Genealogy Trails logo

Illinois logo

Old Slavehouse
Gallatin County


          Slave House - Crenshaw manor

Hickory Hill, the old Slave House
( Crenshaw Manor)

Written by Deanna Nation-Heneghan, ©2005

Located near the intersection of Routes 1 and 3 in Gallatin County, 9 miles west of old Shawneetown

Hickory Hill plantation was owned by John Crenshaw around 1834.  Crenshaw also owned other homes in the area including Cypressville (Junction) and Equality during the same time.  His real estate totaled over 11,000 acres as well as 4000 acres in Tennessee.  He also controlled 30,000 acres as the last state lessee of the Saltworks.

The old slave house is one of the last known sites still standing throughout the U.S. that was used as a "stop" for kidnapping networks known today as the "Reverse Underground Railroad".  It's the only one left  and it also is believed to be specifically designed for that purpose.

Stories have been told that Crenshaw kidnapped free blacks as well as captured runaway slaves and housed them, on the 3rd floor in cells--the presence of 12 cells along a 50 ft. long hallway support this.  Iron rings, or staples, were once present and set in the floor for chains.  Most of the ironwork has been removed aroud the time of WWI, possibly for a scrap metal drive.
The attic was said to have been reached by a narrow stairway.

The Kidnapping of Maria Adams:
Maria worked for John Crenshaw as an indentured servant.   About 1842, he kidnapped her and her children, sold them to a father and son team of slave traders named Lewis and John G. Kuykendall, who then took Maria and her children to Texas where they were sold as slaves.
The Gallatin County Grand Jury indicted Crenshaw, but he was later aquitted because the State's attorney failed to support the fact that it was Crenshaw who did the kidnapping.  and since the Kuykendall's were no where to be found to collaberate the story.. Crenshaw was aquitted.
Maria's mother-in-law, gave birth to Charles Adams around 1794 and was already owned and brought to Illinois from Maryland around 1814.  On March 19, 1814, Dr. Conrad Will, a salt operator, indentured Charles for 20 yrs.  After only 4 yrs, he sold Charles' contract to Gov. Edwards.  It was during this time that Charles and Maria were married.

Edwards filed a statement in Randolph County Court at Kaskaskia pledging that he would let Maria go free after Charles' contract expired.  Edwards never did keep his word, and even though Charles had filed Edward's statement with the Gallatin County Circuit Clerk, it didn't prevent Crenshaw from keeping a claim on Maria.

While in service to Gov. Edwards, Maria had 2 children, Nelson and Ellen.
Maria and her children  were kidnapped by Crenshaw's men, either going to or coming from church.
Charles had filed for his freedom papers on April 29, 1834.
Sometime between 1842- 1846, it was discovered which plantation Maria and the children were at.
Charles showed up in a 1850 census for Gallatin County, living with a white family.


The following narrative is from a brochure from the 1940's, found in the papers of Minnie and Ernie Cooling, of Elizabethtown, who visited the house on July 4, 1948.

The original brochure was submitted to us by Carole Martin and transcribed by K. Torp.


Rich in early Illinois history and connected through legendary sources with the slave traffic of the state, Hickory Hill has become a mecca for those interested in the early history and development of Illinois. The mansion stands on its hilltop, nine miles west of old Shawneetown, overlooking the beautiful Saline river valley and miles of surrounding territory. Erected in 1838 and completed in 1842, for one hundred years it has braved winter's storm and summer's hot sun. It was an infant during the panic in Van Buren's administration, a fledgling during the days of the '49 gold rush, and well in its prime during the hectic days of the Civil war. It saw Lincoln's inauguration and assassination; it suffered and prospered with the periods of prosperity and depression that our country has experienced during most of its history. And on and on, one could recall numberless events and happenings important in the development of the state and nation that this old mansion has witnessed and perhaps played a part. But we must not stop too long to muse or speculate. Let us look first into the history of the countryside in which the building finds its setting and see the reason for the erection of this once beautiful mansion and its relation to the development of the community.

