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[IL] 1847 Matson Slave Trial

Remembering how it was years ago as I worked as a police detective. Most case files were given the name of the defendant. High profile cases were often given the name of the victim. The slave trial that took place in Independence, Illinois in 1847 is called the Matson Slave Trial. He, to me, was the defendant. I am told that this was not the only slave trial in Illinois. It is the only one in which Abraham Lincoln is know to have been the lawyer for the slave owner trying to keep his slaves as slaves.

Let me tell you about my experiences this weekend when I went to Oakland, Illinois for the reenactment of the 1847 Slave Trial that involved Abraham Lincoln as the attorney for the slaveholder. It takes 26 minutes to drive from Charleston, Illinois, where my wife and I spent Friday night, to Oakton, Illinois. My wife stayed in Charleston with her daughter and I drove to Oakland. The drive took me 35 minutes. Oakland is a small town and you can drive through it in two seconds. In 1847, at the time of the Matson Slave Trial, Oakland was called Independence. It was still a small town in Coles County.

I went to the registration table under the tent at Route 133 and Pike Street. I checked in about 10:00 a.m. and was given a copy of The Oakland Messenger, the town’s newspaper which contained a map of the day’s events. I listened to a brief presentation of the very helpful staff member on where to go, what to see, and what to do. My ticket was also a card to be punched at each stop on the complex. This was, for me, the beginning of a very exciting and historic Saturday.

I went to the general store and spoke with the people there before going across the road to the Hiram Rutherford House. The two-story house had been restored close to the way it was in 1847. Staff members, mostly students, were in the house and gave an overview of the family and how they used each room.

In the back of the house was an herb garden and, off to the side, the graves of two of the Rutherford grandchildren. A man came up to me while I was taking photos of the herb garden. He told me, in summary, that he was born in India and came to the United States years ago to study. He earned an Engineering degree. He lives and works in Illinois. His wife was born in the Oakland, Illinois area and spent time as a little girl reading books in the building across the road that had been the library. The man’s wife told me that she read every book in that library. The library was the small building that Dr. Hiram Rutherford built as his doctor’s office. Later, it was used as a library. It has since been restored as Dr. Rutherford’s office.

I walked across to Dr. Rutherford’s office and there I spoke with Dr. Rutherford. He was in costume, and in character, as though it was still 1847. Dr. Rutherford told me his office had been in the house but, when his family began to increase with more children being born, his wife asked him to move his office. He built this small building across the road from the house.

Hiram Rutherford is the only northerner in this story. He was born in Pennsylvania. His father and most of his family was anti-slavery. John Rutherford and William Rutherford Jr., Hiram’s brothers, took part in the underground railroad. Hiram did an apprenticeship with William Jr., a doctor, before going to medical school. Hiram found that there were many doctors in Pennsylvania so, after finishing medical school, he and two of his classmates headed west. Hiram decided to settle in Illinois. He chose a small town called Independence (now called Oakland) and was the only well-educated doctor in the area. He formed a successful medical practice. He built a one-story home that doubled as his office. In 1847, he built a new two-story house. He traveled by horseback to the homes of his patient’s until the roads improved and then he went by buggy. He had been to Black Grove Plantation and once the owner, Robert Matson, introduced him to Anthony Bryant, a free Blackman who worked for Matson.

Hiram Rutherford helped to pay for the legal defense for the Bryant’s. Matson accused Hiram of harboring slaves and sued Hiram $500 for each slave, a total of $2500. Hiram tried to hire Abraham Lincoln to represent him. Abraham Lincoln told Hiram that Matson talked with him about the trial but had not hired him. Hiram left to find another lawyer. Lincoln did contact Hiram about two hours later and offered to represent him but Hiram, who had not hired anyone else, refused to hire Lincoln. I could have stayed to listen to Dr. Rutherford for most of the day, but I needed to visit with others before the play.

I went back across the road to the rear of the Rutherford house and visited with Gideon “Matt” Ashmore. This was an interesting portrayal. Roger Ashmore portayed his ancestor Gideon and knew a lot about him. Roger is a native of Oakland, Illinois and a genealogist. We had some interesting conversations about the Coles County area and the area of Wisconsin just above my home in Illinois where Matt Ashmore moved after he left Illinois. Roger was in costume and went back to being in 1847 as Gideon “Matt” Ashmore.

Myself and the other guests at the event took seats in folding chairs. Matt told us that he was born in 1810 in Tennessee. He was 37 years old. He moved to Illinois in 1828 with his family when he was 18 years old. He helped lay out Independence in 1835 when he was 25 years old. He taught the first school in Independence in 1845. He owned a tavern in the building known as the Columbian Building. I ate lunch in the Columbian Building. It was the same place that once housed Matt’s tavern.

