Slavery in St. Louis

By Scott K. Williams

The east entrance to the St. Louis courthouse. It was here on these steps that slaves were often sold. St. Louis was the biggest slave market in Missouri. Slave patrols operated throughout the city constantly on the lookout for runaways or unlawful conduct by slaves.

"Though slavery is thought, by some, to be mild in Missouri, when compared with the cotton, sugar and rice growing states, yet no part of our slave-holding country is more noted for the barbarity of its inhabitants than St. Louis."--William Wells Brown, former slave.

The Law:

By order of the City of St. Louis, all Slaves cannot:

Both Slaves and Free Blacks cannot:

All Slaves and Free Blacks must possess a pass at all times. Those without a pass will be arrested by the City Police. For those free blacks moving into Missouri after 1847, they were to be "reduced to slavery" if they did not leave by the first Monday of Sept. 1860. (This did not include blacks that were here prior to 1847).

All Slaves are warned that the State of Missouri does not recognize marriages between slaves. Those slaves that become married may be subject to separation by sale without notice.

Indians, the first American Slaves and Slave Masters

 Like elsewhere in the world, slavery has a long history in native American cultures. Indians generally enslaved the women and children of another tribal people taken captive during warfare. Those that were lucky not to be killed by slow torture, became slaves.  One horrendous example took place only a few miles northeast of St. Louis. On September 18, 1680, a war party of 500 Iroquois Indians attacked a village of Indians of the Illini Confederacy (tribes being the Kaskaskias, Cahokias, Peorias, and Tamaroas).  While the Illini men fought the Iroquois raiders, the women and children fled down the Illinois River, near its confluence with the Mississippi. After the Iroqouis slaughtered the Illini men they pursued the retreating noncombatant party. While some escaped, 700 primarily Tamaroa women and children were captured. Half of the women and children were skewered and burned alive by slowly roasting them over a fire. The lucky ones became slaves.  This brutality coupled with slavery was a human tradition in the America's, Africa, Asia, and in prehistoric Europe for thousands of years.

The European colonists took advantage of this tradition. They bartered for slaves obtained with furs and trinkets. While some of these were used for labor,  there was a shortage of European women.  The colonists frequently took a female Indian slave as a concubine and sometimes even as a wife. This was especially popular among the French of Missouri and Illinois. There is also some new evidence that the English at Jamestown also took Indian brides, whether bartered for or obtained consentually (such as with Pocahontas and John Rolfe)

The Spanish Gradually Outlawed Indian Slavery

In 1766, the area became Spanish territory and shortly thereafter changes were made regarding Indian slaves. Spanish Governor Alejandro O'Reilly (a Irish immigrant to Spain) issued a decree that all Indian slaves were to be set free when their owners were deceased. All babies born of Indian slaves were free at birth after his 1769 emancipation proclamation was issued. In the 1770 Spanish St. Louis census, there were 66 Indian slaves being held, most being women and children. After this date we lose track on Indian slaves because in the 1772 Spanish St. Louis census only the categories of whites and slaves were enumerated without the racial composition of the slaves being recorded.  

Despite the Spanish government's attempts to outlaw Indian slavery, the King's law virtually stopped outside the gates of city. While Spain claimed all the territory from the Mississippi to the Rocky Mountains, life was basically untouched by Royal edicts. Sacagawea, the Shoeshone Indian woman that guided Lewis and Clark, is perhaps the best known Indian slave. She was captured by the Hidatsas tribe and the mixed blood French Canadian trader, Toussaint Charbonneau, won ownership of her in a bet. Being born approximately in 1789, Sacagawea by Spanish law should have been set free. Even though Charbonneau claimed Sacagawea as a wife, he already had more than one Indian wife , which was also in violation to Spanish law. But Spanish law was not recognized in the Indian nations and outside the confines of the fortified walls of the European settlements. 

Among the St. Louis residents that owned Indian slaves, Marie Therese Bourgeois Chouteau, owned two adolescent "savage girls" and her "unofficial" husband, Pierre Laclede claimed six Indian slaves.

When Did the First Black Slaves Arrive in to Missouri ?

