I returned to Virginia and proposed to my Negroes that they should go with me and live in Illinois. But told them I did not desire them to go against their will; on the contrary wished them distinctly to understand that they conferred upon me no favor by going. Requested them to talk with their fellow servant Ralph, who had attended me in one of my tours of exploration to the West, for information of the country; and that if any of them should feel reluctant to go, I would exchange them for some of the family Negroes left by my Father to his other children. All however were not only willing but anxious to go. (Edward Coles, 1827 autobiography)


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How Coles could have imagined that his slaves didn't know what he planned to do with them is hard to understand. They have since told me, he goes on in his 1827 autobiography, that they were impressed with the belief long before they set out for Illinois that I intended to free them, from what Ralph had told them; who had, when traveling with me, often heard me speak freely in disapprobation of slavery, and of my abhorrance at holding slaves, or living in a community, where it was tolerated. But unless Coles had thought that Ralph was incapable of speech, it should have been obvious to him that his slaves knew of his intention.

Yet suppose Coles really believed that his slaves didn't know that he intended to free them. How could he have allowed them to turn down going to Illinois--and freedom--in ignorance of what he planned to do? Fortunately all of Coles' slaves were very much aware of what awaited them in Illinois. And even though Coles had promised his family to keep it secret in order to prevent unrest among the slaves of his brothers and sisters, those slaves knew all about it also .

Two old women, Coles tells us in the 1844 autobiography, too old and infirm to support themselves, and having other children in Virginia, preferred staying there, where they were supported by me, or my Mother for me, during their lives. A total of seventeen of Coles' slaves opted for Illinois and freedom.

Ralph Crawford, the slave Coles had taken with him on his 1815 trip west, was a mulatto in his mid-forties, married to Kate Crawford, a woman three years younger than he. They had four children: Betsey and Thomas, in their early teens; and Mary and William, ages eleven and nine. Thomas was partially paralyzed on his right side.

Robert Crawford, a mulatto man in his mid-twenties, and Polly Crawford, his teenage sister, were probably related to Ralph, but it is not clear how. Thomas Cobb, a black man of about forty, and Nancy Gaines, a teenage girl, may also have been related to the others in some way.

Then there was Sukey , a slave who had married and had several children by a man who owed service to a neighbor of my father, Coles tells us. This man was, by the will of a former Master, entitled to his freedom in August, 1825. At the request of his wife, I purchased the time her husband was bound to serve.

Sukey, her husband Emanuel, and their five children brought the number of slaves Coles took to Illinois to seventeen.

Coles had returned to Virginia from Illinois in late December 1818, in fine health and spirits, Isaac writes to a friend, after making large purchases in the western country. He, too, makes the case for speculating in land out west: For a thousand dollars I can buy on the Missouri a tract of land as large as the one I own here, he reasons, and from which I can make a much larger income. Edward seems generally to have served as a booster for speculation, gathering money from brothers and brothers-in-law that he invested for them on his trips west. In a later letter Isaac writes to John, who is with Edward on a quick trip to Philadelphia, that he is only following Edward's example in buying land for speculation, actually desiring not a great fortune but only a comfortable home and good society.

In late January Coles was in Washington, seeking the appointment of register of the land office in Edwardsville that he had written to Monroe about from Illinois. I shall see Mr. Crawford [the secretary of the treasury] today and ascertain how it stands, President Monroe writes to Coles, and if you will confer with the Senator [from Illinois], and are desirous of the appointment, and it is in my power, there being no engagement of the Treasury to the contrary, I shall be very glad to nominate you for it.

The problem was that the position Coles wanted was a piece of patronage that many native Illinoisans would have liked to enjoy--one normally in the hands of the senators from the state, who were perhaps loathe to let it go. That Monroe was anxious to do Coles a favor out of personal regard for him is obvious from his letter to Coles. It will give me sincere satisfaction to be able to promote your views in any way that I may be able, he writes. And so it is possible that he twisted some arms to get the position that his young friend had requested.

The result was that some people in Illinois resented Coles from the outset as either an Administration discard sent out to encroach on their pasture, or, worse, an agent of Secretary of the Treasury Crawford, sent to Illinois to promote Crawford's schemes for the Presidency. But more of this slander later, when it emerges in Coles' gubernatorial campaign.

On March 5 , by hook or by crook, Coles was appointed register of the land office by Monroe, to take effect April 20. Coles hurried back to Enniscorthy to make preparations for his journey. On March 20 he was in Staunton buying horses, a wagon, and gear for his blacks, returning March 25. And on March 30 he sent his blacks off to Brownsville, Pennsylvania on their own, leaving himself two days later by a different route via Montpelier .

