Wisconsin Historical Society

Historical Essay

Slavery in Wisconsin

slavery in Wisconsin | Wisconsin Historical Society
Dictionary of Wisconsin History.

 

Slaves were held in Wisconsin for more than a century, and documentary evidence exists confirming about 100 different individuals. The earliest mention of any slave in Wisconsin comes from a 1725 speech, when a chief of the Illinois Indians refers to the massacre of four Frenchmen and "a negro belonging to Monsieur de Boisbriant" at Green Bay. In 1746 the commander of the French garrison at Green Bay brought a black slave with him, and when the French surrendered Wisconsin to the English in 1760, the peace provisions allowed Charles de Langlade and other settlers to retain their "negro and Pawnee" slaves. Between 1799 and 1807 at least one African American slave was kept by a French resident in Green Bay.

Although the Northwest Ordinance of 1787 explicitly prohibited the introduction of slavery into the Territory, early settlers from the southern U.S. often brought slaves with them. In 1822, Kentucky lead miner James Johnson brought slaves with him to work the mines around Galena, and during the 1820s southern farmers who came up to the Lead Region also employed slaves at agricultural labor. For example, territorial officials Henry Dodge, who would twice serve as territorial governor, and George W. Jones, who represented Wisconsin in Congress, both brought groups of slaves into the Lead Region.

Records also show that as many as 17 African American slaves were at various times brought to Fort Crawford by army officers (one of which was whipped to death by her owner); two were also held at Fort Howard in Green Bay and one at Fort Winnebago. In all, between 90 and 100 slaves were brought to Wisconsin in territorial days at different times. Many were taken back to the southern states, but others were freed by their owners, stayed here, and prospered. The 1840 census showed 11 slaves in the territory, as well as 185 "free colored persons" who may have originally come to Wisconsin in bondage.

Grignon, Seventy-two Years' Recollections...; Wisconsin: comprising sketches of counties, towns, events...(Madison, 1906); Davidson, J. N. Negro Slavery in Wisconsin and the Underground Railroad. (Milwaukee, Wis.: Parkman Club, 1897).

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