Nancy Legins-Costley Ignited the Emancipation Movement

This is the third and final installment of Tazewell County’s connection to the original Juneteenth Celebration and commemorating those buried at Moffatt Cemetery.
Did you know the story of the first person Abraham Lincoln help freed from enslavement.
Published: Jun. 20, 2022 at 8:24 PM CDT
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PEORIA (25News Now) - In honor of Juneteenth, 25News has been giving you coverage of the local connection Central Illinois has to the original Juneteenth celebration in Galveston, Texas in 1865.

We began with the U.S. Colored Troops who were present in Texas.

We then shared with you the story of Moffatt Cemetery where one of those men, Nathan Ashby, is still buried

In our final installment, Brett Brooks brings you the story of where it all begins. One historic girl’s fight for freedom.

Nance Legings-Costley’s story in the court system began when she was just 13 years old in 1827

She was bought by Pekin Co-Founder Nathan Cromwell, who’s wife Eliza, named the city of Pekin.

However since she grew up in the same house the Illinois Constitution was written in, she knew of a loophole in the law which allowed her to be legally free.

It’s here where her story begins.

“It’s a story of courage, fortitude of tenacity and will,” says Jared Olar, a local historian at the Pekin Public Library.

After her parents were auctioned off Nance was sold to different owners including Nathan Cromwell.

Carl Adams, a Pekin native, Lincoln Historian and Author of biography ‘Nance’ spoke exclusively to 25News about Nance’s life and legacy.

“After 1836 when Nathan Cromwell died and when she was pregnant with her first baby. she had been sold on a promissory note to David bailey who eventually declared himself to be an abolitionists.” Explains Adams.

David Bailey, a Pekin store owner, hired nance to work for him, paying her in clothes and food.

“He doesn’t hand over the money but they write up a promissory note in the amount of $376.48,” says Olar.

When Cromwell died in 1838 his estate sued for the debt in Tazewell County Circuit Clerk Courthouse.

“David Bailey hasn’t done it because of one reason. Nance has told David Bailey, her new “master” says ‘by the way, I said no’ and it has to be voluntary. David Bailey (because he’s of an abolitionist family) says ‘okay you’re free then.’”

They lost the case and appealed to the Illinois Supreme Court.

That’s when Bailey hired Abraham Lincoln and his Pekin Law Office.

“One of his arguments is the state’s constitution says there must be no slavery or involuntary servitude.” Explains Olar.

During the famous Bailey v. Cromwell & McNaghton landmark case, Lincoln argued Cromwell’s Estate never received Nance’s consent.

Olar explains Abraham Lincoln said “where is the contract of indentured? Where’s the papers showing that Nance was anybody’s servant at any time in her life? she’s being passed from master to master and being sold for money. where is the contract of indentured?”

Nance even testified herself in court she always denied being a servant.

That’s when Lincoln gave one of his famous arguments. He asked the judge whether the judge even had proof he was free?

“Justice Brees where is your contract of indentured showing that you’re an indentured servant?’ ‘Well I don’t have one.’ ‘You’re a free person right? Nance, where are her papers? She must be free.’” says Olar.

On July 23rd 1841, Justice Breese ruled Nance, who was just 23 at the time, was indeed legally free, along with her children and any future children she would later have.

24 years later one of those children William H. Costley joined the 29th United States Colored Troops and was present in Galveston, Texas for the first Juneteenth.

Nancy went on to live as a free married woman and had 8 children.

She lived in Pekin for about 50 years before moving to Peoria to live her final years with one of her daughters.

She’s still buried at the now-defunct Moffatt Cemetery

She will be recognized along with 2,500 other people also buried there later this year, on what will be known as the Freedom & Remembrance Memorial.

The Abraham Lincoln mural on the side of the Peoria County Courthouse faces the last house Nancy lived in - on North Adams Street.

The biography of Nance written by Carl Adams is available at the Peoria Public Library in the Youth Services Department.

This is the third and final installment of Tazewell County’s connection to the original Juneteenth Celebration and commemorating those buried at Moffatt Cemetery.

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