SEPTEMBER 28, 1814
200 years ago today in Washington County, Indiana Territory, a 22 year old man named Harry Mingo was living as a slave on the farm of Henry Wyman in the Dutch Creek neighborhood. Although slavery was prohibited in the Northwest Territory by Article VI of the Northwest Ordinance adopted by the Continental Congress in 1787, there had been constant lobbying for laws allowing slavery in the Indiana Territory since it was formed in 1800. Article VI read as follows:
“There shall be neither Slavery nor involuntary Servitude in the, said territory otherwise than in the punishment of crime, whereof the Party shall have been duly convicted: Provided always that any Person escaping into the same, from whom labor or service is lawfully claimed in any one of the original States, such a fugitive may be lawfully reclaimed and conveyed to the person claiming his or her labor or service as aforesaid.”
On August 26, 1805, the territorial assembly adopted a law by which the circumvention of Article VI was made possible. It was made legal to bring into the territory "negroes or mulattoes of and above the age of fifteen years, and owing service and labors as slaves." This law was soon given further support when the second session of the territorial legislature adopted an act on December 3, 1806, providing for the punishment of slaves for leaving their homes or for "riots, routs, unlawful assemblies, trespasses and seditious speeches." Punishment for the harboring of runaways slaves was also provided. In 1808, another act was passed by which punishment was provided for anyone who entertained or helped in any way a slave without the written permission from the master.
With this legal framework in place, Henry Wyman appeared before the Clerk of the Clark Circuit Court in Jeffersonville on March 8, 1808 with Harry to register his compliance with the 1805 law. At this time, the Dutch Creek area was part of Clark County, Indiana Territory as Harrison County was not formed until December 1, 1808 and Washington County was not formed until January 17, 1814.
The Clark County Clerk at this time was Samuel Gwathmey who had previously served in the Territorial Assembly and later became the Registrar of the United States Land Office. Wyman asserted to Gwathmey that Harry was a “Negro Boy about 16 years old held by him as a slave in Kentucky”. Wyman further affirmed that Harry was to serve him as a slave until March 9, 1868 under the 1805 Indiana Territorial law. This meant that the law appeared to recognize that Harry Mingo as a minor child could make an agreement that he would be under a contract of indenture until he was 76 years of age.
When Harry Mingo reached the age of 21, he sought out legal advice about the legality of his servitude. Among other ensuing events to his contract of indenture, was an act of the Indiana Territorial legislature which repealed the law of 1805. On July 15, 1815, Mingo appeared before the Judges of the Washington Circuit Court and file for a Writ of Habeas Corpus against Henry Wyman. Wyman was ordered to appear in court on the next day and with the assistance of a lawyer moved to dismiss the writ. The court for reasons unstated discharged the writ and assessed court costs to Mingo. Mingo returned a few days later and asked that the court appoint legal counsel to further assist him as he was an indigent. Judges Coleman and Kitchell granted the request and appointed William Hendricks and Alexander Meek to be his attorneys. William Hendricks was soon to become the first Representative of the State of Indiana in the U. S. Congress. Hendricks and Meek then filed for another writ. Wyman who was represented by Adam Dunn and John M. Thompson immediately filed a bill of exceptions. Henry Wyman’s attorneys argued among other things that Mingo was not entitled to have court appointed lawyers as he was a “stout athletic man of about the age of 21 or 22 years of age”. The judges denied the bill of exceptions and allowed the writ proceedings to continue. Therefore, the court decided to allow the action which was contesting the validity of Harry Mingo’s servitude to continue.
Mingo’s attorneys then filed a new civil proceeding against Wyman seeking damages for trespass, assault and battery and false imprisonment. Wyman was immediately served and appeared before the Washington Circuit Court on July 22, 1815. Wyman must have been dissatisfied with his previous lawyers as he appeared in court this time with Henry Hurst and Davis Floyd as his attorneys. Wyman’s attorneys filed a motion to dismiss the new complaint because of the contract entered into by the parties on March 8, 1808 under the territorial law of 1805. Mingo’s attorneys made a demurrer which meant that they were taking the position that the law of 1805 and/or the contract of 1808 were not valid. Mingo’s attorneys then moved for a change of venue to Harrison County which was granted by Judges Coleman and Kitchell. As Corydon was the territorial capital, the court in Harrison County was more convenient for the attorneys and would place in the case in a community where many citizens had challenged William Henry Harrison’s attempts to legalize slavery in Indiana in previous years. I presently do not know who the case preceded in Harrison County.
However, the issues between Mingo and Wyman were not completely resolved as Mingo filed a new suit in Washington County during the April 1816 term of court alleging trespass and assault and battery as had the suit in 1815. This time Wyman made no defense and the court issued a writ of inquiry which was a procedure to impanel a jury to assess damages when a judgment was taken by default. Court records contain no further entries in regard to this matter. When Indiana became a state in late 1816, Article XI, Section 7 of the Indiana Constitution made slavery and involuntary servitude illegal. The Indiana Supreme Court ruled in 1820 that a slave purchased before the Northwest Ordinance of 1787, was freed by the provisions of the new state constitution. [Lasselle v. State]. The judge making this decision was Isaac Newton Blackford who had served as the first Clerk and Recorder of Washington County, Indiana Territory. In 1821, the Indiana Supreme Court ruled that a personal services contract for servitude similar to the one of Harry Mingo was contrary to the new state constitution. [In Re Clark]. The judge making this decision was Jesse Lynch Holman who had served as a judge for the judicial circuit including Washington County, Indiana Territory from late 1814 until 1816.
In the 1820 census, the household of Henry Wyman listed no black residents and Harry Mingo was not listed as the head of any household in Washington County. One can hope that Harry Mingo achieved the freedom he so courageously pursued through the early court system of the Indiana Territory. As for Henry Wyman, the former Hessian soldier who became a large landowner along Dutch Creek and held Harry Mingo in a state of involuntary servitude, he later became indirectly connected to the Underground Railroad in Washington County, Indiana. That story will be the subject of a future post.
GRAVE OF HENRY WYMAN
ATTORNEY FOR HARRY MINGO
ISAAC NEWTON BLACKFORD
FIRST JUSTICE OF INDIANA SUPREME COURT