The first black slaves to arrive in the area were brought by Philippe Renault in 1719. These slaves, numbering 500, came from the island of Santo Domingo (the French colony of Haiti). Both these slaves and their masters spoke French and were at the very least, nominal Catholics. Renault's slaves worked in the lead mines west of St. Genevieve. A few of these slaves working as boatmen came upriver to St. Louis. 

Slave Population for St. Louis (including St. Louis County):

For more comprehensive listing of populations, see St. Louis City/County Census Demographics 1772-2000

The Origins of  "American" Slavery (English Colonies):

While slavery existed under the French and Spanish administration of St. Louis, it was "American" slavery (derived from the English colonies) that left the greatest impact on the region.  Initially in England's first colony, Jamestown, Virginia (established 1609), there was no slavery but only indentured servitude. Many of the early colonist were indentured servants, who worked for a period of years to pay off their debts, then freedom was granted them. Sometimes they were sold from one master to another master since the indentures were transferable. The first black's to arrive on the American mainland were slaves brought by a Dutch man-of-war ship in August 1619. Twenty black slaves were purchased from the Dutch and these became indentured servants, like those of European ancestry.  But black servants had one skill most whites did not.  This skill was their expert ability of growing tobacco, the cash crop of Jamestown.  So blacks were highly sought for this task.  Once the indenture was paid off (usually seven years service), black colonist enjoyed the same rights as white servants. Once free they owned property, voted, and even owned other servants. However by 1640 things started to change. At this time even free blacks were forbidden from joining the militia and owning arms.

The first recorded black slave in the Virginia Colony (indentured for life and not a result of some crime.) is documented in Northampton County, Virginia in 1655. A black servant by the name of John Casar petitioned the court claiming that he came toVirginia for seven or eight years indenture. But his master kept him "seven years longer than he ought". Anthony Johnson, the master, claimed that there was no such indenture, that he had him for life. Johnson's account was backed by Capt. Samuel Goldsmith.  John Casar had no paperwork to back his claim. The court sided with Anthony Johnson. The ironic twist to this unfortunate situation is that Anthony Johnson was a free "Negro". (Northampton County Order Book, 1655-1668, fol. 10)

Apparently, the John Casar case set in motion the further indenturing of African immigrant's for life instead of the traditional 7 or 8 years. Soon afterwards in 1660, African slavery in the English colonies was coded into law. This made slavery very economical compared to temporary indentures of whites. And black immigrants had the talents for growing tobacco, the first cash crop prior to cotton.

Although slavery became official in the English colonies, slavery had existed elsewhere for centuries. Arabs were most notorious for it, enslaving Europeans and black Africans. Often European ships on the Mediterranean were captured by Arab pirates.  All the passenger and crew not killed were sold into slavery or held for ransom.  Even Capt. John Smith of Jamestown was once enslaved in this manner but escaped from his captivity in Turkey. And slavery of black Africans still exist in some north African countries to this day (2006).

Relationships between whites and blacks in the colonies was not always tainted by injustice. There was considerable interaction  between white colonists with indentured or free blacks before 1660 and even afterwards. Many mixed race descendants "faded into white" over the generations. The white descendents of the slaves of Thomas Jefferson, are not alone or they are not rare case example. Undoubtedly thousands or even millions of white Americans are unknowingly the descendants of African slaves that crossed the Atlantic.

Mixed race people in antebellum United States often took refuge in the Appalachian mountains, especially in the mountain areas of Tennessee and Kentucky. They often are of mixed native American, African, and European ancestry. They looked white enough where their freedom was not challenged.  If it was challenged, they had a strategic place to stand their ground and melt into the heavily wooded terrain. These are a people that are generally known as the Melungeons, technically called "tri-racial isolates" to Anthropologists. Many white descendants of Melungeons will claim of an anonymous Indian ancestry, but often because of cultural taboos not consider or speak of possible black ancestry.  Traditionally this denial was a code of survival. In antebellum times, to claim one had 1/16 black ancestry could lead one to being kidnapped and sold into slavery.  Ironically many modern day advocates of racial separatism are unknowingly of mixed race ancestry themselves, especially if their family has been in this country since early colonial times. Melungeon Heritage Association

The Colored or Mulatto People of Antebellum St. Louis

In 1791 there was a sizeable "mulatto" population in St. Louis. Ninety-eight total with 23 being free and 75 being slave. While the strict definition of the term "mulatto" signifies one of mixed white and black ancestry, it is known that some mulattos also had some Indian blood. There was significant interbreeding between blacks, Indians and whites in certain segments of colonial society that were on the fringes of the frontier. In Missouri, the term mulatto and "colored" tended to be interchangeable. Often simply meaning being light brown or yellowish skin tone and assuming one being of mixed white-black ancestry. 

