On June 7, 1794, Peter McNelly recounted in a deposition to Judge George Turner how he escaped from an attempt to re-enslave him at White River Station, a stockade outside of Vincennes (in 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 Vincennes residents 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 federal 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.
After years of debate over how to organize western territories gained from the British in the Treaty of Paris 1783 (see 1784 and 1785 proposed land ordinances), the Confederation Congress unanimously enacted the Northwest Ordinance in 1787. This piece of legislation established the path to statehood for prospective settlers looking to purchase land from the federal government in the Great Lakes region. The most controversial of the Northwest Ordinance’s provisions was the sixth and final article.1Some historians argue that the Northwest Ordinance was a product of a political compromise between slaveholders and non-slaveholders within the new national government for the purpose of raising revenue from public land sales. See Further Reading sidebar for complete footnote. 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.”2Northwest Ordinance; July 13, 1787. See Further Reading sidebar for complete footnote.
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 (see Code Noir). 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.3For the role of slave labor in the French colonial economy, particularly in the fur trade, see Ekberg, Heerman, Miles in Further Reading sidebar for complete footnote. For these reasons, by the time 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 Northwest Confederacy resisted encroachment by Anglo-American settlers in the Ohio Valley.4For an assessment of St. Clair’s leadership in the federal government’s war effort against the Northwest Confederacy, see Calloway in Further Reading sidebar for complete footnote. 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 considering the Somerset Decision in England in 1772 as a possible precedent.5Historians have put forth several interpretations of Turner and St. Clair’s correspondence regarding the McNellys’ kidnapping. See Further Reading sidebar for complete footnote. That case had freed James Somerset, via a writ of Habeus Corpus, on the grounds that English laws did not positively support slavery by statute in England itself.6 In 1772, the Court of King’s Bench ruled in Somerset v. Stewart in favor of James Somerset, a fugitive slave, on the grounds that slavery had no legal basis in England without any laws to justify the practice. See Further Reading sidebar for complete footnote. Turner made a case to St. Clair that the McNellys were likewise “free by the Constitution of the Territory.”7Smith, 325–26. See Further Reading sidebar for complete source. 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 1832, thanks to support from his fellow Knox County residents, McNelly successfully applied for a pension from Congress for his service in the Virginia Continental Line. Evidence remains unclear whether he and Queen ever saw each other again.8VanderVelde, Redemption Songs, 33, 37–38. See Further Reading sidebar for complete source.
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, illuminate divisions among the Founding generation over what kind of a republic Congress should build in the Old Northwest. 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:
- Peter McNelly, a Black man who arguably was enslaved, was able to bring suit in a territorial court in 1794 and to apply for a pension in 1832 in a state court. What does his access to courts in both scenarios reveal about the status of free African Americans in the early republic?
- In many ways, 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?
- What does this case show about why settlers clashed so fiercely over slave law in the territories?
- Peter S. Onuf, Statehood and Union: A History of the Northwest Ordinance (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1987).
- Andrew R. L. Cayton, Frontier Indiana (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1996).
- Matthew Salafia, Slavery’s Borderland: Freedom and Bondage Along the Ohio River (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2013).
- Judith L. Van Buskirk, Standing in Their Own Light: African American Patriots in the American Revolution (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 2018).
- Anna-Lisa Cox, The Bone and Sinew of the Land: America’s Forgotten Black Pioneers and the Struggle for Equality (New York: Public Affairs, 2018).
- Kate Masur, Until Justice Be Done: America’s First Civil Rights Movement, from the Revolution to Reconstruction (New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 2021).
- Footnote 1: Studies that subscribe to this interpretation include Staughton Lynd, “The Compromise of 1787,” Political Science Quarterly 81, no. 2 (June 1966): 225, https://doi.org/10.2307/2147971; David C. Hendrickson, Peace Pact: The Lost World of the American Founding (Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 2003).
- Footnote 2: “Northwest Ordinance; July 13, 1787,” Yale Law School: Avalon Project, accessed October 14, 2021, https://avalon.law.yale.edu/18th_century/nworder.asp. In 1789, the First Federal Congress re-enacted the Northwest Ordinance without any revisions, in effect bringing the Northwest Territory under federal jurisdiction.
- Footnote 3: Carl J. Ekberg, French Roots in the Illinois Country: The Mississippi Frontier in Colonial Times (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1998); M. Scott Heerman, The Alchemy of Slavery: Human Bondage and Emancipation in the Illinois Country, 1730-1865 (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2018); Tiya Miles, The Dawn of Detroit: A Chronicle of Slavery and Freedom in the City of the Straits (New York: The New Press, 2019).
- Footnote 4: Colin G. Calloway, The Victory with No Name: The Native American Defeat of the First American Army (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2015).
- Footnote 5: William Henry Smith, ed., “Arthur St. Clair to George Turner, Marietta, December 14, 1794,” in The Life and Public Services of Arthur St. Clair, vol. 2 (Cincinnati: Robert Clarke & Co., 1882), 330–32.