Much to the merriment of some of my friends, Coles writes in the 1844 autobiography, who ridiculed his capacity for conducting the party and predicted failure, I sent the Negroes in charge of Ralph Crawford, the mulatto man who I before referred to as having accompanied me on one of my trips to Illinois. I am happy to be able to add, he falsified all their predictions, and conducted the party with as much judgment and economy as anyone, even of the glorious Saxon race, could have done.

And Edward writes to John triumphantly from Brownsville, I have particular pleasure in telling you that however correct you may be in general, you are not infallible in your prophesies. Your predictions as to my man Ralph and his party have proved erroneous--at least so far so that I passed them just beyond Laurel Hill, about 30 miles from this, the evening before last, all safe and getting on remarkably well. I look for them here today [April 11] between 12 and 2 o'clock, but as it has been raining all day they may not arrive quite so soon. I reached this yesterday about 2 o'clock, and have purchased two flat boats, one of 23 feet in length, for the horses, and the other of 30 feet for myself and people. I am to give seventy dollars for the two boats well fitted up for the Horses and ourselves. The family boat to have a fireplace and a division so as to give me a room to myself.

Ralph and his party arrived the next day and boarded the boats. Horses and everything are now on board, Edward writes John, and I am this instant going myself and shall immediately commence floating. I shall of course stop one day in Pittsburg to see my friends and to make the necessary inquiries after my Philadelphia favourites, etc.

The morning after we left Pittsburg, Coles writes in the 1844 autobiography, which would be either April 15 or 16 , 1819, a mild, calm, and lovely April day, the sun shining bright, and the heavens without a cloud, our Boats floating gently down the beautiful Ohio, the verdant foliage of spring just budding out on its picturesque banks, all around presenting a scene both conducive to and in harmony with the finest feelings in our nature, was selected as one well suited to make known to my Negroes the glad tidings of their freedom. Being curious to see the effect of an instantaneous severing of the manacles of bondage, and letting lose on the bouyant wings of liberty the long pent up spirit of man, I called on the deck of the boats, which were lashed together, all the negroes, and made them a short address, in which I commenced by saying it was time for me to make known to them what I intended to do with them, and concluded my remarks by so expressing myself, that by a turn of a sentence, I proclaimed in the shortest and fullest manner possible, that they were no longer slaves, but free--free as I was, and were at liberty to proceed with me, or to go ashore at their pleasure.

The effect on them was electrical. They stared at me and at each other, as if doubting the accuracy of what they had heard. In breathless silence they stood before me, unable to utter a word, but with countenances beaming with expression which no words could convey, and which no language can describe. As they began to see the truth of what they had heard, and to realize their situation, there came on a kind of hysterical giggling laugh. After a pause of intense and utterable emotion, bathed in tears, and with tremulous voices, they gave vent to their gratitude, and implored the blessings of God on me. When they had in some degree recovered the command of themselves, Ralph said he had long known I was opposed to holding black people as slaves, and thought it probable I would some time or other give my people their freedom, but that he did not expect me to do it so soon; and moreover, he thought, I ought not to do it until they had repaid me the expenses I had been at in removing them from Virginia, and had improved my farm and "gotten me well fixed in that new country." To this, all simultaneously expressed their concurrence, and their desire to remain with me, as my servants, until they had comfortably fixed me at my new home.

I told them, no. I had made up my mind to give to them immediate and unconditional freedom; that I had long been anxious to do it, but had been prevented by the delays, first in selling my property in Virginia, and then in collecting the money, and by other circumstances. That in consideration of this delay, and as a reward for past services, as well as a stimulant to their future exertions, and with a hope it would add to their self-esteem and their standing in the estimation of others, I should give to each head of family a quarter section, containing one hundred and sixty acres of land. To this they all objected, saying I had done enough for them in giving them their freedom; and insisted on my keeping the land to supply my own wants, and added, in the kindest manner, the expression of their solicitude that I would not have the means of doing so after I had freed them. I told them I had thought much of my duty and of their rights, and that it was due alike to both that I should do what I had said I should do; and accordingly, soon after reaching Edwardsville, I executed and delivered to them deeds to the lands promised them.

