Abolition Loopholes

A 40-year indenture contract that demonstrates how enslavers circumvented abolition laws in “free” states.

Indenture of Lucey, a Black woman, bound to Robert Chesney for 40 years

“Indenture of Lucey, a Black woman, bound to Robert Chesney for 40 years,” 1815. Joseph Conway papers, Chicago History Museum.

Document Text


This Indenture made this ninth day of October in the year of our Lord one thousand eight hundred and fifteen that Lucy a negro wench aged about twenty years and with her own free and voluntary will, placed and bound herself apprentice unto Robert Chesney of the County of St Clair in the Illinois Territory with him to live, as an apprentice to dwell continue and serve from the day of the date hereof unto the full end and term of Forty years from thence next ensuing and fully to be complete and ended, This indenture contract was made on October 9, 1815 in St. Clair, Illinois. A twenty-year-old Black woman named Lucey has agreed to become the apprentice of Robert Chesney of her own free will. She will live and work for him for forty years.
during all which time and term of forty years the said apprentice her said master well and faith fully shall serve, his secrets keep, his laws full command, gladly do and obey, hurt to her said master she shall not, nor wilfully suffer it to be done by others, but of the same to the utmost of her power shall forthwith give notice to her said master, During the forty years, Lucey will keep his secrets, follow his rules, and obey him. She will not hurt him or allow others to hurt him.
the goods of her sad master she shall not embezzle or waste, nor item lend, without his consent to any person at cards Dice or any unlawful games she shall not play, nor frequent any house forbidden her, fornication she shall not commit, She will not steal, waste, or lend his stuff without permission. She will not gamble, visit any place she isn’t allowed to go, or have sex outside of marriage.
Matrimony she may contract from the service of her said master, she shall not at any time depart or absent herself, without her said masters leave or his representative, She can get married if her master gives her permission. She cannot leave him or take a trip without his approval.
but in all things as a good and faithful servant shall and will demean and behave herself towards her said master and all this during the said term of forty years and the said Lucey furthermore consents and agrees to serve her said master or his representative any wheres within the Territory afore said, Lucey agrees to be a good and faithful servant for forty years, and will work anywhere in the Illinois territory.
And the said master for consideration of which, shall and will find and allow unto the said apprentice good and wholesome meat, drink, lodging, and wearing apparel necessary and fit for such an apprentice during the full term above mentioned. In exchange for her work, Lucy’s master will give her good food, a place to live, and appropriate clothing.
In Testimony whereof the said parties have hereunto set their hands & seals the day and year afore said.

Signed sealed & delivered – Lucey and Robert Chesney
In presence of Joseph Conway

Both parties have signed and sealed the document.
This day Lucey a negro wench, and Robert Chesney came before me Joseph Conway Deputy clerk of the County court for Saint Clair County and each of them, acknowledged the contents of this Indenture for the purposes therein mentioned, and desired that the same might be made a record thereof, Given under my hand this ninth day of October 1815 Joseph Conway
Recorded in Entry Book of Slaver.Lucy a negro wench to Indenture Robert Chesney 
Lucey and Robert signed this document into record in front of Joseph Conway, the deputy clerk of the county court of St Clair.

“Indenture of Lucey, a Black woman, bound to Robert Chesney for 40 years,” 1815. Joseph Conway papers, Chicago History Museum.



During the Federal period, some states and territories outlawed the practice of slavery. But even in “free” states and territories, white people found legal ways to make Black men and women work without pay. One common practice was to require enslaved people to sign long-term indenture contracts.

Indenture contracts existed from the early days of the colonies. Usually, the indentured servant promised to work seven to ten years without pay in exchange for transportation to the colonies or job training. At the end of the term, the indentured servant was usually given clothing and sometimes tools to help them start their independent life.

When faced with abolition in their state or territory, many enslavers required their enslaved people to sign indenture contracts. The indenture contracts signed by enslaved people were very different from traditional contracts. They required decades of unpaid work in exchange for freedom. There were also no promises of clothing or tools to help the person start a new life at the end of their term. Historians have called these deals “a limited form of slavery.”

The gradual emancipation laws passed by states like New York and New Jersey made long-term indenture in exchange for freedom a statewide policy. Every enslaved person in those states had to work unpaid for decades to earn their freedom.

About the Resources

This is an indenture contract signed by Lucey, a Black woman who was about 20 years old. Lucey agreed to work for Robert Chesney in St. Clair County, Illinois, for 40 years. It was signed in 1815 when Illinois was still part of the Northwest Territory. Slavery was outlawed in the Northwest Territory in 1787, so this contract was a way for Robert to continue to benefit from Lucey’s unpaid labor without breaking the law. Lucey would have been about 60 years old by the time the contract ended.


  • abolition: The legal end of slavery.
  • Federal period: The early years of the United States, usually defined as 1790–1830.
  • gradual emancipation: The practice of slowly freeing populations of enslaved people after they worked a predetermined number of years.
  • indenture contract: The legal document people signed to become indentured servants.
  • indentured servant: A person under contract to work for another person for a set period of time without pay.
  • Northwest Territory: Lands claimed by the United States after the American Revolution. It was the area west of Pennsylvania, east of the Mississippi, and north of the Ohio River.

Discussion Questions

  • What freedoms does Lucey agree to give up in this contract? What does Robert promise to provide?
  • Lucey would be about 60 years old by the time her contract is up. Why would Robert be willing to grant her freedom then?
  • We don’t have any record of why Lucey signed this indenture contract. What are some reasons why she might have agreed to its terms?

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