One hundred and sixty one years ago–on August 11, 1850–Robert Hill died at the age of seventy. He was buried in the cemetery on a corner of his property, the one he had donated to the local Quaker meeting in Richmond, Indiana.
The notice in the newspaper read simply:
DIED–on Sunday evening last, at the residence of Benjamin Strattan near this place, after an illness of several months duration, ROBERT HILL, extensively known as one of the earliest settlers of this country. He was at one time a member of the State legislature, and filled several other stations of public importance, and was in all faithful to the trust confided to him.
But the reality of the man’s life was more complex.
Robert Hill was involved in politics from the very beginning. Like many Quakers, he left North Carolina in the early 1800s to get away from slave-holding culture. He and many of his brothers, cousins and friends made their way west, along with others from the Quaker fold, to find a land where they could live free of slavery.
The Northwest Ordinance of 1787 had established the Northwest Territory as a slavery-free zone, but as people came from different areas of the country to settle the land the debate over slavery continued. In 1805 a law was passed in the Indiana Territory–the western portion of the Northwest Territory, established in 1800–to allow masters to bring slaves into the territory as “indentured servants.”
On the 3rd of February, 1809, Congress separated the Illinois Territory from the Indiana Territory. This divided many of the pro-slavery southerners who had settled in the western portion of the Indiana Territory from the anti-slavery Quakers who lived in the eastern part. But William Henry Harrison, a Virginian by birth and an advocate of slavery, continued as Territorial Governor of the Indiana Territory.
Robert Hill had purchased his land and established his farm in the eastern portion of the Indiana Territory in 1806. On the 4th of April, 1809, Governor Harrison announced that an election would be held on May 22, 1809 to choose a delegate to Congress and several territorial legislators.
Thomas Randolph, a native of Virginia and brother-in-law of Thomas Jefferson, put himself forward as the pro-slavery candidate for Congress. Jonathan Jennings, a native of Pennsylvania, ran as the anti-slavery candidate. A later historian reported that efforts were made at the time to repeal the article of the Northwest Ordinance that prohibited slavery and “excitement ran high, and after several years’ agitation this question was made the test in the election of a delegate to Congress on May 22, 1809.”
The western counties of Indiana voted predominantly for Randolph and slavery, but the eastern counties heavily supported Jennings. Robert Hill voted at the home of his distant relative, Jeremiah Cox. Hill cast his vote for Jennings and against slavery.
Jennings won by a mere 26 votes (out of around 900 total). Randolph contested the legitimacy of the election, but in the end Congress seated Jennings as the Indiana Territory’s Congressman. Jennings and his political allies in the Indiana Territorial Legislature secured Indiana’s status as a free territory.
After Indiana became a state in 1816, Robert Hill himself was elected as a member of the state legislature in 1817, 1819, 1822 and 1823.
The early 1800s were a critical time for our country. If politicians like Jonathan Jennings and voters like Robert Hill had not stood against slavery in the newly settled territories, slavery as an institution may have lasted longer than it did.
Today is election day. The issues at stake may not always seem as exciting or as fundamentally significant as slavery, but the responsibility of speaking out for what we believe by casting our vote remains as important today as it was for our forefathers.
Don’t forget to vote!
Robert Hill is my four-times-great grandfather. To read more about his life, see my previous posts about him: Life on the Frontier and The Important Things. You can also see a list of his children and a transcription of his will in the Documents section of this blog.