Finding Henry Johnson, a Slave, Among the Ioway People

By Dwain Coleman

During my first semester as a Ph.D. student at the University of Iowa, I have had the privilege of working with History Corps. As part of my assignment for the semester, I reviewed primary source documents on the Ioway previously copied at the National Achieves. Having a limited knowledge of the Ioway and their history, I had no clue what I might find in the records. My field of research focuses on African Americans in Iowa and the Midwest. Imagine my surprise when I discovered while reviewing these documents, information relevant to my research.

The first records that I began examining consisted of correspondence letters concerning the hiring of individuals by the Ioway Subagency of Indian Affairs. One letter, in particular, caught my eye. It was a letter written April 22, 1834, by William Clark, Superintendent of Indian Affairs to Elbert Herring Commissioner of Indian Affairs, from Washington City. The letter discussed General Hughes’, subagent for the Ioway and Sac Indians of the Missouri River, request for renewal of the employment of “Henry Johnson, a slave, as assistant blacksmith to the Ioway.” I could not believe it. Here was a document describing the “employment” of a black slave by the U.S. Government to work as a blacksmith for the Ioway. Such practices by the U.S. Government, particularly the military’s use of slave labor, is nothing unusual for the time. In fact, the U.S. Army often provided stipends to officers stationed at forts in the Northwest Territory to own and maintain slaves. Territorial governors also received such privileges from the U.S. Government. The research on these enslaved people of military officers or government officials still needs further research.

Though the Ioway Subagency may have employed Henry Johnson, he remained the property of his owner. Slave owners often rented out their slaves to work for others. As a slave, all income Henry Johnson produced would have been subject to his owner unless there existed some arrangement otherwise between slave and master. In another document I reviewed, I found the fascinating story of a former slave who after purchasing his freedom became an interpreter for the Ioway Subagency.

I did not expect to find such interesting documents in the records I reviewed that pertained to my field of research. Such accounts mingled in a few documents, demonstrate the variety present in the primary sources the History Corps is reviewing and the wealth of knowledge still untapped within such materials.


Dwain Coleman

Dwain Coleman is a PhD student in the Department of History at the University of Iowa. Prior to coming to the University of Iowa he completed a master’s degree in history at Iowa State University. His Thesis, “Still in the fight: The struggle for community in the upper Midwest for African American Civil War Veterans”, examines how African American veterans and their families after the Civil War used the political capital of their service to establish space in the community of Newton, Iowa. His historical interests include studying 19th Century African American history and the history of African American community formation in the Midwest.

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