Having at least 25% of black heritage could "condemn" oneself to being a slave. But the situation becomes quite complicated when the percentage is not known or multiple grandparents are of minimal black ancestry. Some slaves in antebellum society literally were indistinguishable from free whites in appearances. "Fancy" female slaves with golden curls,  light eyes and complexions fetched exuberant prices at the slave market.

William Wells Brown, while a slave in St. Louis once witnessed seeing "... beautiful girl, apparently about twenty years of age, perfectly white, with straight light hair and blue eyes. But it was not the whiteness of her skin that created such a sensation among those who gazed upon her -- it was her almost unparalleled beauty. She had been on the boat but a short time, before the attention of all the passengers, including the ladies, had been called to her, and the common topic of conversation was about the beautiful slave-girl. She was not in chains. The man who claimed this article of human merchandise was a Mr. Walker -- a well known slave-trader, residing in St. Louis. There was a general anxiety among the passengers and crew to learn the history of the girl. Her master kept close by her side, and it would have been considered impudent for any of the passengers to have spoken to her, and the crew were not allowed to have any conversation with them. When we reached St. Louis, the slaves were removed to a boat bound for New Orleans, and the history of the beautiful slave-girl remained a mystery."

    How many of these mixed-race offspring were produced by consensual agreement is subject to question. Some slaveowners have argued their ownership of the slave was simply the ownership of the slave's labor, and not ownership of the slave's mind or physical bodies. Perhaps in some households this was the rule, but in practicality this argument becomes rather hollow. A subservient female slave, isolated from society, could only offer frail resistance to any unwanted sexual advances by the overseer or the master.  Harriet C. Frazier, in her book, "Slavery and Crime in Missouri, 1773-1865" (McFarland and Co., Jefferson, NC: 2001) states, "No slave had the legal right to refuse her owner sex no matter how advanced her high moral qualities were." This seems to have been the case in colonial Spanish Missouri and in antebellum American Missouri.

According to Julie Winch, Professor of History at the University of Massachusetts, in her introduction to a 1999 reprinted version Cypian Clamorgan's 1858 book, "The Colored Aristocracy of St. Louis", she writes, "...some of those unions were marked by a deep and abiding affection on both sides, but many more were the result of coercion and the exercise of the power that the law gave a master over his 'chattel personal.' As for the stability of these interracial families, few women were accorded the legal status of wives. When their lovers took white wives, as most did, the women of color were generally relegated to the position of concubines. As for the children, they might remain slaves, bound to their white siblings for life, but some did secure their freedom, and a few amassed wealth through bequests from their fathers or through their own industry..."

St. Louis slave, William Wells Brown, also witnessed seeing a slave trader, James Walker making a "housekeeper of one of his female slaves. Poor Cynthia! I knew her well. She was a quadroon, and one of the most beautiful women I ever saw. She was a native of St. Louis, and bore an irreproachable character for virtue and propriety of conduct. Mr. Walker bought her for the New Orleans market, and took her down with him on one of the trips that I made with him. Never shall I forget the circumstances of that voyage! On the first night that we were on board the steamboat, he directed me to put her into a state-room he had provided for her, apart from the other slaves. I had seen too much of the workings of slavery not to know what this meant. I accordingly watched him into the state-room, and listened to hear what passed between them. I heard him make his base offers, and her reject them. He told her that if she would accept his vile proposals, he would take her back with him to St. Louis, and establish her as his housekeeper on his farm. But if she persisted in rejecting them, he would sell her as a field hand on the worst plantation on the river. Neither threats nor bribes prevailed, however, and he retired, disappointed of his prey."
        "The next morning poor Cynthia told me what had passed, and bewailed her sad fate with floods of tears. I comforted and encouraged her all I could; but I foresaw but too well what the result must be. Without entering into any further particulars, suffice it to say that Walker performed his part of the contract at that time. He took her back to St. Louis, established her as his mistress and housekeeper at his farm, and before I left, he had two children by her. But, mark the end! Since I have been at the North, I have been credibly informed that Walker has been married, and, as a previous measure, sold poor Cynthia and her four children (she having had two more since I came away) into hopeless bondage!"