He told us Anthony Bryant had been a slave. Anthony was about 70 years old. He had been a free man for about 14 years. He was a foreman on the Black Grove Plantation. He worked for General Robert Matson who also owned Anthony’s wife Jane and her children. Mary Corbin, Matson’s housekeeper, became angry about something and told Jane that she was going to tell Matson to sell Jane and the children. Matt and Hiram Rutherford took Jane and the children to the jail in Charleston, Illinois where it was thought they would be safe.

Matt was sued by Matson for $500 for each slave, Jane and her four children, which was a total of $2500. An arrest warrant was sworn out for Jane and the four children. Matt accused Matson of having an improper relationship with Mary Corbin his housekeeper. Matson had to post bond on the fornication charge.

Matt hired lawyer, O. B. Ficklin, to represent him. Hiram hired Charles Constable. There were two justices seated to hear the case. This was unusual. Abraham Lincoln represented Matson. The Bryants won their case and were free. Anthony, Jane, and the children were taken to a boat at Quincy, Illinois and went down the Mississippi River to New Orleans. There they sailed to Liberia.

Matt’s family did not like slavery and it was one of the reasons they left Tennessee. He had no problem helping the Bryant family. He knew he would be unpopular in the area because of it. It turned out just as he thought. He moved his family. He settled in an area of Wisconsin just west of present day Madison and found a town called Arena where his descendants still live today.

I went down the street to a building that house a museum exhibit about the area. I learned that there were 33 persons of color living in the area as free persons. Among them was Lucy Dupee. She was born in Virginia in 1790. She is believed to be a sister of Lewis James who was a slave in 1830 of Benjamin Lewis. Lucy married Edward Dupee. Lucy, Lewis James and his wife Nancy moved to Coles County, Illinois. Lucy’s daughter Malissa and her children moved with them. Malissa married William Armstead. All of them lived in an area called Brushy Fork. Lucy is believed to be buried in the Negro Cemetery in Douglas County, Illinois. It is believed that Anthony Bryant was the spiritual leader for Brushy Fork as he was known as a preacher.

I went down the street a few feet from the building that housed the museum to another building where I viewed a video about the area. This video was very informative and told about the many free blacks that lived in Brushy Fork and the area of Charleston and Oakland (formerly Independence), Illinois in the 1830s on. The video is titled, “Shadows of the Past” and ran 17 minutes. After viewing the video, I walked over to the Columbian Building for a meal.

The Columbian Building is the same place where Matt’s tavern was located and where Jane and her children were kept until it was safe to move them. As I sat eating an 1847 meal of corn, beans (lima beans or butterbeans), chicken cooked in with the corn and beans, a biscuit, a portion of carrots, corn, beans, cooked in a sweet tasting sauce with thin slices of ham, and lemonade, I thought of some of the things that I saw and heard during the event, so far. It was interesting that 1847 was the same year that the Seal of Liberia was made. It was also interesting that Matson has one of his workers and another man ready with a wagon to take Jane and the children after the trial. Did Matson actually think he was going to win the trial? Illinois was a free state and there was numerous abolitionists in the area including Hiram and Matt. Illinois was a leg of the underground railroad.

I finished my meal and went back to the General Store where I bought a book, Trials and Tribulations, Volume I, The Story of the 1847 Matson Slave Trial. The event was
sponsored by the Illinois Bicentennial Commission. Co-sponsored by: Independent Pioneer Village; Oakland Historical Foundation; Oakland Landmarks, Inc.; City of Oakland; and Oakland Chamber of Commerce. The program was made possible in part by a grant from the Ruth and Vaughn Jaenike Access to the Arts Outreach Program of the College of Arts and Humanities, Eastern Illinois University, Charleston, Illinois. I had been to Charleston numerous times over the past five years and had known very little about the many free blacks in the area who were there before, during, and after the Civil War. Many of them owned their own farms, owned barber shops, and owned restaurants in Independence, Charleston, Mattoon, and other places in the area.

I drove about 10-12 miles to Pioneer Village where I talked with and, mostly, listened to Abraham Lincoln. He was standing in front of the General Store. He asked me to step in out of the sun and we could talk. Mr. Lincoln said he was planning to leave for Washington, D. C. in about two weeks. A lawyer friend with whom he shared office space told him about the trial that was coming up. Robert Matson told him about the trial but did not ask him to represent him at the time. Hiram Rutherford came to him and wanted him to represent him at the trial but as he had already talked with Matson and felt that Matson would ask him to be his lawyer he told Hiram that he could not take the case. Letter he sent a letter to Hiram telling him that he would take the case bit Hiram did not hire him. He was later hired to represent Matson. It was felt that both sides were entitled to the best legal representation available. It was not about the money. Matson paid with an I O U and Lincoln gave the paper to his father before leaving for Washington, D. C. The note was never made good and the fee was never paid. There wasn’t a lot of time left before the play was to start and I still needed to talk with some of the other people. I wanted to, at least, talk with Anthony Bryant, Jane Bryant, and Mary Corbin.