I was much gratified afterwards to find that this gift had the desired effect, Coles writes in the 1827 autobiography , for they seldom spoke of their freedom without speaking, and that too rather in a consequential way, of their Lands. I advised them, as their Lands were unimproved, and they as yet had no money, stock or tools, for settling and improving them, that they should live near me, and labour in and about Edwardsville, until they could acquire the means of settling their own lands. I at the same time made known to them my desire to hire, and employ on my farm, a certain number of them, and my willingness to aid the others in procuring employment in the neighborhood. This was not agreeable to some of them, who considered it as favouritism to keep some and discard others--all being anxious to remain with me. They became however in great degree reconciled to it, when I explained to them that it was to the interest of those who were capable of doing housework to be employed in that way, as they would live easier and more comfortable lives, and obtain much higher wages than they could at field labour on a farm. They expressed fears that they should be ill used by those who would hire them; seeming at the moment to forget they were free, and had a right to change their situation at pleasure. On my reminding them of it, it was gratifying to see how their countenances brightened and loomed with pleasure.

At some point in the scene, Coles availed himself of the opportunity to lecture his former slaves on their future conduct. I dwelt long and with much earnestness, he says in the 1844 autobiography, on their future conduct and success, and my great anxiety that they should behave themselves and do well, not only for their own sakes, but for the sake of the black race held in bondage; many of whom were thus held, because their masters believed they were incompetent to take care of themselves, and that liberty would be to them a curse rather than a blessing. My anxious wish was that they should so conduct themselves as to show by their example that the descendents of Africa were competent to take care of and govern themselves, and enjoy all the blessings of liberty, and all the other birthrights of man, and thus promote the universal emancipation of that unfortunate and outraged race of the human family.

Coles actually freed only ten of his slaves. The seven others--Sukey, her husband Emanuel, and their five children--remained in bondage. When I freed the others, Coles explains in the 1827 autobiography, I told him [Emanuel] I was not desirous of making anything out of him, and should therefore only require of him to repay me the sum I had paid for him, and as soon as this was done he should be completely released. In the mean time he should live as a free man, and pay me the debt from the profits of his labour. He seemed much pleased with this; as he was sure that he could repay me what I had paid for him in a few years. But in the mean time, he said, that he did not think his wife, ignorant as she was of house work, and adding as she did every 15 or 16 months another to her family of little helpless children, could support herself and her family, especially if any accident should befall him; and expressed a wish, in which his wife concurred, that her emancipation should not take effect until he became free, and that she should be placed on the same footing with himself. This request I complied with, and in consequence of which, and the sickness and other misfortunes, and great expense of his family, I have had on several occasions to advance money to aid him in support of his family--which sums, however, together with the amount I paid for him, he has nearly refunded.

Of the unhappy fate of this family we shall hear more later. But what seems curious now is why Coles made such a distinction between the money he paid for Emanuel and the value of the slaves he had inherited from his father. Why is it only Emanuel who is forced to pay Coles for value lost through emancipation? Why is it only Emanuel's family that is not granted the gift of a quarter section of land ? Emanuel couldn't have cost Coles much--he had only six more years of slavery left. And one more quarter section could not have meant much to Coles, who had bought twenty-three of them in Illinois alone. So why was Coles so stingy with Emanuel, forcing him to pay for what was his by right and taking away from him the self-respect and security that he had granted to the others?

That Coles intended to support Sukey and her children is clear from a note scribbled on the side of a letter to his mother: And I suppose I shall be obliged to support Sukey until her Husband becomes free. But why "obliged"? Why not simply free Emanuel outright and let him support his own family? It might even have been cheaper that way.

The answer seems to be that Coles did not want to trust Emanuel with freedom. Not knowing much of the woman's husband whom I purchased, he tells us in the 1827 autobiography, or how far he was capable of bringing up correctly his children, and knowing if he proved lazy or unfortunate it would devolve on me to support them, and [they] would be entirely dependent on me in case of his death, I determined to retain some control over them, and accordingly executed the free papers to take effect when the male children should attain the age of twenty-one and the female the age of eighteen. This provision however has been entirely nugatory, as I have never employed or meddled with them, except to threaten to take them from their parents, unless they would attend better to their education.

One suspects that Coles' desire to retain some control over the children extended to the adults as well: not knowing whether this family would sink or swim in the treacherous currents of freedom, he decided to keep them tied to him. Whether the eventual re-enslavement of this family proved Coles right, or whether Coles' paternalism caused the re-enslavement, is a question that is impossible to answer. But the fact is that for whatever reasons Coles kept one-third of his slaves enslaved, taking from them the self-respect, property, and status that he conferred upon his other slaves, starting them off on their new lives with a grievous burden of debt and dependency.

And so Coles freed only ten slaves, and of those ten only four--Ralph and Kate Crawford, Robert Crawford, and Tom Cobb--were adults, and only three were heads of families qualified to receive quarter sections of land. Of the $13,625 worth of land that he owned, the $300 that Coles gave away represented less than 3% of his total holdings.

