African-Americans first came to Illinois with the French in 1719, most as slaves, but some as free men and women. French slavery in Illinois should not be compared to the American practice. French slavery was far less severe with the slaves having a wider range of privileges and protections under the Code Noir or “Black Code”. Provisions of the Code Noir stated that slaves could receive religious instruction and be baptized into the Catholic Church. Slave marriages were to be performed by priests and had legal sanction. It was not unusual for the French slave to obtain manumission and become an integral part of the small communities along the Mississippi. Blacks became landowners and fur traders. By 1750, 20% of the population of the French settlements was Black. And, by 1770 this number had increased to 38%.
Most of these Blacks came from the West Indies. They brought with them African traditions and beliefs, along with some of the religious practices which had developed in the islands, such as voodoo and witchcraft. There was even a witch trial in Cahokia.
Most know about the Salem witch trials of 1692, but few have heard of the necromancy that occurred at Cahokia in the late 1770’s. While the Salem incidents can be explained by religious hysteria and a rye fungus that caused hallucinations, instead of witchcraft, the events at Cahokia, perpetuated by the slave population, could be labeled sorcery.
The first hint that voodoo was being practiced in the French villages occurred in a deposition made by Bernard Gibkin, at St. Louis, on December 29, 1778. Gibkin, a physician, was ordered by Fernando de Leyba, Governor of Spanish St. Louis, to examine a Black slave belonging to Marie Laurent. He stated: “I perceived that the sickness by which he was attacked proceeded from a violent poison. His body was in convulsions and his limbs rigid on account of the corrosive poison.” Before the slave died, he made an accusation against Baptise Bastein, a slave belonging to the Saucier family. Baptise was interrogated by the court at Cahokia concerning the murder. The court determined that the two men had disagreed over a woman. Baptise denied poisoning the other man but admitted serving the dead man a glass of wine in his master’s house. The court decided not to dispose of the case.
Nearly six months later, the Cahokia court reopened the murder case, and during the proceedings, uncovered a series of poisonings by other individuals that had tinges of black magic. This new investigation involved two slaves from Cahokia: Manuel and Moreau.
Moreau was accused of poisoning the aforementioned slave of the Laurent family. Moreau killed the man in jealousy over a woman by the name of Janette. Janette was feared in the Village of Cahokia, for it was thought that she possessed the power to destroy persons and property with her incantations.
The trial also brought out that Moreau had given a potion to a female slave of the Nicolle family to make her mistress gentler. In return for the magic brew she had promised Moreau the favor of her physical charms. The lady gave the potion to her husband to be administered to their masters. The Nicolles died of the poison. The slaves testified at the trial that they had not asked Moreau to make the Nicolles die but only to make them milder in their treatment of the slaves.
When Moreau “asked the Negress to grant what she had promised…she replied that he was too old and she did not wish to.” Moreau then said: “You find me too old, and well you shall repent it.” Soon after, Moreau poisoned her and her husband.
Though Moreau was the purveyor of the poison, Manuel was the medicine man. Manuel was also accused of providing poison to Janette so she could kill her master. The poison was in “a horn in which there was boiling blood.”
On the basis of this evidence, Moreau was hanged and Manuel shot. Nothing seems to have happened to Janette. At their executions, it was reported that a flock of crows was seen flying over the scene and it was believed that the spirits of the two witches had gone into the crows and taken flight.
Perhaps the best known West Indian Black was Jean Baptise Du Sable, the first citizen of Checagou or Chicago. Tradition holds that he was born on Santo Domingo around 1750, but whether he was a free Black or fugitive slave is not clear. Contemporaries describe him as a large man, likable, handsome and well educated.
It is not known when Du Sable came to Illinois, but it is thought that he first settled in the area of Peoria where he farmed and lived with the Indians. In 1784, he moved to a site on the north bank of the “Checagou” River and established a trading post, which became very prosperous. His property was described as including a spacious log house, a large barn and well stocked stable, a smokehouse, bake house, workshop and grist mill.
Du Sable was not only Chicago’s first citizen but also its first businessman. Such a large establishment indicated that he had a number of men working for him. It also indicates that he owned and farmed enough land to provide food for his employees and their families with a large enough surplus to sell in the trading post.
In 1788, Du Sable married a Potawatomi woman named Catherine. They later had two children, Susanne and Jean Baptise. These events proved to be the first wedding and recorded birth of a child in Chicago.
Du Sable and his family prospered in Chicago for more than a decade. Then, in 1800, for unknown reasons he sold his holdings. The family then moved to St. Charles, Missouri, where he died some years later.
Du Sable was not the only black to leave the Illinois Territory. By the time of George Rogers Clark’s conquest of Illinois there were only 700 African-Americans in the area. There had been a mass exodus of the French and their slaves west of the Mississippi after Illinois had been lost in the French and Indian War. This movement, particularly by Blacks, was accelerated when Americans of Southern heritage, with their form of slavery, became the dominant group in southern Illinois.