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NANCE: Trials and Triumphs By Carl Adams

Mrs. Nance Legins-Costley (1813-1892) lived with a unique honor as the first slave freed by Abraham Lincoln through the Illinois Supreme Court case of Bailey v Cromwell,1841. After the Justices ruled Nance free, she settled into a quiet life and a good marriage with free Black, Benjamin Costley and raised a family of eight children. Ben always found work in Tazewell County and Nance was known as a good neighbor. Oldest son Pvt. William Henry Costley fought in the Civil War and was present at Juneteenth with the 29th Regiment USCT.

Briefly, in 1866, Nance enjoyed local celebrity when a Lincoln biographer, Isaac Arnold, highlighted Nance’s trials in his “History of A. Lincoln and the Overthrow of Slavery”. Then the traumas of the Civil War and Lincoln’s assassination seemed to create national amnesia, and the trials of Nance and slavery were forgotten for over a hundred years.

With the children raised, in the 1870s, Ben and Nance moved to Peoria, close to some of their children. Ben died in 1883; Nance passed away in 1892, and both were buried in Moffatt Cemetery along S. Adams Street in Peoria. Presumably, they were buried side-by-side, but no one knows since the records of Moffatt Cemetery have been lost for decades.

The Moffatt Cemetery was closed in 1905; with financial ruin, the cemetery was obliterated, bull-dozed, paved over and the land sold as light industrial.

A few years ago, a small group of volunteers using history, genealogy and library researchers, launched Peoria Freedom & Remembrance Memorial Park project when they decided the first slave freed by Abraham Lincoln; fifty-two war veterans and 2600 other pioneers and neighbors of central Illinois deserve a better memorial than what was left in the dust.

Eight thousand dollars has been raised so far for a proper memorial to these forebears, but about fifteen thousand dollars from crowdfunding is still anticipated to begin Phase One. A grant funding agency has promised a fifty percent match for a memorial to the first female slave freed by Lincoln. To be Forgotten No More!

For information, visit

Mail contributions to Illinois State Historical Society, Nance/Lincoln memorial, PO BOX 1800, Springfield, IL 62705-1800.