What language did the early slaves speak ? 

As late as 1818, fourteen years after Missouri became part of the United States virtually all of the slaves spoke French. According to John E. Darby who came to St. Louis in that year, "All the inhabitants of the town used French to the Negroes.". As for the Whites, approximately two-thirds of the population at this time spoke French as the predominant language. This all gradually changed as more and more Anglo Americans arrived and with them slaves that spoke English. Certainly French continued to be commonly spoken by the older generations well into the 1850's.

How the Free Colored with Money Fought the Forces of Slavery:

Cypian Clamorgan, a free person of color in St. Louis, in 1858 wrote, "...The colored people of St. Louis command several millions of dollars and every one knows that money, in whose hands soever it may be found, has an influence proportioned to its amount. Now although our colored friends have no voice in the elections, they are not idle spectators. They know what parties and what individuals are most favorable to their interests, and they are not slow in making friends with those who are able and willing to serve them."

How the Freed Slaves would Deal with the "Missouri for White Men" Movement:

The "Missouri for White Men" slogan was the campaign rallying cry for the early Missouri Republican party. Although this was a party opposed to slavery, many in its ranks were motivated not by sympathy but by anti-Negro prejudice. The party hoped by getting rid of slavery, Missouri could then expell everyone that was not white, by promoting colonization to Africa. Most slaves have lived in America for generations and had no desire to leave their native land. 

The free colored of St. Louis had a strategy to combat the "Missouri for White Men" movement.. They knew that if slavery was abolished, they could defeat the anti-Negro movement. Cypian Clamorgan explains, "When slavery is abolished, where will be found the power of excluding the colored man from an equal participation in the fruits of human progression and mutual development ? What political party will then dare to erect a platform on which the black man cannot stand side by side with his white brother ? It is a very wrong idea to suppose that the present movement is designed exclusively for the benefit of the white laborer. Time will show that such is not the case, and we advise the colored man to 'bide his time.' "  Thankfully Clamorgan was correct. By 1865 when slavery was abolished in Missouri, the colonization program was abandoned.

Escape By Way of the Underground RR:

While this was a option for some, many slaves would never consider escaping for it meant leaving loved ones behind. For example, William Wells Brown, a former St. Louis slave explains, 

"While living at the Missouri hotel, a circumstance occurred which caused me great unhappiness. My master sold my mother, and all her children, except myself. They were sold to different persons in the city of St. Louis."
"...I soon became unhappy, and several times thought of leaving and trying to make my escape to Canada....But whenever such thoughts would come into my mind, my resolution would soon be shaken by the remembrance that my dear mother was a slave in St. Louis, and I could not bear the idea of leaving her in that condition. She had often taken me upon her knee, and told me how she had carried me upon her back to the field when I was an infant -- how often she had been whipped for leaving her work to nurse me -- and how happy I would appear when she would take me into her arms. When these thoughts came over me, I would resolve never to leave the land of slavery without my mother. I thought that to leave her in slavery, after she had undergone and suffered so much for me, would be proving recreant to the duty which I owed to her. Besides this, I had three brothers and a sister there -- two of my brothers having died."

The Dred Scott Case:

Far from simply resolving the individual status of Dred Scott, the St. Louis slave that was suing for his freedom, the implications revealed in the 1857 decision were disastrous for both free blacks and slaves across the country.  In short, according the U.S. Supreme Court, the Federal government did not recognize the citizenship of black people. Chief Justice Roger B. Taney stated there was a "perpetual and impassible barrier" between blacks and whites regarding Federal law. They had no rights under the Constitution. So even if a free black was a citizen of one State, such as Massachusetts, he had no standing in Federal court. Dred Scott had even less of a standing. He was not even considered a citizen of the State of Missouri. He was mere property that could be bought, sold and moved around the country no matter if his master wished to live in a free State.  

