Inside a dusty box with an outdated computer and a random assortment of discarded papers, Knox County Clerk David Shelton found something very much worth keeping.
“This box could have easily ended up in the Dumpster,” he said. “I don’t know what made me look through it.”
After months of sorting and sifting through four buildings and 10 different rooms full of old county records, Shelton found dozens of documents of historical significance, including 18 that pre-date Indiana’s statehood in 1816.
A few of those tattered, browned pages also shed light on a shameful part of Knox County’s past.
Of the many historically significant documents found in that box that day, among them are ones thought long lost regarding the infamous case of Polly Strong, a young African American woman living in servitude to prominent community leader and innkeeper Hyacinthe Lasselle.
Strong was born into slavery in 1796 in the Northwest Territory. At the age of 10 she was purchased by Lasselle, a Vincennes resident.
In his sifting and sorting, Shelton found the original contract of indentured servitude between Strong and Lasselle, as well as court documents associated with Strong's attempts to secure her own freedom.
Dated July 16, 1818, the first page of the contract reads: “Polly, called Polly Strong, to Indenture Hyacinthe Laselle of Servitude for 12 years.”
The handwritten contract, which is still clearly legible, at times claims that Strong was “contented” in her life as a slave to Laselle.
But Strong, who was illiterate, likely signed the indentured servitude contract under duress, as most African American slaves did at that time.
The Northwest Ordinance outlawed slavery in those territories. But some who moved into the Indiana Territory from slave states sought to get around that prohibition. Contracts of indentured servitude were drawn up as loopholes around the law.
Some documentation indicates Strong was abducted by one of Lasalle’s associates and taken to Illinois until she finally relented and accepted Laselle’s terms of indentured servitude.
As she couldn’t sign her name, Strong simply made an 'X' near the bottom of her contract, with a witness writing next to it “her mark.”
Strong did indeed make her mark.
She went to the Knox County Circuit Court two years later, in 1820, in pursuit of freedom.
The Indiana Constitution of 1816 prohibited slavery and involuntary servitude. Laselle argued that because Strong’s mother, Jenny, was born into slavery, as was Strong herself, that the constitutional law didn’t apply because the women were living the lives they were born into.
Sadly, the Circuit Court ruled that Strong, as the child of legal slaves, was, therefore, legally enslaved herself.
In the Court’s decision, it was stated that, “In all states where slavery is tolerated and people of color are held as property, this is undeniably the fact … I know of no reason why it should not be the case here.”
Strong, as her name implies, persisted after the Circuit Court loss. She and her attorney, Armory Kinney, appealed to the Indiana Supreme Court, and Strong eventually won her right to freedom in July of 1820.
Her Indiana Supreme Court case set the new standard of authority on similar habeas corpus cases that would follow in Indiana, including Mary Bateman Clark’s case in Knox County the following year. The State Supreme Court claimed, “slavery can have no existence in Indiana.”
Shelton pointed out that in the case of Polly Strong, Knox County “doesn’t look so good,” but it’s a historical reality and a story worthy of attention.
Shortly after winning her freedom, Strong sued Laselle for $500 (just over $9,000 today). She was denied that amount, but was awarded $25.16 (and 2/3 cent) for owed wages. Today that would be valued at less than $500 in purchasing power.
As for what became of Polly Strong later in life, it’s unfortunately unclear. Other than a baptismal record at St. Francis Xavier Church from 1819, and a notice in the Vincennes Western Sun in 1824, there is no other record of the brave, trailblazing Strong.
Shelton has given Strong's records — now more than 200 years old — to the Knox County Public Library for preservation and safe keeping.