Mysterious America

Witchcraft in the Illinois Country

The following is an excerpt from my new book Witchcraft in Illinois: A Cultural History. Using a variety of sources, I reveal the truth behind the fate of two French slaves, allegedly executed for witchcraft in Cahokia in 1779. Order it today on or

Philip Francois Renault purchased several hundred African slaves in Santo Domingo, a Spanish city on the island of Hispaniola in the Caribbean (and the modern-day capital of the Dominican Republic). In 1720, he brought the slaves to Fort de Chartres in what is now Monroe County, Illinois, intending to use them in a silver mining operation…  The French census of 1726 showed 129 black slaves (including men, women, and children) in the Illinois country. In 1732, they numbered 164.

The French almost certainly tried to convert these slaves to Catholicism. The Louisiana Code Noir, or Black Code of Louisiana, only permitted the practice of the Roman Catholic faith and made it imperative on masters to impart religious instruction to their slaves. Portions of the first Code Noir were instituted in 1685 for the French colony of Saint Domingue (present-day Haiti).

The Black Code of Louisiana was based largely on this document, with several key differences, mainly involving the prohibition of marriages between blacks (both slave and free) and whites. It was introduced in 1724 and remained in force until the United States took full possession of Louisiana in 1803.

As happened in New Orleans, the forced conversion of Afro-Caribbean slaves likely resulted in an amalgamation of Christian and Animistic beliefs. Animism is the notion that non-human beings—animals, plants, and even inanimate objects—have souls. In West Africa, Animism manifested itself in fetishes; man-made objects believed to possess supernatural powers.

Over time, the mixture of Catholicism and the tribal religions of West Africa evolved into Haitian Vodou (or Voodoo as it is known here in the United States) alongside the African American folk-magic of hoodoo. It was often the case that French Catholics interpreted these vestigial remains of West African religion as witchcraft.

According to historians Alexander Davidson and Bernard Stuvé, the decedents of Europeans—particularly the French living along the Mississippi River—eyed their slaves with suspicion. In their Complete History of Illinois, they wrote, “It was a very common feeling among the French to dread to incur in any way the displeasure of certain old colored people, under the vague belief and fear that they possessed a clandestine power by which to invoke the aid of the evil one to work mischief or injury to person or property.”

One such person living near Cahokia, an elderly woman named Janette, was widely feared for that purported ability. Janette “inspired such terror by her appearance that adults as well as children would flee at her approach.” In The Winning of the West, Theodore Roosevelt also noted the French fear of witchcraft on the Illinois frontier. “It must be remembered that the creoles were very ignorant and superstitious, and that they one and all, including, apparently, even their priests, firmly believed in witchcraft and sorcery,” he wrote.

“Some of their negro slaves had been born in Africa, the others had come from the Lower Mississippi or the West Indies; they practised the strange rites of voudooism, and a few were adepts in the art of poisoning. Accordingly the French were always on the look-out lest their slaves should, by spell or poison, take their lives.”

France lost control over the Illinois Country in 1763 in the Treaty of Paris, when King Louis XV formally ceded it to Great Britain. During the War of Independence, American General George Rogers Clark wrested the Illinois country from British control. Virginia claimed the territory after the war, and it was under Virginian control until 1784. Although the British and Americans were accustomed to English common law, both sought to preserve French customs.

Virginia law stated that civil officers must “conduct themselves agreeable as much as possible to the laws, which the present settlers are now accustomed to,” but that they were allowed to pardon persons found guilty under these laws except in cases of murder or treason.

Article 27 of the Black Code of Louisiana prescribed the death penalty for “The slave who strikes his master, his mistress, the mistress’ husband or their children, and causes bruising or blood to flow, or strikes the face.” Likewise, Article 28 provided, “as to the excesses and acts of violence which slaves commit against free persons, we wish that they be severely punished, even by death if it is necessary.”

When in 1779 a court of French judges sentenced two slaves, Moreau and Manuel, to be burnt at the stake on the shore of the Kaskaskia River, Lieutenant-Commandant of the County of Illinois John Todd exercised his authority and commuted their sentences to hanging. For more than a century, the execution of these two slaves was considered to be the first and only legal executions for witchcraft in the history of Illinois. The truth is more complicated.

Order Witchcraft in Illinois to learn more!

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