Colonial Jesuits relied on the labor of indigenous and African enslaved people in the Great Lakes region and in what are now New Orleans, Louisiana, and Kaskaskia, Illinois. French Jesuits founded Kaskaskia as a mission in 1703 along the Kaskaskia River, a tributary of the Mississippi River located in central and southern Illinois, in order to convert the Illini tribe to Catholicism. Jesuits constructed the Church of the Immaculate Conception of Notre Dame in Kaskaskia in 1714 to serve the growing number of French settlers. As French fur traders and other colonists began to populate the area, Kaskaskia grew into a village and was a major hub of political and social activity in Illinois through the first decades of the 19th century.
Slaveholders in colonial Illinois owned enslaved people of both indigenous and African heritage. Enslaved Native Americans often labored alongside African-descended slaves in Illinois, as Native leaders had exchanged enslaved captives in order to organize power and build alliances with other indigenous nations long before French settlers arrived. Jesuits in Kaskaskia obtained Native American enslaved laborers through trade or received them as gifts, often from Native people with whom they collaborated as a sign of goodwill. For instance, in 1670, an Odawa man gifted to Jesuit Jacques Marquette an enslaved man who had been captured by the Illini and traded to the Odawa.
Jesuits in Kaskaskia were also involved in the African slave trade. French Jesuits had become one of the largest slaveowners in the Caribbean sugar island of Martinique and were influential in the development and promulgation of the Code Noir, a French law. By the mid-1720s, the Code Noir, or ‘Black Code,’ dictated the lives of free and enslaved people of African descent and enforced practice of the Catholic faith in French colonies, including in the Illinois Country.
Beginning in 1719, Jesuits in New Orleans, and soon after in Kaskaskia, could obtain enslaved people from the West coast of Africa, who were conveyed up the Mississippi River to Louisiana and Illinois. By the 1720s, slavery was central to Illinois’ economy. Historians believe the Jesuits owned between 16 and 18 African and indigenous enslaved people on their Kaskaskia plantation in 1720. From then until their suppression in 1763, French colonial Jesuits in Kaskaskia were the largest slaveholders in Illinois Country.
As the Kaskaskia Jesuits’ use of enslaved labor grew, they increasingly relied upon enslaved Africans and their descendants. In 1752, enslaved Black people comprised more than 40 percent of Kaskaskia’s total population. French colonial census records reveal that Kaskaskia had the largest number of Black enslaved people in Illinois, both in number and in proportion to the total population. Generally, there was a strong correlation between the amount of land and real estate a colonist owned and the number of enslaved they owned.
Enslaved Native Americans and Africans not only labored and lived alongside one another, but they intermarried, formed families, and had their children baptized in the Catholic Church. Eventually, an average of around 35 enslaved people labored for the Kaskaskia Jesuits at any given time. Most of these enslaved people were African, with a small minority of Native Americans and, eventually, some bondspeople of both indigenous and African descent.
In the Kaskaskia Manuscripts, and in the records of the Church of the Immaculate Conception of Notre Dame in Kaskaskia, one can find accounts of the Jesuits baptizing and marrying the enslaved of local owners, as well as those they owned themselves. In a 1724 Immaculate Conception Church record, Francoise, a woman listed as “of the nation of Chetimacka, slave of the Jesuits” married Antoine, a newly liberated man of African descent.
Indigenous people made up a small minority of the enslaved population in Kaskaskia, and there were important differences between the experiences of enslaved Africans and enslaved Native Americans. Enslaved indigenous people were typically women who were enslaved through raids or during warfare, while enslaved Africans were mostly male.
Historian Eric Hinderaker suggests there was a division of labor between indigenous and African bondspeople. Indigenous people more likely performed domestic labor and worked in the fur trade, on tasks such as “preparing, bundling, and packing pelts.” African enslaved people worked largely in agriculture felling timber, milling grain, and preparing soil for planting as field hands, though some also became artisans. Many of the enslaved on the Jesuits’ plantation likely grew crops and ran the plantation’s mill and brewery.
Jesuits in Kaskaskia also relied on the labor of French engagés, comparable to English indentured servants. The engagé was an immigrant to New France who worked for a period of time for an employer, usually one in the fur trade, within the French colony. After they finished their service, the engagé could return to France or stay within the colony. In 1731, the Jesuits utilized the labor of engagé Pierre Glinel for two years. As payment, the Jesuits supplied seed, the labor of their enslaved people for harvesting, and wood to build a house and posts. After his two years of employment were complete, the Jesuits agreed to give Glinel an enslaved man under 30 years of age.
In 1763, due to political pressures in Europe, Louis XV, King of France, expelled the Jesuits throughout his domain, thus beginning the suppression of the Society of Jesus in France. The Jesuits were banished from Illinois Country and the rest of New France, forced to disband and auction off their property. They auctioned the buildings on their plantation, including the enslaved cabins and parcels of their land.
At the time of their suppression, Hinderaker states that the Kaskaskia Jesuits owned 68 enslaved people, who were described as “for the most part workmen, blacksmiths, carpenters, joiners, brewers, masons, etc.”
According to the Woodstock Letters, on November 24, 1763, in response to the royal decree of their expulsion, the Jesuits forced about 48 of their bondspeople, described as “old men, women, and children,” from their Kaskaskia plantation on a treacherous journey by flatboat down the Mississippi to New Orleans.
In addition to feeling bewildered and angry about being separated from the familiar locale where they had built community, the enslaved also suffered from cold and shortage of food during the dangerous journey. At night, they climbed steep, muddy banks, trying not to slip and drown in the Mississippi, to raise tents on dry land for themselves and their Jesuit masters to sleep, and to search for firewood to cook and keep warm. When the group of enslaved people finally arrived in New Orleans, they were sold at auction under the direction of the French Crown.
Some Jesuits survived as secular clergymen on six Maryland plantations—where they continued their use of enslaved labor—until the Jesuits were restored globally in 1814. Not until 1823 would the presence of Jesuit slaveholding return to the Mississippi and Ohio valleys, when the Jesuits forced six enslaved people with them from Maryland, once again by flatboat, down the Ohio river to aid in establishing their new Missouri mission to the West. As their missionary presence expanded, so too did their slaveholding expand across the central and southern United States, in places like Missouri, Kentucky and Louisiana.
This research was compiled by Kelly L. Schmidt, Ayan Ali, and Jeff Harrison, SJ. Recommended citation: Kelly L. Schmidt, Ayan Ali, and Jeff Harrison, “Jesuit Slaveholding in Colonial Era Kaskaskia,” Slavery, History, Memory, and Reconciliation Project, 2020.
Updated: March 2020