Once Upon a Time

'Freedom papers' tell stories of people of color in 1800s

This is the cover of the 1819 act of the Illinois General Assembly requiring that free and freed persons of color register their "freedom papers" in the Illinois county in which they intended to live. | Image from Illinois State Archives, "One Hundred Best Documents in the Illinois State Archives."
Posted: Feb. 16, 2020 12:01 am Updated: Feb. 16, 2020 12:25 am

In 1819, less than a year after Illinois became a state, the first Illinois General Assembly passed "An Act Respecting Free Negroes, Mulattos, Servants, and Slaves."

The act, in 25 sections, outlined how free persons of color should be registered and treated, their rights and responsibilities, and the fines and punishments to be administered for violations of the act.

Section 1 of the act read in part, "no free black or mulatto person shall be permitted to settle or reside in this state unless he or she shall first produce a certificate signed by some judge or clerk of some court of the United States of his or her actual freedom," and that "it shall be the duty of such clerk to make an entry thereof ... after which it shall be lawful for such free negro or mulatto to reside in the state."

In Adams County, a number of these proofs of freedom, entered by circuit court clerks Henry H. Snow and C.W. Woods, survive in "Book B" of the circuit court clerk's office.

John Larkin Williams appeared before the clerk of the Adams County Circuit Court on April 25, 1853, with proof of his free status in a declaration offered by John Tillson Sr. Tillson, a well-known citizen of Quincy, was once one of the richest men in Illinois, having made a fortune speculating on land sales in the bounty lands between the Illinois and Mississippi rivers.

In his statement before clerk C.M. Wood, Tillson certified that he had known John Larkin Williams since Williams was 11 or 12 years old, when he had been "bound out" to Tillson from the House of Industry in Boston. Since that time, he said, Williams had lived with him in Illinois as a free person. The House of Industry, founded in Boston in 1822, was a place housing "rogues, vagabonds, common beggars ..," that functioned as a workhouse for the poor.

Tillson ended his statement by noting that Williams, who was by then about 36 years old, "being now desirous of immigration to California or to some place South or West…" was then and had always been a "free coloured man." By this action on April 28, 1853, Tillson was providing Williams with concrete documentation of his freedom -- his "freedom papers." Less than two weeks after giving this testimony, John Tillson Sr. died suddenly while on a business trip to Peoria.

On June 13, 1836 Anthony Touzalin, a prominent merchant and farmer from Columbus, appeared before circuit clerk H.H. Snow to state that he had known William Foote from infancy and that "William is free and born of free parents." He stated further that he knew William's parents to be "of the Island of Jamacca," and that William had come to the United States with him as a servant, that he had traveled to Illinois in October 1835, and "has resided with him ever since, and that said William is a good jobber and trusted character."

Foote's parents, born slaves, had become free British subjects through an act of the British government, and their son had thus also become a free person.

William Foote stayed in Quincy for the rest of his life, operating a barber shop on the west side of the square, living above his shop. He advertised his services, and the cigars he stocked for his patrons, in the local papers. When he died in August 1865, The Quincy Whig noted "An Old Resident Gone," and that his funeral would take place at the A.M.E. church on the anniversary of his emancipation.

Berryman Barnett appeared before clerk Henry H. Snow on Sept. 29, 1833, to present his "deed of emancipation." In it John Barnett of Bowling Green, Mo., stated that "for good and lawful causes ... and for and in consideration of the sum of one hundred dollars lawful money, of the United States," he was granting to Berryman "his personal freedom from me, my heirs and assigns forever. ..." His testimony also granted to his former slave "all such sum or sums of money, goods, chattels, lands and tenement as he the said Berryman shall hereafter acquire, to have and to hold, use, occupy, and enjoy the same. ..."

Berryman Barnett would become a resident of Quincy and an active participant in the local Underground Railroad. It was he who guided the escaping slave "Charlie" to the home of Dr. Richard Eells in 1842.

William Henry Brown appeared before Henry H. Snow on April 15, 1837, to register his freedom papers, which contained a most touching declaration by his father, William Brown of Washington, D.C. "To wit To whom it may concern be it known that I William Brown ... for and in consideration of the natural love and affection which I have and bear to my son William Henry Brown and for diverse other good causes and considerations, and me thereunto moving, and also in consideration of the sum of one dollar to me in hand paid by the said William Brown have released from slavery, liberated, manumitted and set free ... my son William Henry Brown about the age of twenty years and able to work and gain for himself a good and sufficient livelihood and maintenance."

Now, nearly two hundred years after they were entered, these records in the Adams County Courthouse bring to our attention men, women and children who passed through Quincy, and a small portion of their life history. They also provide a rare glimpse into some of the challenges faced by these people of color who, while technically "free," continued to live in a nation that would not afford them the full privileges and freedoms of citizenship until many decades after a war had been fought between North and South.


Lynn M. Snyder is a native of Adams County, a semi-retired archaeologist and museum researcher, a former librarian and present library volunteer at the Illinois Veterans Home, and a Historical Society of Quincy and Adams County board member and volunteer.



Adams County, Ill. Circuit Court Records, Vol. B. 1826-1844.


Ankrom, Reg. "Failure of Tillson's combine bankrupts Second State Bank." Once Upon a Time, Quincy Herald Whig, July 27, 2014.


Bangert, Heather. "Quincy's location key to flourishing anti-slavery network." Once Upon a Time, The Herald Whig, Feb. 2, 2020.


Blackwood, James. 1972. "Quincyans and the Crusade Against Slavery: The First Two Decade, 1824-1844." Quincy, Ill.: Blackwood Enterprises.


City of Boston, Archives and Records Management Division, "Guide to the House of Industry Records."


Constitution of the State of Illinois, 1918, Section VI. First General Assembly, State of Illinois, AD 1819. No. 722 Box 21. "An Act Respecting Free Negroes, Mulattos, Servants, and Slaves."


"An Old Resident Gone." Quincy Whig, Aug. 5, 1865, p. 3.


Quincy City Directory, 1857, p. 79.


"William Foote, the Barber." Quincy Whig, Sept. 8, 1847, p. 3.


Freedom exhibit

The important roles of free people of color in the local Underground Railroad are explored in the current exhibits at the History Museum on the Square, 332 Maine St. The exhibit is expanded during February by a traveling Illinois Freedom Exhibit that will be at the museum until March 27. The exhibit is free and open to the public. Further information can be found at hsqac.org. or by calling 222-1835.