The village now called Equality has an inexhaustible supply of salt. Here are still visible the buffalo trails, wallows and licks that attracted literally thousands of deer, buffalo, and antelope. Simply by licking the mud banks along the Saline River those noble animals found an abundant supply of the necessary salt. Its tall grass and water supply made this valley a paradise for the animal kingdom.

The Indian, too, cherished this valley where a plentiful supply of food and salt could be secured. For centuries this valley slept, isolated in its wild natural splendor. It was the salt that brought the buffalo and it was the buffalo that brought the Indian. History tells us that it was the buffalo, too, that brought the white man. In 1702 Charles Juchercau de St. Denis, by authority of the king of France, established a fort and tannery nearby on the Ohio. He slaughtered 13,000 buffalo simply for their hides and tongues, but such wanton and greedy waste did not go unpunished. The workers at the tannery were massacred by the Indians, but the wholesale annihilation of the buffalo was so great that the herd never regained its former prominence.

At a very early date the national government reserved from sale several hundred acres of land surrounding the natural salt springs in this valley to assure an ample supply of wood used for boiling the water to make salt. Pipes used for conveying the water from the springs to the large boiling kettles were made of hollowed logs mortised to-gether. The salt made in this valley was sold at far distant points. From every part of the frontier settlers, traders, and farmers came. Many roads began there, one of which is the old Goshen road to Edwardsville. A village soon grew up and took the name of Equality from the middle word in the French Republic motto. "Liberty, Equality, Fraternity." One of the early government agents appointed to oversee the lessees of the salt springs, General Leonard White, credits Volney, the French historian who visited them in 1798, with naming the town.

* * * *
One of the men who grew wealthy with the operation of the government-owned salt works was John Hart Crenshaw, the owner and builder of the beautiful mansion of Hickory Hill. The last lease granted by the State of Illinois over these profitable wells was made to John Crenshaw on December 9, 1840. The local salt making industry offered great opportunities, and Crenshaw soon had resources sufficient to establish him as a dominant political and financial figure in Southern Illinois. The record shows he was married to Sinia Taylor on October 1, 1817. Five children, four daughters and one son, blessed this marriage.

Prosperity as well as children blessed the marriage of John and Sinla Crenshaw. The United States census of 1830 showed that he owned three of the nine furnaces used in reducing the salt water to crystals. The Crenshaw Mill on the North Fork of the Saline River was another of his valuable possessions. His land holdings have been estimated at 30,000 acres.

It was in 1838 that John Crenshaw began erection of the mansion always called by his family "Hickory Hill." It was such an undertaking that over four years were required for its completion. The foundation stones were dated 1838. Huge sills 12" x 12" and 50 feet long were hand hewn from single trees and hauled in by oxen teams. These huge sills were laid the entire length and breadth of the building, supporting sturdy 4" x 12" floor joists, and providing a foundation that has endured over one hundred years without sag or twist. Its solid underpinning and massive hand-pegged framing lumber has kept it one of the best-preserved of the early landmarks.

The architecture of the old house may be described as an adaptation of the Greek Parthenon. The first and second stories have colonnaded porches, while the third story forms a pediment above with a single large window at its top. The house is truly a symbol of pride of ownership, and craftsmanship of its builder, John Calvin. Even the laths were split by hand, and the nails hand made. Two twelve-by-fifty feet verandas are supported by twelve massive pillars, each twelve inches in diameter, cut from the heart of a pine tree. The house has an inner wall of brick covered with frame, a building custom of post-revolutionary days common in the East, but seldom found in Illinois. There are six large rooms on each of the first two floors with ceilings twelve feet high heavily plastered with a mortar made of sand and hair. A unique feature of the house which lends evidence of the view the owner had in mind when it was constructed, is a carriage drive into the hallway through large double doors on the north. This drive has since been boarded up and is now used as a dining room by the present owner. Evidence of its former existence, however, is quite clear.