- Studies that portray St. Clair as reluctant or outrightly refusing to enforce Congress’ ban on slavery include Eugene H. Berwanger, The Frontier Against Slavery: Western Anti-Negro Prejudice and the Slavery Extension Controversy (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1971), 7–8; Paul Finkelman, “Slavery and the Northwest Ordinance: A Study in Ambiguity,” Journal of the Early Republic 6, no. 4 (1986): 367–68, https://doi.org/10.2307/3122644; Lea VanderVelde, Redemption Songs: Suing for Freedom Before Dred Scott (New York: Oxford University Press, 2014), 36.
- For studies that interpret St. Clair’s instructions in his letter to Turner as creating opportunities for enforcement, see Don E. Fehrenbacher, The Dred Scott Case: Its Significance in American Law and Politics (New York: Oxford University Press, 1978), 84–85; Matthew Salafia, Slavery’s Borderland: Freedom and Bondage Along the Ohio River (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2013), 64.
- Footnote 6:
- For an assessment of the Somerset Decision’s impact, see William M. Wiecek, “Somerset: Lord Mansfield and the Legitimacy of Slavery in the Anglo-American World,” The University of Chicago Law Review 42, no. 1 (1974): 86, https://doi.org/10.2307/1599128.
- For a complete history of how federal and state courts applied the Somerset Decision in the pre-Civil War United States, see Paul Finkelman, An Imperfect Union: Slavery, Federalism, and Comity (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1981).
- For recent debates regarding this topic see George Van Cleve, “‘Somerset’s Case’ and Its Antecedents in Imperial Perspective,” Law and History Review 24, no. 3 (2006): 601–45; Daniel J. Hulsebosch, “Somerset’s Case at the Bar: Securing the ‘Pure Air’ of English Jurisdiction Within the British Empire,” Texas Wesleyan Law Review 13, no. 2 (March 2007): 699–710.
- Footnote 7: William Henry Smith, ed., “George Turner to Arthur St. Clair, Vincennes, June 14, 1794,” in The Life and Public Services of Arthur St. Clair, vol. 2 (Cincinnati: Robert Clarke & Co., 1882), 325–26.
- Footnote 8: Lea VanderVelde, Redemption Songs: Suing for Freedom Before Dred Scott (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2014).
Affidavit of Peter McNelly, 7 June 1794, Box 2, Folder 7, William H. English Collection 1762-1895, Hanna Holborn Gray Special Collections Research Center, University of Chicago Library.
Cite this page
Please be aware that many of the works in this project contain racist and offensive language and descriptions of punishment and enslavement that may be difficult to read. However, this language and these descriptions reveal the horrors of slavery. Please take care when transcribing these materials, and see our Ethics Statement and About 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 this 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 guard 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; [unclear]9The brackets here indicate that transcribers were unable to determine the word. The word is also struck through in the document. since which time 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 [unclear] 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 saith, that said Henry Vanderburgh now made frequent overtures, by himself and others, to this deponent, towards an accommodation, and appeared
desirous ‸that he and his wife‸10^This indicates text added above. 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’s 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 [unclear] (as he has been told and verily believes) had been forcibly seized and in the dwelling house of the said Vanderburgh And this deponent for the saith that a certain Jean Baptiste Constant, junior, of Vincennes afsd11aforesaid, 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, 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 hither 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 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 till about one O’clock in the afternoon of the s next day … a prey to the tormenting muskitoes, which during this period were [unclear] so insufferable that he 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 the station, in the house of the said Moses Decker, the said Baird, Renbeau and Constant alternately acting during their confinement duresse, 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 till the said Vanderburgh should either 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, when, 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 further saith not
Peter x M.Nelly his Mark 12Signs 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
Vincennes June 7th 179413The following lines are written sideways.
Affidavit of Peter McNelly concerning the treatment of himself his wife and by sundry persons
EARLY ACCESS: Transcription is under editorial review and may contain errors.
Please do not cite or otherwise reproduce without permission.
- 1Some historians argue that the Northwest Ordinance was a product of a political compromise between slaveholders and non-slaveholders within the new national government for the purpose of raising revenue from public land sales. See Further Reading sidebar for complete footnote.
- 2Northwest Ordinance; July 13, 1787. See Further Reading sidebar for complete footnote.
- 3For the role of slave labor in the French colonial economy, particularly in the fur trade, see Ekberg, Heerman, Miles in Further Reading sidebar for complete footnote.
- 4For an assessment of St. Clair’s leadership in the federal government’s war effort against the Northwest Confederacy, see Calloway in Further Reading sidebar for complete footnote.
- 5Historians have put forth several interpretations of Turner and St. Clair’s correspondence regarding the McNellys’ kidnapping. See Further Reading sidebar for complete footnote.
- 6In 1772, the Court of King’s Bench ruled in Somerset v. Stewart in favor of James Somerset, a fugitive slave, on the grounds that slavery had no legal basis in England without any laws to justify the practice. See Further Reading sidebar for complete footnote.
- 7Smith, 325–26. See Further Reading sidebar for complete source.
- 8VanderVelde, Redemption Songs, 33, 37–38. See Further Reading sidebar for complete source.
- 9The brackets here indicate that transcribers were unable to determine the word. The word is also struck through in the document.
- 10^This indicates text added above.
- 12Signs name with an “x”
- 13The following lines are written sideways.