On June 7, 1794, Peter McNelly recounted to George Turner how he escaped from White River Station, a stockade outside of Vincennes (modern-day Indiana). Although he was able to make his way back to Vincennes, his wife remained in their captors’ clutches. McNelly thus asked Turner to apprehend the band of settlers that had seized him and his wife, Queen, in an attempt to sell them back into slavery. The mastermind behind the kidnapping was Henry Vanderburgh, a Vincennes fur trader and militia officer. George Turner, a congressionally-appointed judge for the Northwest Territory, had stopped in Vincennes while riding the circuit. The three principal players in this story shared one common characteristic. McNelly, Turner, and Vanderburgh had all fought in the War of Independence for the Patriots. In response to McNelly’s complaint, Turner worked with his colleague, John Cleves Symmes, to prosecute Vanderburgh for violating the Northwest Ordinance’s prohibition of slavery.
In 1787, the Confederation Congress in New York unanimously enacted the Northwest Ordinance. This piece of legislation established the path to statehood for prospective settlers looking to purchase land from the federal government in the Ohio Valley and Great Lakes regions. The most controversial of the Northwest Ordinance’s provisions was the sixth and final article. While Article VI prohibited slavery in the newly established Northwest Territory, it also upheld the right to recapture “any person escaping into the same, from whom labor or service is lawfully claimed in any one of the original States.”
Conditions on the ground posed an immediate challenge. The Northwest Territory had once been a part of New France, where the French Crown had legalized racial chattel slavery. Settlements like Vincennes functioned as nodes in the vast commercial networks linking France’s continental possessions to its Caribbean colonies through the flow of sugar, furs, grain, alcohol, firearms, and slaves. For these reasons, by the time that Governor Arthur St. Clair and his fellow administrators arrived, slavery had long since taken root within their jurisdiction. During the early 1790s, St. Clair’s administration struggled to assert control over the Northwest Territory as the British remained in forts along the Great Lakes and the Miami Confederacy resisted encroachment by Anglo-American settlers in the Ohio Valley. Thus, when the McNellys left Kentucky in 1793, escaping north meant navigating a war-torn landscape.
Litigation in the wake of the McNellys’ kidnapping added to the St. Clair Administration’s woes by broaching the subject of the Somerset Decision. Turner made a case to St. Clair that the McNellys were “free by the Constitution of the Territory.” As no statute protected slavery in the Northwest Territory, did residence on free soil spell freedom for the McNellys? In 1795, Symmes took over the case from Turner and negotiated a compromise with the people of Vincennes. McNelly would indenture himself to Vanderburgh for five years in exchange for the latter traveling to Kentucky to obtain manumission papers. In 1833, thanks to support from his fellow Vincennes residents, McNelly successfully applied for a pension from Congress for his service in the Virginia Militia. Evidence remains unclear whether he and Queen ever saw each other again.
The McNellys’ kidnapping and subsequent ligation revealed conflicts unfolding simultaneously within the territorial administration and on the ground over the legality of slavery in the Northwest Territory. These conflicts in turn can help contemporary historians recognize divisions within the Founding generation over what kind of a republic Congress should build on in the Old Northwest, slave or free. By taking his kidnappers to court, Peter McNelly forced two territorial judges to grapple with how to interpret the Northwest Ordinance in a way that would make Congress’ ban on slavery an enforceable one.
Questions to consider:
- What did Peter McNelly’s ability to bring suit in a territorial court in 1794 and apply for a pension in 1833 in a state court suggest about the status of free African Americans in the early republic?
- In many ways, the Peter McNelly’s story spoke to a broader constitutional debate in national politics during the Antebellum era regarding Congress’ power to prohibit slavery in federal territories. Could Antebellum Americans coexist in the “House Divided” with slavery legal in some parts of the Union and illegal in others?
