© 2023 WGLT
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
Available On Air Stations

The St. Louis Freedom Suits Memorial features a Tazewell County family. This is their story

Washington University in St. Louis
The second page of the freedom suit filed in St. Louis by Milly Shipman, Harry Dick, David Shipman, and William, who lived with the family. Each of them signed their own names to the petition.

When a free Black family from rural Tazewell County was kidnapped in 1827 by traffickers who wanted to sell them into slavery to recover an old debt, their neighbors acted quickly.

They rounded up a posse and headed down to St. Louis to save them from that fate by force if necessary, but it wasn't quite that easy.

Ultimately, the family filed their own freedom suit. The resulting court battle took years.

It's taken years of painstaking research by local historians to reveal the full tale.

The story begins with a man named David Shipman. The veteran of the American Revolution settled in Kentucky in the years following the war.

By the 1820s, Shipman was deeply indebted to numerous people. When two of the people he held as slaves were seized and sold to pay off some of those debts, Shipman fled across the Ohio River into Indiana, a free state. He issued legal documents of manumission freeing his remaining slaves.

Shipman then settled down in rural Tazewell County, near Tremont. He was joined on the new homestead by a family he'd just freed. The family of freedman Moses Shipman worked at David Shipman's mill for wages.

Jared Olar is a local history specialist with the Pekin Public Library.

"He doesn't want them to be seized to pay his debts," he said. "Any debts that he owes will be paid by paying out of his pocket, not by selling people."

In various legal documents, David Shipman says he wanted Moses Shipman, his wife Milly, and their children to be free.

Susan Rynerson of the Tazewell County Genealogical and Historical Society says the evidence indicates he felt quite strongly about that.

Tim Shelley
A scan of an original document from David Shipman at the Tazewell County Genealogical and Historical Society in Pekin.

"He absolutely did not want these people to be sold for his debt," she said. "There is a quote from him that says he will take them to hell before he lets that happen."

Among the people to whom David Shipman owed money was his own nephew, Stephen Smith.

Smith follows his uncle to Illinois and files a lawsuit to take Moses' family as repayment of the debt owed to him by David Shipman. In response, Shipman pools together $2500 from his abolitionist-leaning neighbors to file for a replevin. That works out to about 60 thousand dollars today, when adjusted for inflation.

The replevin allows Moses, Milly, and their children to remain free while a countersuit filed by Shipman moves through the frontier court system.

But in 1827, Smith decides to take matters into his own hands.

"Smith shows up with some help, and kidnaps Moses and Milly and four others in the middle of the night, and takes off to St. Louis," Rynerson said.

Moses, Milly, and their three young children are abducted, along with two other Black children who lived with Shipman.

Unlike Illinois, Missouri was a slave state. Smith has dreams of buying land out west, and he needs money to do it.

"In Missouri, he's going to try to sell them. And then they would probably be sold off into the Deep South and never seen again," Olar said.

Smith and his gang head down the Mackinaw River on a skiff, ultimately bound for St. Louis. As the story goes, Moses Shipman is able to gnaw through the ropes binding him and run back through the dark night to David Shipman's settlement on foot.

The neighbors were quickly alerted. A posse including early Tazewell County settlers like Johnson Sommers, William Woodrow, and Absalom Dillon are among those who saddled up their horses and immediately headed out towards St. Louis.

The group caught up with the skiff after it has already docked at St. Louis, but before anyone gets off the boat. Woodrow went to report the kidnapping to the local sheriff, while Sommers and Dillon actually boarded the boat. One account claims Sommers jumped from his horse, picked up a stone, and threatened to crush the first man who attempted to disembark.

But a pregnant Milly Shipman, her young children, and others kidnapped aren't able to return home to Moses and Tazewell County right away. Olar says the posse files a lawsuit in St. Louis to prevent Stephen Smith from moving the kidnapped family to another jurisdiction.

That allows Milly time to file a freedom suit. The case took three years to make its way through the Missouri court system, with Milly giving birth in jail while the proceedings continue. Lower courts found in favor of Smith claiming the family as payment for his uncle's debt. Those decisions are appealed.

"They finally get their freedom after it goes to the Missouri Supreme Court, where they in fact had a rule," Olar said. "The legal rule in those days was once free, always free. They didn't want people kidnapping free people and selling them into slavery in Missouri."

That precedent of "once free, always free" would stand in Missouri until the infamous Dred Scott case. The court says while David Shipman still owes his nephew money, the funds can't be raised by selling off a free Black family into slavery.

Thursdaymidnight / Wikipedia / CC BY-SA 4.0
A photo of the St. Louis Freedom Suits memorial taken at its June 2022 unveiling.

Today, the names of Tazewell County's Milly, Harry Dick, William, and David Shipman are engraved upon the Freedom Suits Memorial in St. Louis. That memorial was created by Preston Jackson, a Peoria-based artist.

Milly and Moses Shipman continued living with David Shipman in Tazewell County until his death in 1845. Probate records show Moses cared for David and his wife for the several years leading up to their deaths. He even purchased David's coffin and made his funeral arrangements for him.

It's ultimately unknown what happens to Moses and Milly, but Susan Rynerson and Jared Olar believe Thomas Shipman of Pekin, a sharpshooter who served with a Black infantry during the American Civil War, was their son, based on a preponderancy of the evidence. The hero was killed in action in Virginia about a week before the war ended.

Susan Rynerson and Jared Olar said the vaudeville performer Walter Hilliard of Peoria was the son of Thomas Shipman's wife, through her second husband.

Walter Hilliard enjoyed a decades-long career touring internationally with various vaudeville companies. One of his last performances was a 1939 Broadway production where he shared the stage with a 21-year-old Lena Horne before her big breakthrough. Hilliard died in 1949 and was buried in New Jersey.

Olar says he's not sure if Hilliard, or his sister Ella, have any living descendants, but if they do, he and Susan Rynerson have some stories to share.

"I would love if the story continues, and whoever the living descendants may be, if they don't know that they are descended from Walter and Ella, they might love to find out who their ancestors are," he said. "Because it's a great story, and it's a wonderful story to have in your family history."

We depend on your support to keep telling stories like this one. You – together with donors across the NPR Network – create a more informed public. Fact by fact, story by story. Please take a moment to donate now and fund the local news our community needs. Your support truly makes a difference.

Tim is the News Director at WCBU Peoria Public Radio.