The conflict began when Robert Matson brought some of his Kentucky slaves to work on his Illinois farm in northern Coles County in 1845. Among those enslaved people were Jane Bryant and her four children. Jane’s husband, Anthony Bryant, was a freedman who worked and lived at the farm, too. Matson’s mistress and housekeeper, Mary Corbin, threatened that the children would be sold south in August 1847. The Bryants chose to heroically fight back, and sought help from Gideon Ashmore in Independence, known today as Oakland. Ashmore enlisted Dr. Hiram Rutherford to provide guidance and financial assistance. They braved publicly declaring their abolitionist leanings, with little regard to the social and legal consequences.The Matson Slave Trial is one of the top five trials in Coles County, one of the ten most important cases in which Abraham Lincoln participated, and was a turning point for the local free black community at Brushy Fork.
Jane and her four children, ages 3-14, spent fifty-eight days in jail awaiting a circuit court trial to determine if they were fugitives per Illinois’ Black Laws. When the circuit court convened on October 16, 1847 for a hearing on habeas corpus two state Supreme Court justices who were the circuit judges at the time, Abraham Lincoln, a former Illinois Attorney General, a member of Congress, and an Illinois state Senator gathered to participate. The justices decided that the Bryants were free because the Illinois Constitution did not allow slaves to be held on state soil unless in transit. Current scholars believe that the trial may have been arranged to be precedent-setting as it was highly unusual for two circuit court judges to sit a trial and for them to then publish an opinion. Following the trial, the Bryants returned to Oakland for a few months, then sailed for Liberia in January 1848. Their eventual fate is currently unknown, though plans have been laid to do the research in Liberia to determine what happened to them.The trial and the commotion surrounding it not only affected the Bryants, but also other African-Americans living in the region who were intertwined by circumstance or blood. A small community of African Americans, called Brushy Fork for the river that ran through it, was located about ten miles southwest of the Matson farm. The Lewis James family and Lucy Dupee family, felt the tension and had to make the decision whether to get involved with the Matson enslaved people. They all had ties to Kentucky and Anthony would have been the closest minister to the Brushy Fork group. After the trial, Jane’s brother, Simeon Wilmot, who had been enslaved by Matson, moved into the community first staying with the Edward Minnis family. A man named Isom Bryant and his wife, Lucy Minnis (Edward’s sister) also joined the Brushy Fork community. It is currently unknown as to what his relationship might be with Anthony Bryant but he was from the same county as Matson.
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