Cite this page
Territory of the United States
North West of the Ohio
Peter McNelly, of Vincennes in the County of Vincennes Knox, yeoman, being duly sworn, upon his oath deposith and saith, That he, together with his wife, a negro woman named Queen, now of the same place, were held in Kentucky as the Slaves of Anthony Thomson of that state, planter; that early in the Autumn of last year, he this deponent and his said wife absconded from the service of their master, and came into the Territory North West of the Ohio; but that, on their way to Vincennes, they were taken and detained for some weeks by certain Indians, who afterwards brought them to and sold them at Vincennes to John Small of that place, in consideration of two rifle guns and ten dollars worth of ammunition: that he lived with the said Small for the space of three weeks, or thereabouts, when a certain Peter Smith, of Kentucky, appeared and claimed his deponent and wife, as his, the said Peter Smith’s property, for that he had purchased them of their former master: that accordingly the said Small put the said Smith in possession of them, on receiving reimbursement that thereupon this deponent was confined in the grand house of Fort Knox, till the ensuing evening, when it was announced to this deponent by the said Smith that had sold him and his wife, as slaves, to Henry Vanderburgh, of Vincennes aforesaid, esquire: that this deponent and wife were in consequence delivered over to the said Vanderburgh, as the property of the latter: that this transaction took place in or about the month of October last; since which time this deponent and his wife have ever been held in the service of the said Vanderburgh And this deponent and his wife have ever been held in the service of the said Vanderburgh And this deponent on his oath further saith, that on the arrival last month, at Vincennes, of the subscribing Judge, he this deponent applied to him for a Writ of Habeas Corpus for the purpose of establishing his and his said wife’s claim to freedom – and received for answer, that the said writ should issue And this deponent further said that said Henry Vanderburgh now made frequent overtures, by himself and others, to this — deponent, towards an accommodation, and appeared [???] that he and his wife they should become bound to him during a certain term of years – but which this deponent declined: that on Tuesday, the 27th day of May last this deponent was ordered by the said Vanderburgh into the prairie adjoining Vincennes, to the distance of about half a mile from town there to procure, as he pretended a load of earth – that accordingly this deponent proceeded with a horse and cart, in company with one Jonas Dutton; a house carpenter in the said Vanderburgh’s employment – and arriving at the spot, there suddenly appeared in view three persons, to wit, Joseph Baird, acting prothonotary to the Court of Common Pleas of Knox, Joseph La Motte, Indian Interpreter in the Service of the United States and Nathaniel Ewing, occasionally of Vincennes, Trader; that the last named three persons forcibly seized on this deponent, bound his arms to his side with a rope, and made the rope fast to the tail of Baird’s horse, and thus dragged him this deponent forward into the woods – telling him, exultingly and sneeringly, that he must now go before the Judge – that, at this time, the said Dutton was dispatched back to Vincennes with the said cart and horse, and this deponent disengaged from the horse’ tail, but his arms remained bound – that the said Baird now amounted the last mentioned horse, and after an absence of an hour, or thereabouts, returned on foot accompanied by a person named Henri Renbeau, an inhabitant of Vincennes, leading Baird’ horse and on which was mounted this deponent’s wife, who [???] (as he has been told and verily believes) had been forcibly seized [???] in the dwelling house of the said Vanderburgh – And this deponent for the said that Jean Baptiste Constant, junior, of Vincennes [???], yeoman, and also an Indian, to whose name he is a stranger, accompanied the said Baird to the spot where the first party had halted – that the said Indian, Constant, and Renbeau and Baird acted as a guard over the person of this deponent and his wife, on the route to White River, which they took, and where they arrived the same day at a point about twelve miles, or more from the town of Vincennes; and that here the party halted within about fifty yards of a stoccaded settlement called White River Station; and the said Baird went to the said station and returned in company with the said Dutton, who bore in his hand a paper which he informed this deponent was an indenture to bind him and his wife for the term of five years and a half to the said Vanderburgh, who had sent it for execution; and that in case of refusal, the said Vanderburgh had determined to send both this deponent and his said wife to New Orleans; for that he had already provided a boat to convey them [???] – that this deponent, terrified at the threat, agreed to sign the paper; upon which the whole party advanced to the station or fortified stoccade, and entering the house of a certain Moses Decker, there in the Indenture was read to this deponent and signed (but not sealed) by him and his wife – and that the witnesses who signed their names to this instrument were Joseph Decker and the said Moses Decker, Joseph Baird and Jonas Dutton And this deponent further deposeth and saith, that the said Dutton and Baird now mounted each a horse and returned to Vincennes with the Indenture thus forcibly taken – Baird previously leaving orders with the party to take this deponent and wife across White River – that on ascending the opposite bank they bound this deponent to one tree, and his wife to another, and in this situation, they remained from twelve o’ clock at noon will about one 8’ clock in the afternoon of the next day … a prey to the tormenting muskitoes, which during this period were so insufferable that this deponent often at times begged his oppressors to kill him, and put him out of pain – that at length the whole party recrossed the river; and this deponent and his wife were lodged within this station; in the house of the said Moses Decker – the said Baird, Renbeau and Constant alternately acting during their confinement duress, as Centinels over them by night and by day: – that the day after the party recrossed White River as aforesaid, the said Baird returned from Vincennes and told this deponent that the said Vanderburgh’s orders were, to hold him and his wife prisoners all the said Vanderburgh should wither come himself or send; and that the said Baird brought with him a pair of Handcuffs, with which he manacled this deponent, and that, in this situation, the deponent remained until near midnight on the sixth day of this instant June, which disengaging one of his hands from the manacles, he made his escape from the fortified station aforesaid, through the roof of the said Moses Decker’s house, and the next morning presented himself before the subscribing Judge, at Vincennes And this deponent furth saith not
Peter x M.Nelly his Mark [Annotation: signs name with an “x”]
Sworn at my chambers in Fort Knox, Vincennes, the seventh day of June one thousand seven hundred and ninety four Before me George Turner, esquire one of the Judges in and over the Territory of the United States North West of the Ohio
[Annotation: the following message written sideways]
Vincennes June 7th 1794
Affidavit of Peter McNelly concerning the treatment of himself his wife and by [UNCLEAR] persons
EARLY ACCESS: Transcription is under editorial review and may contain errors.
Please do not cite or otherwise reproduce without permission.