Although the state Constitution expressly prohibited it, slavery existed in early Indiana. Two court cases filed by enslaved black women put an end to the practice.
In the early 19th century, Polly Strong and Mary Clark challenged prevailing attitudes to claim their civil rights as U.S. and Indiana citizens.
In a legal sense, slavery was always forbidden in Indiana. The Northwest Ordinance of 1787 prohibited slavery’s spread north of the Ohio River into the future states of Ohio, Indiana, Illinois, Michigan and Wisconsin.
In practice, slavery was accepted by leading citizens. Pioneers moving to Indiana from Virginia or Kentucky, where slavery was legal, considered slaves property and brought them along, sometimes as “indentured servants” whose contracts exceeded their life spans. The 1810 census counted 237 slaves and 393 free blacks in the Indiana Territory.
Any questions about their status should have been settled by the Constitution of 1816, which declared, “There shall be neither slavery nor involuntary servitude in this state, otherwise than for the punishment of crimes.” But it took two lawsuits to enforce the constitutional protection.
Strong had been a slave since birth and became the property of Hyacinth Lasselle of Vincennes around 1808. Lasselle was a tavern keeper and an officer in the Indiana militia. After Indiana became a state, Strong filed for her freedom in Knox County Circuit Court.
Judge Jonathan Doty’s ruling reflected the attitudes of many who lived in the former territorial capital: Strong was Lasselle’s property because she was born into slavery and had come legally into his possession.
The Indiana Supreme Court ordered Strong be freed. “It is evident that ... the framers of our Constitution intended a total and entire prohibition of slavery in this state; and we can conceive of no form of words in which that intention could have been more clearly expressed.”
In 1821, Mary Clark's case came to the state’s high court, and again the court minced no words.
Clark was born circa 1801 and purchased in Kentucky by B.J. Harrison who took her to Vincennes in 1815. Harrison freed Clark from slavery and signed her to a personal services contract — an indenture — of 30 years.
In 1816, Harrison’s uncle, G.W. Johnston, purchased Clark’s indenture for $350 and employed her as his housemaid. Johnston had served in the Territorial House of Representatives and as territorial attorney general.
In 1821, Clark asked the Knox Circuit Court to cancel her indenture because she had been forced to serve it. Johnston claimed she had signed a contract of her “own free will.”
Although the trial court sided with Johnston, the Indiana Supreme Court found Clark’s service was involuntary in violation of the 1816 Constitution.
The ruling set important precedents. Nationally, the case was a turning point that led to a new understanding of indentured servitude as a form of slavery.