But it is the third story that gives the clearest evidence of the mansion's role in the slave traffic and lends the greatest support to the time-worn legends about slaves being held prisoners here. It seems quite evident that the building's designer had the third story very much in mind, both as to arrangement and use when the foundation wns laid. Some observers even feel that this century-old mansion was built and its site selected to facilitate the use for which the third story was built.

From the former carriage drive a narrow flight of dark stairs leads to the third floor, which is a large hallway twelve feet wide and running fifty feet. It is flanked on either side by narrow door-ways leading into small rooms of various shapes and dimensions. There are seven on the east, live on the west. No windows light or ventilate these rooms from the outer air. Six contained double tiered bunks, some of which still remain.

To what use were these rooms and bunks in the third story put? Legend, structural design, and historical record all point to the same answer. They were used to house the slaves who worked the salt wells and kettles! Yes, even in spite of the famous Ordinance of 1787, which forbade slavery in the Northwest territory! Even in spite of the election of 1824 in which effort to secure constitutional amendments permitting slavery failed!

In a country where every man could hew out his own homestead and gain an independent living, the hiring of laborers was difficult. The government, recognizing this, permitted employers to lease slaves from their owners in slave territory and bring them to Illinois to work. Thus, John Crenshaw was allowed to lease large numbers of Negroes in Kentucky and bring them to Equality to work in his salt wells and furnaces. The quarters on the third floor provided housing from which escape was impossible. The wagons could be driven into the house, the Negroes shunted up the narrow stairs to their quarters and locked in, and then hauled out the next day to their work at the wells. Great care had to be exercised to prevent an escape, as this would mean reimbursement to the owner at the highest market price.

In the third story today lies mute evidence that severe punishment was quickly administered to the unruly. Two whipping posts to which the slaves were tied by their thumbs and strung up still remain. It is little wonder that there are many superstitious legends of wailing and whimpering sounds that can be heard at certain times coming from the upper regions of the old mansion, and that the dark quarters contain many blood-stained rooms.

Quite naturally the house has not survived these one hundred years without having connected to it numberless superstitious legends and ghost stories. Many of the local residents will recount by the hour hair-raising stories of queer happenings in the old slave house.

One of the most frequently told stories deals with Crenshaw's attempt to breed slaves and sell the young babies as soon as they could be weaned from their mothers' breasts. For this purpose it is said he imported a male or buck Negro from the South, by the name of Bob, whose record in begetting strong and healthy offspring was remarkable. In the slave quarters was his special room into which captive female slaves were forced. Whatever the truth of these stories, there exists today the darkened room in the slave quarters that is still pointed out and referred to as "the breeding room" or "Uncle Bob's room."

Crenshaw's experience in dealing with slaves through legal channels offered strong temptation to deal further with them through means outside the law. The Black Laws provided that a slave could not remain in the state without a certificate to prove his freedom. Many Negroes, freed by their southern masters, came to Illinois with their cer-tificates seeking to establish themselves as freed men in a free state. It became common practice to make raids upon these poor unfortunates, holding them in captivity and selling them back across the river into slavery. The slave thieves kept the Negroes prisoners in some hide-out until their searchers gave up looking for them, and then back they went into slavery. After a night's ride on some dark night to the river, the kidnappers were practically certain of success after they had slipped their captives back into slave territory.

Hickory Hill, isolated on its eminence in the Saline River valley, provided an ideal hideout for the victims of the slave thieves. It stood near the junction of two roads leading into slave territory, and only a night's ride from the Ohio river bank. Dark tales were told about the third floor quarters of the Crenshaw house being used for the confinement of these helpless kidnapped blacks. Presumably they were secretly brought by wagons into the carriage drive, the large double door closed to keep prying eyes from discovering their cargo, and quickly hurried up into the third story quarters to remain until time was ready for their disposal.