According to the verdict of the Dred Scott  decision, slaveholders had every right to move anywhere (including the territories without jeopardizing their ownership rights). This was a huge set back for the abolitionist movement. It also enraged free-soil whites who wanted to keep the western territories white by keeping the slaves out. Although the decision pertained to territories of the United States and not States, northerners were concerned that the same ruling could be extended over all of the United States. The Dred Scott decision created an escalation of North-South hostilities prior to the Civil War, and set the stage for organized terrorist activities by fanatical abolitionist like John Brown and his New England financiers. Without a doubt, the issue of slavery played a major role in the secession of States from the lower South that eventually led the nation into Civil War in 1861.

Broadside Enlargment

Slave Traders:

Lynch's Slave Pen: Owned by Bernard M. Lynch. Located "on the south side of Locust Street, east of Fourth Street." Later moved to Fifth Street (now Broadway), somewhere near the corner of Spruce Street. Slaves brought from elsewhere in Missouri were kept here as they awaited auction at the courthouse door (East entrance at 4th Street).

Bolton, Dickens and Company: Main office located on Chestnut Street between Sixth and Seventh Streets. Another office at No. 52, Second Street which had a large sign reading, "Negroes Bought Here".

Thompson's Slave Pen: Owned by Corbin Thompson. Located near the County jail.

Another Slave dealer had an office at No. 57 South Fifth Street which "specialized" in the sale of children, ages 5-16.

 Prices for Slaves:

1717-1731: Adult Males were priced at $150 each. Women sold for $120

1830: "Field hand" slaves sold for about $500.

1850: Strong field hand Males sold for $1,300 each. Females for $1,000.

1840 Classified Advertisements for Slaves:

FOR SALE--A superior house and body SERVANT, under fine character. Any person desiring to purchase, can call at 93 Olive Street.

WANTED--300 NEGROES--Men, Women, Girls, and Boys--from the ages of twelve to thirty, for which I will pay cash. Apply to the subscriber, at the City Hotel, St. Louis.--Joseph M. Heady

NEGROES FOR SALE--Just from the country, TWO NEGRO WOMEN, one with a young child both good cooks, washers, and ironers; a BOY, 15 years old, and TWO NO. 1 MEN, at 79 Olive Street, where we are at all times prepared to buy, sell and board Negroes, having an establishment fitted up expressly for such business.--BLAKEY & McAFEE


A Slave Sale in St. Louis

Aslave trader bringing his "wares" to the St. Louis riverfront.  At the St. Louis market he would purchase more slaves before shipping the whole lot  down river to Natchez or New Orleans. 

Depiction of the St. Louis Slave Market in Winston Churchill's historical novel, "The Crisis":

"The oily auctioneer was inviting the people to pinch his wares. Men came forward to feel the creatures, and looked into their mouths. One snatched a child from its mother's lap.  Then the sing-song voice of the auctioneer---he was selling his cattle...High and low, caressing and menacing, he exhorted the crowd to buy.  Between the shoutings came moans from the slaves.  Finally, two girls were pushed forward, one a quadroon of great beauty, to be pinched and fingered..."  

Criticism of Churchill's Depiction by Eyewitness:

The following observations are by Capt. Joseph Boyce who was 81 years old when this was printed in the St. Louis Star on 30 Jan 1922. Boyce, although fully reconstructed following the Civil War, was a   former Confederate soldier (St. Louis Grays, 1st Missouri Infantry).  He helped found the Missouri Historical Society, and the Veteran Volunteer Fireman's Historical Society. He was also a Commander of the Military Order of the Blue and the Gray. While Capt. Boyce's account is very valuable, it is not necessarily free from bias or error.

The article in its entirety:

Capt. Joseph Boyce, says traders not as ferocious as pictured in fiction. "I can close my eyes now," Capt. Boyce declared yesterday, "and see the scene just as it is depicted by Churchill's book. To some degree, however, what actually occurred at these auctions has been a trifle overwrought by the writer.  But this is necessarily, due to the license fiction writers must employ to give high lights to their work."

