John Freeman, a free African American, became an Indianapolis landowner in 1844. Nine years later, he was falsely claimed as a fugitive slave by Pleasant Ellington of Missouri and arrested. The ensuing trial was widely publicized, and though Freeman and his lawyers won the case, Freeman lost his life savings and suffered humiliating treatment at the hands of U.S. Deputy Marshal John L. Robinson. Thanks to donations from churches in Indiana and Freeman's native state of Georgia, he and his family were able to retain their home and garden plot and eventually move to Canada [1; 2].


  • John Freeman Historic Marker - Side 1 (image from Historical Marker Database)
    John Freeman Historic Marker - Side 1 (image from Historical Marker Database)
  • John Freeman Historic Marker - Side 2 (image from Historical Marker Database)
    John Freeman Historic Marker - Side 2 (image from Historical Marker Database)

John Freeman, a free African American, became an Indianapolis landowner in 1844. Nine years later, he was falsely claimed as a fugitive slave by Pleasant Ellington of Missouri and arrested. The ensuing trial was widely publicized, and though Freeman and his lawyers won the case, Freeman lost his life savings and suffered humiliating treatment at the hands of U.S. Deputy Marshal John L. Robinson. Thanks to donations from churches in Indiana and Freeman's native state of Georgia, he and his family were able to retain their home and garden plot and eventually move to Canada [1; 2].

About John Freeman

Freeman moved from Georgia to Indianapolis in 1844. Starting with $600 in his new bank account, he worked as a house painter until he saved up enough to buy his first four acres of land (at present-day Capitol and Michigan Streets) [1; 2]. He married, had three children, actively participated in the local African American Baptist church and its community service projects, and built up $6,000 worth of real estate over the next nine years [2].

In 1850, the Fugitive Slave Law was passed to pacify Southern slave states, requiring runaway slaves to be returned to their former states and masters should they reach the North. All the proof required against a free African American was an affidavit by the claimant, and no jury trial was offered. Intervening on behalf of a claimed slave could result in criminal charges and jail time. On June 20, 1853, John Freeman was arrested as "Sam", the alleged runaway slave of Pleasant Ellington, a St. Louis Methodist minister. Friends of Freeman convinced Indianapolis Commissioner Squire Sullivan to allow him a trial. Indianapolis lawyers John L. Ketcham, Lucian Barbour, and John Coburn worked for Freeman's defense, while L. D. Walpole and J.A. Liston worked for the prosecution. A nine-week postponement was granted to the defense, but Sullivan refused Freeman's bail, in spite of the open support of prominent leaders, including a judge, for the defendant. Freeman spent the nine weeks in jail and had to pay a daily fee for the jailer who kept him hostage. Meanwhile, Freeman directed his lawyers to witnesses in his home state of Georgia to confirm that he had been a free man from 1831-1844. The real escaped slave, Sam, was found in Canada, going by the name of William McConnell. McConnell agreed to come to Indianapolis for the trial, in spite of the danger to himself [2].

When Ellington's three witnesses requested an examination of Freeman's naked body to confirm his identity, the defense objected. Newspaper reports of Deputy Marshal Robinson's compliance with the prosecution, over the objections of Freeman and his lawyers, and his forcing of Freeman to strip naked in front of Ellington's witnesses, caused public outrage—one town even burned an effigy of the Marshal. Whether because of this outrage or because of mounting evidence in Freeman's favor, Ellington fled Indianapolis before the trial and the case was dismissed [2]. Freeman was congratulated by a group of African American citizens at an August 29th meeting at the Masonic Hall [1]. Freeman's lawyers dropped all fees, but the cost of transporting the witnesses to Indiana, combined with the fee for his jailor, deprived Freeman of his life savings. He brought civil suits against Ellington and Robinson; he won the suit against Ellington, but by then Ellington had sold his St. Louis home and disappeared. A technicality over the Marshal's county of residence blocked the suit against Robinson in 1855. Freeman sold most of his real estate, keeping his house and garden thanks to donations from churches in Indiana and Georgia. When the Civil War broke out, Freeman and his family moved to Canada [2].

1. Bowyer, M. "John Freeman Historic Marker." Historical Marker Database. July 22, 2007. Accessed July 7, 2016. http://www.hmdb.org/marker.asp?marker=1833. 2. Burlock, Melissa. "9 Weeks a Fugitive Slave: The 1853 Fugitive Slave Case of Mr. John Freeman." Hoosier State Chronicles: Indiana's Digital Historic Newspaper Program. July 22, 2014. Accessed July 7, 2016. https://blog.newspapers.library.in.gov/in-print-and-on-the-map-articles-in-the-indiana-digital-historic-newspaper-database-and-corresponding-historical-markers-2/.