Southern Illinois University Research Finds That “Old Slave House” Is Probably a Misnomer

CrenshawHouse_inlineMark Wagner, the director of the Center for Archaeological Investigations at Southern Illinois University Carbondale, has completed a study of his research at the Hickory Hill State Historic Site in Gallatin County. The site includes parts of the 10,000 acre estate once owned by John Crenshaw. The main house of the estate still stands and is known locally as the “Old Slave House.” Crenshaw was said to have captured free Blacks in Illinois and shipped them South to be sold into slavery. He was indicted four times but never convicted of the charges brought against him.

Local legend says a carriageway at the back of the Crenshaw House was used to bring captured African Americans into the home. These kidnapped African Americans were said to be housed on the third floor while their transportation South was arranged. The description of the house on the website of the National Park Service says that the structure was used in this manner in a Reverse Underground Railroad.

But research by Dr. Wagner and his team of archaeologists found evidence that contradicts local legend. The research discovered that a back porch existed on the house. Thus, it seems evident that carriages pulled up to the back porch of the house which was in plain view. So Dr. Wagner believes that kidnapped African Americans would not have been transported into the house where they could easily be seen.

The third floor of the house is divided into very small rooms that local legend says the kidnapped Black people were placed before being shipped to the South. But Dr. Wagner found that the third floor had been constructed in that manner when the house was originally built. And inscriptions found on the walls written in the mid-1800s do not appear to have been written by people held against their will.

Thus, while Crenshaw may have been involved in the slave trade, Dr. Wagner believes that “Old Slave House” probably was not used to harbor those who may have been kidnapped.


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