Coming to Illinois

Leaving Virginia

Coles felt uncertain about his ability to support himself as an Illinois farmer. He asked the new president, James Monroe, for an appointment as Register of Lands in Edwardsville and received the position in March 1819. Around the same time, Coles met with the people of his estate and told them about his plans to leave Virginia for Illinois. Although he didn’t say it, they knew the move would mean their freedom.

Two women decided to remain behind. They wanted to stay close to enslaved family members working for Coles’ mother. Coles arranged for them to live with his mother at his expense. The rest of the group — at least sixteen people,1 including a woman named Sukey and her children — elected to go with Coles to Illinois. Coles also secured Sukey’s husband Manuel from a neighboring plantation so that he could come along to Illinois with the rest of his family.

They began the journey on April 1, 1819. Led by Ralph Crawford, everyone but Coles traveled by wagon over the Alleghany Mountains to Brownsville, Pennsylvania; Coles followed on horseback. From there, the group traveled by river in two flatboats.2

Map of route to Illinois

Route taken by Edward Coles and his enslaved companions in April 1819 from Rockfish Plantation, Virginia, to Edwardsville, Illinois. Created by Madison County Historical Museum and Archival Library staff.

Ceremony on the Ohio River

On the Ohio River the morning after leaving Pittsburgh, Coles had the boats lashed together. He called the enslaved people on deck and told them of his plans to manumit them. As Coles describes the scene, the group reacted with stunned silence. After the news sank in they started giggling and then wept for joy.

The ceremony concluded with Coles presenting the group with a general certificate of freedom listing their names. The document did not include Manuel, Sukey, and their children: the family remained in slavery.3 On July 4th, 1819, Edward Coles submitted the emancipation paperwork at the Madison County Courthouse.

Ten newly free people

This illustration represents the ten people among those manumitted by Edward Coles on the Ohio River who arrived in Illinois with him in May 1819. Actual depictions of the people are not available. Created by Madison County Historical Museum and Archival Library staff.


1Some sources suggest that up to 24 people owned by Coles left Virginia with him for Illinois. Some of them may have parted ways with Coles and the rest of the group at Louisville, Kentucky. Unfortunately we have no details about any people manumitted by Coles except those who accompanied him all the way to Illinois.

2Coles described the final overland portion of the journey in a letter to his friend and former president James Madison: “Owing to the very wet spring, a great portion of this flat Country was under water, and most of the little streams were overflowing their banks, and could only be crossed by swiming [sic] or ferrying. This rendered this part of the journey very disagreeable, even to me who was on horseback, but to those in the waggon [sic] or on foot it was inconceivably bad.”

3Sukey and her husband Manuel (we don’t know their surname) had five children and a baby on the way. As enslaved people in Coles’ estate, Sukey and the children had the option to accompany him to Illinois. But in 1819, Manuel remained bound in slavery to Coles’ neighbor for another six years. Coles purchased Manuel’s remaining indenture so the family could come to Illinois together. Rather than emancipate Manuel along with the others, Coles pledged to manumit Manuel after he reimbursed Coles’ purchase of his time. Manuel’s indenture made him unable to provide for his family, so he and Sukey asked Coles to retain her and the children as his slaves in the meantime as the only way to ensure their basic needs would be met.