It seems quite likely that John Crenshaw yielded to the temptation to deal in this illegal slave trade. Whatever the truth of these rumors and whisperings, there is record of one occasion when leading citizen John Crenshaw was indicted for kidnapping by a Gallatin County grand jury. He was accused of selling to a slave trader named Kuykendall, a family of Negroes on whose services Crenshaw had claims under an indenture. The Negroes had then been shipped into slave territory, presumably to be sold into perpetual slavery. The case was tried at the spring term of court in 1842. Mr. Crenshaw was acquitted, which might have been due to his innocence or to his financial and political eminence.

As an aftermath to the trial, there was considerable excitement. A group of hot heads, organized as Regulators, attempted to force all free Negroes to leave the county. The Illinois Republican, a Shawneetown newspaper, demanded that all Negroes be out within one week. Crenshaw's mill on North Fork, together with valuable papers, was set on fire and burned, presumably by the Negroes in revenge for their abducted friends. Two organized bands of whites, the Regulators, bent on persecuting the blacks, and the Vigilantes, under Michael K. Lawler, who tried to protect the Negro homes from outrages, were in open conflict before the excitement of 1842 subsided.

* * * *
John Hart Crenshaw died December 4, 1871, and his wife ten years later. A faded monument in Hickory Hill cemetery marks their graves. Mr. Crenshaw's position as a man of wealth and operator of the salt works enabled him to exert great political influence throughout the southeastern part of the state. He and his family were strong Methodists. When in 1831 John Fox was appointed as their district's circuit rider (itinerant preacher), he reported that he found John Crenshaw one of the main supporters of Methodism within his Charge.

With the approach of the Civil War. and the growth of factions within his party. Mr. Crenshaw became identified as a Douglas Democrat. It was during this period that Lincoln is said to have visited at Hickory Hill. The southeast bedroom on the first floor is pointed out as once having housed overnight the great emancipator. Just what prompted his visit to the Crenshaw mansion will probably never be discovered. Perhaps a political maneuver in an attempt to win Crenshaw's support. One might easily wonder and speculate if Lincoln some-how gained an insight into the third story quarters, of the Crenshaw mansion during his visit there.

What an area of fancy such speculation brings! If such were the case, then Hickory Hill's part in strengthening Lincoln's convictions against the evils of slavery must have been great. The importance of the old mansion is thus seen extending beyond local and state into national prominence in the country's development.

The old house stands today, square and erect in spite of its aging years, the real monument left by John and Sinia Crenshaw. The mansion stands on its hilltop overlooking the beautiful valley now threaded by paved highways. In the lawn east of the house one can see the spreading branches of a beautiful old beechnut tree which was brought as a tiny cutting from Washington's grave at Mt. Vernon and set out when the house was built. It still bears a rich harvest of nuts each fall.

Thousands of visitors come to see the old house each year. They view the massive hand-pegged framing lumber, home-made lath and nails, with wonder. They stand in awed silence in the now still quarters of the third story. The owners' hospitality was taxed to the limit, and finally found it necessary to assess each visitor a small fee to compensate for their loss of privacy and wear on their rugs and floors. A register kept on the table in the mansion's great hallway records visitors from every state in the Union and Canada.

Visitors are welcome at Hickory Hill
(Note: In 2009, it was NOT open to tourists).
One who passes through its great rooms and visits the slave quarters cannot fail to be moved by the romance of its by-gone existence. Such a historic shrine located in the heart of a country so rich in early Illinois history should be preserved for posterity. Hickory Hill today needs a helping hand from the public-spirited citizens of Illinois. Its preservation is too important to be left in the hands of private ownership. Its value increases with its age. and as its lure year by year draws through its doors an ever-increasing number of visitors. The old mansion is now for sale. What a loss it would be if it should fall into hands which ultimately led to its destruction! Hickory Hill is one of Illinois' great historic shrines. Its purchase by the state and restoration to Its former grandeur would constitute an expenditure small in capital outlay. Such a step, however, would pay enormous dividends in enjoyment to its visitors for generations to come!


Copyright © Genealogy Trails