The next person I talked with, or listened to, was Jane Bryant. She was about forty years old and was the wife of Anthony Bryant. Jane talked about she and her children having to stay in the jail for 58 days. She told about hearing from her brother Simeon Wilmot that Miss Corbin told him that she was going to tell Mr. Matson that he should sell Jane and her children down south. She was a slave but should be free. Her husband is a free man. They was calling her and her children fugitives.

I hurried over to the small building where Anthony Bryant was waiting to tell his story. It was building used as a school house. He shook my hand. He told me he was a free man. He was about 70 years old. He said his wife is a slave of Mr. Matson and the children take the condition of the mother so they is slaves too. Mr. Ashmore and Mr. Rutherford helped to get frredom for his wife and children. He could not be at the trial. He said looks to the Good Book for answers. He prays that everything will come out alright. He had been told about a land in Africa where he could take his family and live free. He then shifted into his character telling me about things after the trial. He said they took me and my family to the Mississippi River at Quincy. We took a boat down to New Orleans and went to Liberia. It was not what he hoped for. They are starving and want to go back to America. He spoke with a preacher there he told him he could not help. He doesn’t not know what to do. He is an old man.

We hurried and drove back to the Columbian Building for the trial. It was a dramatic play “Three Fifths of a Man”. It was written by former Eastern Illinois University President David Jorns. Much of the play consisted of conversations between the characters facilitated by three female interlocutors that were modeled after the three female fates that control people’s destinies in Greek mythology. It was a good dramatic presentation. It, at first, outlined the background of the trial, telling about each of the main characters. It then introduced each one. Readings from the actual court case files were done. Jane Bryant was brought out and spoke to in the manner of the time. It was rude and she did well holding her responses to such rude treatment. Lincoln was not the Lincoln that I’ve read about. He seemed poorly prepared for this trial. Jane and her children won their case thanks to the ruling of the court.

There were descendants of the actual people in the audience. I stood on the sidewalk in front of Columbian Building with them as they told me about their family. This was after they came up to me and told me that I looked like James Earl Jones. I told them that I come cheaper than James Earl Jones and would not cost as much if they needed me to act in one of their presentations. The man and his wife, a descendant of Dr. Rutherford, told me they lived about six miles from Oakland. They spoke about how wonderful it is to finally get this story out to people.

I didn't talk with Mary Corbin, Matson's housekeeper. She had been more than his housekeeper. They had a daughter in 1846 named Mildred even though it was said that "it was a rumor" that she and Matson were having an affair. Why did she act the way she did toward Jane and her children? Mary Corbin may have felt threatened because Jane Bryant was believed to be the mulatto daughter of either Matson's father or his brother. Jane's mother was a slave of Matson's father. I guess what I heard about Mary Corbin was enough for me. She was rude and was in her character of 1847. Image taling to 2009 me.

I didn't get to talk with Lucy Dupee, the free balck woman from Virginia. Her story, though separate, is a story we should all know about. There were a lot of free people of color living here in Illinois.

I walked around the small town for awhile looking at the old buildings and trying to imagine how it must have been for the people back in 1847. Especially, for the ones who had been slaves and made it to the area to live free. I thought of the ones who were secretly carried through the area for the area had many abolitionists who were part of the underground railroad. I felt a little sad. I know there is still a lot of research ahead for me. I may never find everyone.

Still, I continue to research slaves, plantations, and plantation owners in Illinois as I am doing in the old Natchez District. I had found the information on Robert Matson and his Black Grove Plantation while researching a Bryant on my family tree. My Bryant was born in Kentucky in 1835. It is mentioned in the piece about Anthony Bryant that he might have been a slave of a William Bryant family. This family has ties to Robert Matson’s family. Anthony could read and read the Bible. He was connected to the Methodist Church as a lay minister and believed to have been the one leading the prayer services for the free black people living at Brushy Fork, Illinois.

I wonder, as so many others asked during the weekend, what happened to Anthony and his family? Did they die in Liberia? Did they ever come back to America? Will I go away from my own family research to research Anthony and his family? Are we, somehow, connected?

Ed Adams


18 Dec 2002 :: 14 Nov 2008
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