Underground Railroad abolition, David Spencer, teamster, and a Black Civil War soldier,1832-1914
David Spencer was a black child growing up on a white man’s farm in Morgan County. Spencer became an abolition, teamster, and a Civil War soldier. Prior to joining the army, he became part of the UGRR and helped Benjamin Henderson transport runaways to stations.
Backstory and Context
Although Spencer and Benjamin Henderson had a 21 year differences in age, the two made for a good partnership in their quest to help the enslaved.
Spencer was born September 27, 1832 near Lexington, Kentucky. At the age of three he came to live with James T. Holmes originally from New England, in Morgan County, Illinois. Records do not tell how he came to live with the Holmes' family. Spencer parents were slaves. His mother and five siblings were sold. Jane Vance, James Holmes' wife, who was from Lexington, Kentucky, bought Spencer when he was 2 years old. He lived with the Holmes family and several other labors in 1850. By the age of 22 Spencer moved to Jacksonville, but before he could be out on his own, he was a slave by Illinois law. James Holmes had to file a bond of $1,000.00 for “good behavior for the freeman” at the Morgan County Courthouse. At the age of 25, Spencer moved to Jacksonville and learned how to read and write by a teacher at one of the local academy, in exchanged for cut firewood. Later he was able to receive more education at the Second Baptist church in Jacksonville. By 1860 Spencer, who was now 32 years old, married a local girl from Lexington, Kentucky, Marcella F. Young (Yound) on January 1, 1860 in Morgan County, Illinois. David and Marcella had ten children in their lifetime. The married couple was listed in the William's Jacksonville Directory and Business Mirror of 1860-61 as living on Marion Street between Church and Rockwell Streets, near Benjamin Henderson's home.
David Spencer joined the Union Army in 1864 as a substitute for the draft. Spencer at the time lived at Sulphur Springs, Morgan County. During the war draftees could hire a substitute to take their place, in this case Andrew Rossier, a farmer from Rose Township, outside of Shelbyville, Illinois. Spencer, at the age of 32, mustered in on November 5, 1864 as a Private for the 13th Regular U.S. Colored Artillery. He went to Camp Nelson, Kentucky were he saw no action during his time. Camp Nelson was established in 1863 as a depot for the Union Army and a safe haven for contraband, army slang for runaway slaves. Spencer witness thousands of contraband who came to Camp Nelson. On May 4, 1865, his yearlong enlistment was up and his last pay from the army was $32.64. After he came home to Jacksonville, a few months later on July 28, 1865 he bought lots 10 and 11 in the Simmons Heirs addition on the southeast side of town for $640.00. Later he bought a part of lot 32 from Abner Yates in 1871 in the Sanderson Addition. At some time he was partners with John Cherry, a teamster who lived on College St. By 1871 Spencer and his family lived on East Street, south of Morton Ave until his death on October 18, 1914. The house no longer stands.
There is only one recorded interview from David Spencer.
“My first exploit was in the memorable winter of 1853-54 for one night awake and drove up to William Olmsted's on Grove Street with eight runaways. The signal was given and a party unloaded and cared for money and supplies were raised and I was appointed to start with them to the great Western Rail Road. We boarded the rear of the train just before daylight. When asked several times who my company was I replied that they were friends from Chicago who had been here to spend the holidays. Soon after we start one of the men whispered in my ear that the old master was in the car a few seats ahead of us no doubt on the hunt for his property. I told him not to be afraid for I had a revolver with me and will use it if I had (to). To our great relief, the slave owner left the train at Springfield little thinking who had been riding with him. This is one of my experiences I had”.
Unfortunately this was the only story that Spencer had, but he gave credit to the other abolitionists who have participated: Ebenezer Carter, Elihu Wolcott, Dr. Reed, T.W. Melendy, David. B. Ayers, Benjamin Henderson and Henry Irving who did most of the driving.
Benjamin Henderson and David Spencer worked together to help bring freedom to those seeking it. Henderson's role was both conductor and station keeper, as Spencer supplied the runaways with food, water, and clothes along with an extra set of eyes when Henderson transported runaways. Spencer was a young man at the time of his UGRR days and had a different experience than his counterpart. Spencer’s age and lack of “slave experience” gave him a different perspective of what slavery was. His time at Fort Nelson opened up his eyes to how bondage affected people compared to growing up in Morgan County on a farm with a white father figure who treated him with kindness.
Illinois. Morgan County. 1850 U.S. Census, population schedule. Digital images. http://census-online.com(Morgan County Courthouse, Illinois, Marriage Certificate. Clerk’s Office, Morgan Co. Marriages, vol. B, pg. 139, certificate 4355
Andrew Roessler, http://kellermangenealogy.com
Talbott, Camp Nelson Refugee Camp, (http://exporekyhistory.ky.gov
David Spencer, http://www.fold3.com
Morgan County Courthouse, Illinois, Deed Index Book Grantor XX: page 414(Morgan County Courthouse, Illinois, Deed Index Book Grantor 12: page 227
Directory of Jacksonville and Morgan County, no publisher, Special Collections, Jacksonville Public Library
Charles Eames, Historic Morgan and Classic Jacksonville (Jacksonville: The Daily Journal Steam Job Printing Office, 1885)