Jackson, a man of color” sought liberty from owner Francoise Tisdale.

The case of James and Polly vs. Lasselle was set for hearing May 11, 1819 but was dismissed by the claimants without prejudice. James no longer appeared in Knox County habeas corpus cases thereafter. Polly, on the other hand, sought a writ on Jan. 27, 1820.The case was set for hearing on Feb. 12, 1820. Amory Kinney was her attorney.

Meanwhile, on Jan. 9, Polly sought asylum with Joseph Huffman, an African-American barber living in Vincennes. Lasselle filed suit against Huffman, seeking damages. On Feb. 10, a grand jury indicted Huffman for “harboring a servant girl.”

By agreement Polly’s civil case was consolidated with Jackson’s case. The facts were similar. The mothers of both were slaves in a jurisdiction once claimed by the state of Virginia and the Northwest Territory. Both were born after the cession of Virginia and the adoption of the Ordinance. And neither mother was freed unless it was due to the enactment of the Ordinance.

The trial court found against Polly and Jackson, asserting that the Ordinance could not nullify an existing legal relationship. It also found that a child inherits the fate of his mother. Kinney filed an appeal for Polly before the Indiana Supreme Court on May 12, 1820. Huffman posted a $200 appeal bond to secure her release from Lasselle.

Arguments were held July 20 and the Supreme Court ruled in Polly’s favor on July 22. Lasselle sought to appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court but, apparently, the nation’s highest court refused to accept it. Kinney was awarded $10 in attorney fees.

Francis Jackson was not freed until May 8, 1821.

The decision in Polly’s case did not automatically free all slaves in Indiana.

It was the trailblazer but each case was heard on its own merits and, in a few instances, a writ was not issued. The 1820 census listed 190 slaves in the state. Of that total, 118 resided in Knox County.

Kinney moved to Terre Haute in 1826 and resided there until shortly before his death on Nov. 20, 1859.


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