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Mary Clark
Woman of Color

A brief overview and timeline showing an intersection of lives leading to the end of slavery and indentured servitude in the state of Indiana

At the close of the 18th Century and into the early 19th Century, Vincennes in Knox County, Indiana was a rugged frontier, part of the Old Northwest Territory. The area was surrounded by forest. Two roads led into and out of the county. Dirt paths connected the homes and many sat abandoned by former French or English occupants. An ox-mill and windmill ground the meal, prairie grass covered vast areas. Native American attacks on settlers were not uncommon.

The people of the Borough of Vincennes were a motley mix of Native Americans who sold pioneers corn or honey; French immigrants who married Piankishaw, Pottawatomie or Shawnee Indians, their offspring, known as Creoles; former Virginians and Kentuckians with English roots, Revolutionary War veterans given large land grants, and African Americans, some free, many indentured, most slaves in a territory that banned slavery.

Those who controlled the territory included military leaders such as William Henry Harrison, the first territorial governor who was an ancestor of former U.S. presidents. Battles he led, including the Battle of Tippecanoe, opened the West for white settlement. Fighting with him were Luke Decker, a military leader and slave owner for whom the town of Decker, Indiana is named, and anti-slavery advocate General Washington Johnston, the founder of masonry in Indiana, a founder of Vincennes University, a former judge, speaker of the Indiana House of Representatives, and the holder of an indentured servitude contract bonding Mary Bateman Clark.

Mary Clark was born in Kentucky a slave and was brought to Indiana in 1814 by Benjamin Harrison. She likely would have been owned initially by the Bateman family. As a young woman in her late teens or early 20s in 1821 she became a plaintiff in a legal case that led to the end of indentured servitude in Indiana. Her lawsuit, filed by Attorney Amory Kinney against General Johnston, was initially lost in the Knox County Circuit Court but was successfully appealed to the State Supreme Court. The case would cause violence against Kinney and certainly against Mary Clark that would reverberate through generations.

According to court documents, Mark Clark was brought to Vincennes in January 1815, emancipated and immediately indentured for 30 years by Harrison. He would later become clerk of the Borough of Vincennes Trustees. Court records show he sold her contract for $350 to Johnston who had her sign an indenture for 20 years. Johnston promised her food, lodging and apparel, both linen and woolen. And after her contract ended, she would receive “one suit of new clothes not to exceed however in value twenty dollars, and one flax wheel.” She tacitly agreed as shown by her “X.” Had she not agreed, she could have been resold into slavery and sent south.

While in service to Johnston as his cook and house servant, she legally married Samuel Clark, a hostler (horse handler) for William Henry Harrison. Newspaper articles state Samuel Clark, after serving Harrison, was indentured to Luke Decker, a slave holder and territorial leader. The Clarks would have 12 children, rearing all but three due to death; 49 grandchildren; 74 great grand children, and 6 great-great grand children. She died about 1845 at about age 50.

Who was this woman and what was her fate? She and her family would have certainly experienced severe repercussions because of the lawsuit. Church records show the period became progressively violent for the black race; some were hung on the court yard square. The attorney who represented her was attacked by mobs, saved only when some of his friends intervened.

She would have certainly thought about leaving the city for Terre Haute, where Kinney moved, or for the country of Liberia where the Indiana Colonization Society, the forerunner of the Indiana Historical Society, encouraged blacks to move.

She would have experienced pain losing children to death; one of her children may have been kidnapped by Indians. She would have experienced joy helping in the building of the first African American church in Vincennes, where her husband, children and grandchildren would become leaders of the church and black community. She would have known pride, as her children married and had their own children. And she would have died with family surrounding her.

Mary Clark’s lawsuit was probably a test case --- forced by the anti-slavery element to establish a legal precedent regarding indentured servitude. Though the indenture contract was supposed to have been voluntary, Clark would have been returned to slavery in the south had she not signed it.

With state leaders lined up for and against slavery and some standing on the line, Amory Kinney agreed to represent Mary Clark in her bid to be free of the indentured contract. The year before, Kinney and other attorneys had filed a case representing the slave woman Polly in Circuit Court against Vincennes business and civic leader Hyacinth LaSalle. Clark’s case was won in the state Supreme Court before Polly’s case was settled, freeing her from servitude. She was also awarded $24 and ½ cents, but the judgment was never paid.

Kinney’s law partner was his brother-in-law John Wilson Osborn, owner of Terre Haute’s first newspaper; Moses Tabb, who was the son-in-law of Charles Carroll, one of the signers of the Declaration of Independence; and Col. George McDonald, mentor and father-in-law of Judge Isaac Blackford, who ruled in Mary Clark’s case before the Supreme Court.

While newspaper stories hint at what her attorney Amory Kinney endured for handling the case --- he was attacked by a mob and survived only because some friends intervened, and he eventually moved to Terre Haute in 1826 to lead a successful life as an attorney, state representative and 7th Circuit Court presiding judge --- little is documented about Clark’s life.

Where Mary Clark was buried is unknown. After her death, her husband married a second time. It is believed that many of her children and grandchildren moved north to Indianapolis, to Illinois, Kentucky, Missouri, Tennessee and other parts away from Vincennes.