The Northwest Ordinance of 1787 made slavery illegal in the territory that would later become Illinois, Indiana, Michigan, Ohio, Wisconsin, and part of Minnesota. However, many Black individuals’ rights were denied by white enslavers who continued to hold them captive in the territory well into the nineteenth century. Set in this period of American history, Enslaved, Indentured, Free shines a light on five extraordinary Black women—Marianne, Mariah, Patsey, Rachel, and Courtney—whose lives intersected in Prairie du Chien, Wisconsin.
Focusing on these five women, Mary Elise Antoine explores the history of slavery in the Upper Mississippi River Valley, relying on legal documents, military records, court transcripts, and personal correspondence. Whether through perseverance, self-purchase, or freedom suits—including one suit that was used as precedent in Dred and Harriet Scott’s freedom suits years later—each of these women ultimately secured her freedom, thanks in part to the bonds they forged with one another.
Albert Coryer, the grandson of a fur trade voyageur-turned-farmer, had a gift for storytelling. Born in 1877, he grew up in Prairie du Chien hearing tales of days gone by from his parents, grandparents, and neighbors who lived in the Frenchtown area. Throughout his life, Albert soaked up the local oral traditions, including narratives about early residents, local landmarks, interesting and funny events, ethnic customs, myths, and folklore.
Late in life, this lively man who had worked as a farm laborer and janitor drew a detailed illustrated map of the Prairie du Chien area and began to write his stories out longhand, in addition to sharing them in an interview with a local historian and folklore scholar. The map, stories, and interview transcript provide a colorful account of Prairie du Chien in the late nineteenth century, when it was undergoing significant demographic, social, and economic change. With sharp historical context provided by editors Lucy Eldersveld Murphy and Mary Elise Antoine, Coryer’s tales offer an unparalleled window into the ethnic community comprised of the old fur trade families, Native Americans, French Canadian farmers, and their descendants.