Still, the value of the slaves themselves represented a fair portion of his inherited wealth. Prices for slaves are difficult to estimate, since they varied from time to time and state to state, and depended upon variables such as health, skills, and personal appearance that we have no knowledge of. But assuming that the four healthy adults were worth a generous average of $500 each, the four teenagers $250, and the two younger children $100, the total value of the slaves that Coles freed on that April morning in 1819 was $3,200. Add to that about $1,000 for Sukey and her five children, for whom Coles never received any financial return, and we have $4,200, or about 1/4 of Coles' total wealth.

How did Coles feel after having brought to fulfillment his dream of over twelve years? Was it exultation? relief? perhaps some sense of disappointment now that the pinnacle of emotion was passed as he drifted slowly down the Ohio River towards a crude and lonely country? It is impossible to tell since Coles does not describe his own emotions at the time. You can better imagine than I can describe the expressions on their countenances on this occasion, and what must have been their feelings, Coles writes to his mother of his slaves at the moment of their emancipation. --as to what passed in my bosom I shall say nothing.

But later in the same letter he speaks to his mother of his loneliness. You must not conclude that I have made up my mind to spend the rest of my days in Illinois, he writes, far from you and all my beloved friends, and out of that kind of society in which I have moved all my life, and to the pleasures of which I am so much attached. No, my dear mother, this is what I cannot consent to. My heart recoils at the idea. I feel so many partialities and so strongly the force of the attractions on your side of the mountains that I cannot bring myself to believe that I shall ever be a permanent inhabitant of this. I am aware of the influence of interest, and of the partiality which may arise from a residence of some years in Illinois; but unless I should form a connection which will make it necessary, I do not calculate upon spending my life there. Certainly as long as I remain a Bachelor I should spend some months of every year with my friends in Virginia, and in the Northern cities. And I flatter myself with the hope that in a few years I shall make fortune enough to enable me to live, even with a family, if I should ever be so fortunate as to have one, in Philadelphia, or wherever else I may prefer.

Had Coles' political success in Illinois been more durable, or had he married a local woman, or had his personal experiences been less bitter and disillusioning, he might have stayed. But we can see that from the outset his heart was not there. He never made a serious attempt to call Illinois home. His purpose in going there was to free his slaves and make his fortune. His years there were years of exile, in between the fulfillment of one dream and the active pursuit of another.

His physical state on the raft in the middle of the Ohio drifting southwest is a good image of his spiritual state as well. What he is in exile from is not Virginia, which represents the slave-ridden past, but the future: the comfortable life with wife and children in Philadelphia that he mentions to his mother as the new summit of his hopes, now that he has freed his slaves. On his raft he is drifting both geographically away from it and chronologically towards it, although many lonely years would pass before he would claim it finally as his own.

After the morning of emancipation, Coles and his former slaves floated downriver to Louisville. We have had a good tide of water, Coles writes to his mother, and remarkably fine weather for floating. We have taken but 9 days and 9 hours to come from Pittsburg here; 21 hours of which have been lost in stops in Cincinnati and other places. My voyage has been very agreeable, and would have been still more so, but for the sickness of Tom and Emanuel. Poor Tom had taken a pleurisy, such as prevailed in your neighborhood, before he reached the boat, and has been since very ill--he is now however well, or nearly so. I had scarcely taught my men how to use the oars, for you know they are all mountaineers, and had never before been on water, before I was reduced to but two [Ralph and Robert Crawford], who were well enough to stand to the oars. In this situation, as we floated day and night, Mr. Green [a young passenger whom Coles had picked up in Pittsburg] and myself had to work pretty hard for 2 or 3 days and nights. Indeed I may say owing to the awkwardness of my men and their sickness, I had to work hard the whole of the first week. But since then Commodore Coles has lolled in his cabin, or walked the Quarter Deck with all the exemptions and dignity becoming his station. It was my intention to have descended the river as low as Shawneetown, which is about 100 miles nearer St. Louis than this place; but having been offered today $50 for my boats, and knowing that I could not be able to get anything for them if I carry them lower, I have sold them for that sum, and have made arrangements to commence our journey in the morning by way of Vincennes. I had also another inducement to abandon the boats, it was my anxiety to be at Edwardsville, and by land I can reach that in one week, by water it would be very uncertain. Having purchased in Pittsburg too another strong horse for my wagon, Ralph and his party can get on very easily in 12 or 13 days from this to Edwardsville.

As Coles rode quickly on ahead across Indiana and Illinois, reporting a bit late to his new post as register of the land office at Edwardville, his former slaves moved slowly behind, crossing into the state of Illinois freely as free people sometime in late April or early May--a fact that will become significant in a suit filed against Coles in the heat of the convention controversy some years later.

Edward Coles

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