The Spencer family: Living in freedom in Quincy

Military Stone for John Pleasant, Civil War Veteran of the Mass. 29th Infantry CT.

In November 1875, the Shasta, Calif., Courier posted a notice about the free black miner Jesse Spencer, living in nearby Churntown, Jesse had been separated from his wife Eliza Jane and their children for more 20 years. Unbeknownst to Jesse, Eliza Jane, with her two young children Sarah and Lewis, had escaped slavery in Marion County, Mo., reached Canada in 1856, and returned to the U.S. as free citizens 1866 to establish residence in Quincy.

As a result of the Courier‘s piece, which was picked up by local papers in Missouri and Illinois, the editors soon received several helpful replies, which they noted in their Dec. 18, 1875 issue.

Mr. Thos. E. Patterson of Chicago wrote on the 9th of December, “Editor Shasta Courier – I have this moment read an extract from some paper stating that a colored man, Jesse Spencer had in vain been trying to hear from his wife, Eliza Spencer. Eliza Spencer formerly belonged to my grandfather in Marion county, Missouri. She was a kind and trusted woman. She has visited me in this city, and the last I heard from her was well and also all of her three children.” He then offers that Jesse “can write to me, by that time I will learn the address of his wife and children.”

More importantly, the Courier of the same date was also able to report the receipt of a one-line telegram, “Quincy, Illinois, Dec. 14th, to Jesse Spencer, care of Courier office, Shasta, Col. Your wife and children are here – Answer. Eliza J Spencer.”

And thus, Jesse and Eliza were once again in contact. As the local Quincy Whig noted on Jan. 13, 1876, Jesse “promptly replied,” and “letters have since passed between the parties, and with the opening of Spring, Jesse, now 55 years of age, will come to this city and be reunited with his wife…. The members of the family are of course delighted with the good news they have received and are anxiously awaiting the coming of husband and father.”

Whether or not Jesse traveled to Quincy the following spring was not reported, however 1880 census records for Shasta County, Calif, record that Jesse was still mining there, and his wife Eliza was living with him and working as a cook.

By 1884, Eliza was again living in Quincy, while Jesse, according to the 1885 Shasta City Directory was living (alone) in California. Exactly when Jesse joined his family is Quincy is uncertain, but by 1887 both Jesse and Eliza were listed in the Quincy directories. There is little mention of the Spencers in the local papers after that time, however Jesse’s death certificate indicates that he died in Quincy on Jan 28. 1893, aged 74 years, 5 months and 11 days and was buried in Woodland Cemetery.

When Eliza passed away in January 1899, the Quincy Daily Journal noted, “Mrs. Eliza Jane Spencer, one of the oldest colored residents in Quincy, … died last night at 8 o’clock at the age of 78 years, in her home, 914 Oak street. She was born in Virginia, resided in this vicinity thirty-five years, and was a faithful member of the A.M.E. church.” She too was buried in Woodland cemetery, however the location of her burial, as well as that of her husband Jesse, is unknown.

The three Spencer children, Matilda, Sarah and Lewis also made successful lives for themselves in Quincy. Second daughter, Sarah, who at the age of 7 accompanied her mother on the flight to Canada, married John H. Pleasant in Quincy in 1868. John Pleasant, born in Virginia in December 1843, enlisted as a private in Company G of the 29th Regiment, Connecticut Infantry Colored Troops, at age 19. He took part in siege operations against Petersburg and Richmond which lasted until April 2, 1865, and was mustered out at Brownsville, Texas in October 1865. In Quincy, he was for more than 35 years the janitor of the Vermont Street Baptist Church, and at his death on Sept. 2, 1911 the Quincy Daily Herald noted, “Through his many years of faithful service at this church he won many who held him in high regard.” Sarah continued to live in Quincy, passing away July 11, 1927.

Jesse and Eliza’s son Lewis, 5 years old when his mother took him with her to Canada, also came to live in Quincy, where he worked variously as a waiter, cook and steward. He and his wife, Ellen Goodwin, married in Quincy in 1874, and were the parents of four children, Jessie, Louis Thomas, Harry, and Sadie. When Lewis died in 1894, he was a steward at the Quincy Commercial Club, and a Mason.

The eldest Spencer daughter, Matilda had been freed through the efforts of her father Jesse in 1852, shortly before he left Missouri for the gold fields of California. She remained in Missouri as a free woman where she married John Longress, a formerly enslaved blacksmith of Hannibal. Their marriage took place at the home of Mrs. Mary Ely Patterson, wife of James H. Patterson of West Ely who in 1846 had purchased Eliza Jane from William Muldrow. Later, John and Matilda moved to Quincy where John established a series of small blacksmith shops, including one later operated by his son, at Eighth and State.

In 1878, John Longress, the father of seven, joined other African American residents of Quincy to petition the Quincy Public Schools for the right of their children to attend the neighborhood school of their choice, rather than Lincoln, the “colored school.” After the Adams County Circuit Court ruled against them, Longress went on to successfully petition and litigate the case to the Illinois Supreme Court, in a proceeding which is still cited as a precursor of Brown v. Board of Education.

The Spencer family, through time, distance and generations persevered, as witnessed by the lives they lived and the legacy they left those who have followed.


“Death of Lewis C. Spencer.” Quincy Daily Whig, Feb. 27, 1894, p. 8.

“Found.” Shasta Courier, December 18, 1875.

“Colored Troops Enlistments From Connecticut During The Civil War.”

Grasso, Christopher. “Chapter 6. Christian Enlightenment: Eastern Cities and the Great West.” “Chapter 7. Christian Enlightenment: Faith into Practice in Marion, Missouri.” 193-226, 227-249. Skepticism and American Faith, Oxford, England: Oxford University Press, 2018.

Holcombe, R. I. 1884. History of Marion County Missouri. [Reprint]. Marion County Historical Society, 1979.

Hull, Kent. “The achievement of John Longress.” Quincy Herald Whig August 14, 2021.

“Items in Brief.” Quincy Daily Herald. January 8, 1876, p. 3.

Jesse Spencer for Matilda. Deed of Manumission. Filed 10 March 1852. Palmyra, Missouri: Marion County Courthouse.

“Jesse Spencer is one of our …” Shasta Courier. November 13, 1875.

“A Local Romance.” Quincy Whig, January 13, 1876, p. 1.

Marriages of Adams County, Illinois. 1861-1875, Vol. II. Great River Genealogical Society, 1979.

Muelder, Owen W. The Underground Railroad in Western Illinois. Jefferson, NC: McFarland and Company, 2008.

People ex rel. John Longress v. Quincy. 101 Ill. 308(1882).

“Reaper of Death.” Quincy Daily Journal. March 21, 1899, p. 8.

Register of Deaths, Adams County, IL. Vol. 3, 1910-1914, certificate #17533. https.//

Lynn M. Snyder is a native of Adams County, a semi-retired archaeologist and museum researcher, a former librarian and present library volunteer at the Illinois Veterans Home, and a Historical Society of Quincy and Adams County board member and volunteer.

Jean McCarl Kay is the research librarian and collections manager of the Historical Society of Quincy and Adams County. Among her research interests are early Adams County families.

The Historical Society of Quincy and Adams County is preserving the Governor John Wood Mansion, the History Museum on the Square, the 1835 Log Cabin, the Livery, the Lincoln Gallery displays, and a collection of artifacts and documents that tell the story of who we are. This award-winning column is written by members of the Society. For more information visit or email

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