Bernard M. Lynch "...was the custodian of all the slaves concentrated here for sale and shipment elsewhere. Slaves were brought to the pen from ...towns and farms in Missouri and when they were sold at the Courthouse door on Fourth Street, usually they were shipped down the river to Louisiana, Mississippi, or Kentucky. Most of these slaves were field-hand Negroes, and although I saw many of the auctions as a young man, and heard the oily tongue of the auctioneer just as described, I don't recall any harrowing scenes like the tearing apart of Negro families or part-white house servants being sold down the river."

"Then again, the usual slave traders in fiction are wantonly overdrawn.  They existed, but they were a type by themselves; feared, naturally, by the Negroes, but they were not as bad as may be believed.  These professional slave traders always attended the auctions on the courthouse doorsteps and brought and sold their wares like men would trade in horses.  Some of them were of a highly typified sort.  They always stayed at the Planters House [hotel] when in St. Louis and always drank their mint juleps at the Planter's bar, the most aristocratic drinking place in town at that time.  These men traded in slaves as diffidently as if they were buying, selling, or swapping horses, and it always impressed me that the Negroes were just as diffident.  They were mainly field hands, often sold and resold, and to whom they belonged and where they work next, apparently was of small concern to them."

"It is erroneous to believe, even at this late date, some of the harrowing scenes of these slave auctions depicted in fiction. Slave traders no more thought of mistreating their Negroes than men of today maltreat their good horses.  Often, of course, unruly Negroes had to be dealt with harshly.  These incidences gave rise to the many adverse accounts of the business of slave trading."

"In this state there was a law passed early in the fifties which prohibited the separation of parents and children, and husbands and wives, and in addition to this, a limited time was set for slavery to remain in Missouri.(*See Note Below)  This law governed at the time the Civil War broke out. It was instigated and passed by the old time southerners of St. Louis and Missouri, who abhorred, more than anyone else, any misery connected with slavery, or the grief likely to come from the breaking up of the Negro families."

"All the slave auctions held at the old courthouse were at noon.  The public took very little interest in them, though it couldn't help seeing them; for in the sixties downtown St. Louis was east of Fourth street, and usually, once a day, and chiefly at noon, most everybody passed by the old entrance to the courthouse."

"In this day small brick stores lined the east side of Fourth Street near the courthouse.  In them were jewelry and notions firms. Dave Nicholson, pioneer grocer, had his store on the northeast corner of Market and Fourth streets. The leading drug store, conducted by Maj. Edward S. Wheaton, was on the southeast corner of Market and Fourth Streets.  There was a number of saloons in the vicinity, also.  The one run by John Dinan was next to Market street just north of the Nicholson grocery.  James Carlisle's place was immediately south of Chestnut street, and was sort of headquarters for volunteer firemen."

"The bonton restaurant of those days was run by John Bonnet, a French chef.  His place was right across from the Planters and was the hang-out of persons careful of what they ate and circumspect in the matter where and by whom they were seen when not engaged at their business."

*Note: webpage author note: This statement by Boyce is questionable. It is unlikely a law was passed protecting husband and wife from separation because Missouri State law did not recognize slave marriages. In addition, I have seen Missouri slave sale documents for children as late as 1856, so unless a law was passed after this date, it is doubtful there was ever a law outlawing the separation of children from parents. 

Regarding the termination of slavery in Missouri, nothing was negotiated into law prior to 1860. Only during the Civil War was there a serious discussion on the gradual emancipation of slaves. But it failed in  March of 1863 after receiving opposition from a strange combination of pro-Union slavery diehards and abolitionist (that resisted the compensation clause that benefited slaveowners). --S.W.

A Slave's View of the St. Louis Slave Market:

William Wells Brown, (pictured at left) a former slave wrote:

"I shall never forget a scene which took place in the city of St. Louis, while I was in slavery. A man and his wife, both slaves, were brought from the country to the city, for sale. They were taken to the rooms of AUSTIN & SAVAGE, auctioneers."

