A segment of the population often overlooked in antebellum U.S. histories is that of free African Americans. The stories of black slaves have frequently been recounted, but not those of free African Americans, although they averaged about 10 percent of the black population in the United States beginning with the 1790 census. Almost one-seventh of all African Americans in the United States were already free before the Thirteenth Amendment was ratified in 1865. As early as the 1700s a segment of this free population lived in southern Illinois.


Arthur and Patience ALLEN from Johnston Co., N.C., Joseph ALLEN from North Carolina, Beverly BROWN from Northampton Co., N.C., Johnson ALLEN from Buncombe Co., N.C., Zachariah and Liddy TABURN from Wake Co., N.C., Thomas and Dicey CHAVIS from Gibson Co., Tenn., Thomas and Betsy BASS from Tennessee, Nancy BRYANT from Walker Co., Ga., and Joseph and Elizabeth IVEY from South Carolina, were such people, who though of African descent, never lived as slaves. Cain and Elizabeth BRACKEN from Tennessee, Haywood DEW, the ELLIOTT brothers and Moses HUNTER were freedmen, who were once slaves, but were freed decades before the Civil War. The ancestry of most of the nine southern Illinois families included in this study can be traced back to North Carolina to the counties of Northampton and Robeson. Most of the families were a mixture of African, European and perhaps Native American ancestry and were almost always identified as "mulattos." The oral tradition of some of these families, in particular the CHAVISes is that they were of Cherokee ancestry.


All of the families included in this study eventually made their homes in southern Illinois. They were attracted to Illinois by the same factors which brought white pioneers here: inexpensive farm land and forested land bountiful with game. In addition, there was probably a belief that their freedom would be greater protected in the "free" state of Illinois. They shared in building the Illinois frontier into a country of towns, settlements and established farms, but their contributions are too often overlooked by historians. Following is an account of the eleven families and their lives on the Illinois frontier.