Pin Oak Colony
Just east of Edwardsville, Pin Oak Colony was one of the oldest communities of free blacks in Illinois. While other free Black communities existed further south, near Carlyle, for example, Pin Oak Colony’s uniqueness rested in its formation. It was founded in early statehood by Edward Coles, around 1819, and its first members were his inheritance, brought from Abermarle County, Virginia, to Illinois by Coles with the stated intention to free them. The establishment of Pin Oak Colony owes much to Coles’ anti-slavery convictions, which he expressed to Thomas Jefferson as a young man. These anti-slavery convictions fueled Coles’ desire to establish a life away from America’s “peculiar institution.” They also established Pin Oak Colony as an oasis violating federal statute and flaunting frontier customs.
Like many within his class of Virginia tobacco planters, Coles had a conflicted view of slavery and of the human beings slavery had allowed his family to control. In his class’ view, slavery may have been a birthright, an economic necessity, but ownership of human beings gravitated far from the principles of equality that led members of this class to argue so vehemently against English tyranny. Men like Coles felt human ownership of human beings created tyrants, and sinful ones at that.
The years before 1819 found Coles acting as President James Madison’s secretary, a position much like today’s presidential chief-of-staff. As Madison’s secretary, Coles filled today’s roles of budget director, national security advisor, communications director, press secretary, assistant for congressional relations, and White House counsel. Conceivably, Coles might have even arranged evacuation of the Executive Mansion, ahead of the British, who would burn it, during the War of 1812.
There are ten letters between Coles and former-president Thomas Jefferson, coming between 1811 and 1814, within Coles’ tenure as Madison’s secretary. While most of the letters are commonplace, the last three—exchanged between late July and late September 1814—express Coles’ plan to emancipate his inheritance in Illinois. For example, in the letter dated July 31, 1814, Coles urges Jefferson to articulate a plan for the gradual emancipation of enslaved people in Virginia, at the time the largest enslaved population in any North American state. Coles argued that gradual emancipation represented the next logical step in human rights, which Jefferson had begun with the Declaration of Independence in 1776. Pressing further with his argument, Coles called the Founders’ failure to address gradual emancipation an omission, leading to the existence of an “unfortunate evil” that sullied the Revolution.
The correspondence’s subsequent silence underscores Thomas Jefferson’s umbrage at Coles’ forthright statement of intent, but the extant record indicates that others had flaunted the Northwest Ordinance already and had brought enslaved people to the territory. Madison County registries list twelve men and women owning seventeen individuals in 1814, the same year as the last of the Jefferson-Coles correspondence. In 1820, Benjamin Stephenson, who would become a rival to Coles, as a representative of pro-slavery settlers, owned eight individuals in Madison County. Between 1815 and 1819, Stephenson had built his assets by acquiring, and “liquidating,” twelve human beings between the ages of forty-two days and nineteen years, as described in Helen Cox Tregillis’ River Roads to Freedom: Fugitive Slave Notices and Sheriff Notices Found in Illinois Sources. Ninian Edwards, the son of a Jeffersonian collaborator in the Revolution, owned three Americans, possibly his inheritance, as listed in the Madison County registries. The Northwest Ordinance had been designed to deny both Edwards and Stephenson the privilege of owning other people within Illinois Country.
Nevertheless, Edward Coles entered the Illinois Country with the intent to free the people he held in bondage. They were almost two dozen individuals, generally young or in their prime. Collectively, the name given to Coles’ inheritance was “Coles’ Slaves.” They served as Pin Oak’s primary community. Apparently, they arrived in Saint Louis by riverboat, coming down the Ohio River, then made their way to Edwardsville. At the time, the Panic of 1819 had caused land prices in the west to plummet to $1.25 per acre. Land so cheap beckoned a man of Coles’ means to purchase plenty. Coles purchased over 500 acres east of Edwardsville and portioned just under a hundred acres to his former property, while keeping 474 acres for himself. These properties were collectively known as Pin Oak Colony.
The families of Coles’ formerly enslaved people lived at Pin Oak Colony until the turn of the twentieth century, when the last descendants migrated to Decatur for work. Nonetheless, Pin Oak Colony thrived for nearly one hundred years. The twentieth century institutions of Edwardsville’s black community—Lincoln School, Mount Joy Missionary Baptist Church, and Wesley Chapel African Methodist Episcopal Church—had precursors in nineteenth-century Pin Oak Colony. According to Centennial History of Madison County, Illinois, and Its People, Pin Oak Colony had 300 residents at its height, around the Civil War.
By all accounts, Pin Oak Colony was as a vibrant community that existed within the context of the greater Edwardsville community. Members of Pin Oak Colony’s black Baptist community participated in discussing issues important to Illinois’ free community. John Jones, a Chicago businessman who had lived as a freedman in Alton in the 1830s, led efforts to repeal the state’s restrictions upon African Americans, especially the pre-Civil War Black Codes and prohibition against African Americans attending schools. He organized Illinois’ free blacks to discuss means for repeal. A meeting was held, under the aegis of the Wood River Baptist District, at Alton’s Union Baptist Church, in November 1856. Delegates from Pin Oak Colony’s Baptist church attended and spoke at the meeting. This meeting and its participants represented a violation of the Black Codes, as the codes expressively forbade blacks from meeting for any purposes other than religious worship.
Perhaps these political activities, and the threats against them provided by law, led to the community’s reticence to inform the outside world of its existence. If so, one should remember that comparable laws excluded African Americans from the Illinois frontier during early statehood. Hiding Pin Oak Colony from census enumerators served as a natural extension of this tactical reticence.