"Several slave-speculators, who are always to be found at auctions where slaves are to be sold, were present. The man was first put up, and sold to the highest bidder. The wife was next ordered to ascend the platform. I was present. She slowly obeyed the order. The auctioneer commenced, and soon several hundred dollars were bid. My eyes were intensely fixed on the face of the woman, whose cheeks were wet with tears. But a conversation between the slave and his new master attracted my attention. I drew near them to listen. The slave was begging his new master to purchase his wife. Said he, "Master, if you will only buy Fanny, I know you will get the worth of your money. She is a good cook, a good washer, and her last mistress liked her very much. If you will only buy her how happy I shall be." The new master replied that he did not want her but if she sold cheap he would purchase her. I watched the countenance of the man while the different persons were bidding on his wife. When his new master bid on his wife you could see the smile upon his countenance, and the tears stop; but as soon as another would bid, you could see the countenance change and the tears start afresh."

"From this change of countenance one could see the workings of the inmost soul. But this suspense did not last long; the wife was struck off to the highest bidder, who proved not to be the owner of her husband. As soon as they became aware that they were to be separated, they both burst into tears; and as she descended from the auction-stand, the husband, walking up to her and taking her by the hand, said, "Well, Fanny, we are to part forever, on earth; you have been a good wife to me. I did all that I could to get my new master to buy you; but he did not want you, and all I have to say is, I hope you will try to meet me in heaven. I shall try to meet you there." The wife made no reply, but her sobs and cries told, too well, her own feelings. I saw the countenances of a number of whites who were present, and whose eyes were dim with tears at hearing the man bid his wife farewell."

        "Such are but common occurrences in the slave states. At these auction-stands, bones, muscles, sinews, blood and nerves, of human beings, are sold with as much indifference as a farmer in the north sells a horse or sheep." --William Wells Brown

Mark Twain's Opinion of the Slave Trader and the Slaves Being Sold:

Samuel Clemons, alias "Mark Twain", grew up in a slave-owning family. As a steamboat pilot he was well acquainted with antebellum St. Louis. The following are statements made by Mark Twain, that sharply contrast some of Capt. Joseph Boyce's observations:

"The 'n---er trader' was loathed by everybody.  He was regarded as a sort of human devil who bought and conveyed poor helpless creatures to hell..."

Regarding slaves on the verge of being sold, Twain wrote, "...a dozen black men and women chained to one another, once, and lying in a group on the pavement, awaiting shipment to the Southern market.  Those were the saddest faces I have ever seen."

Crimes by Slaves Punishable by Death:

*Regardless of intent good or bad. Zero tolerance law was to discourage slaves from poisoning their owners.

+ It was not a crime to rape a slave woman unless it was considered a "property trespass" against the slaveowner.

Legal Rights for Slaves:

*: Jury of white males that is.  +: $1000 fine and/or 1 year confinement

Other Crime Relating to Slaves:

Note: The lashing of slaves left scars that damaged their "market value", so slave owners would often negotiate for other punishments. Hanging by the thumbs, or wearing heavy iron shackles were alternative punishments. On the other hand, there were many cruel slave owners that used this treatment regardless of  financial loss that resulted.

++A former slave, John Berry Meachum, operated a "Freedom School" for blacks in St. Louis. When the 1847 law was passed outlawing this education, Meachum used a steamboat, anchored in a part of the Mississippi River where Missouri State law did not apply. This school successfully continued for about a decade. Another school opened about the time Meachum's school closed. Because anti-slavery sentiment grew to dominance in St. Louis in the late 1850's, another black educator, Hiram K. Revels was able to open his school within the city limits. 

Non-Rights for Slaves:

Recorded Crimes Committed on Slaves (St. Louis City/County) 1804-1865:

Recorded Crimes Committed By Slaves (St. Louis City/County) 1804-1865:

 Mob Violence Relating to Blacks in Antebellum St. Louis:

While St. Louis City/County was spared from the lynching of slaves, there were two actions by mobs in the city. One mob was infuriated by the killing of a slave and another mob savagely burned a free colored man alive.

The Civil War: 1861-1865

"For blacks, slave or free, the Civil War was the true American Revolution"

--Antonio F. Holland, "African Americans in Henry Shaw's St. Louis" (Essay from the book, "St. Louis in the Century of Henry Shaw", edited by Eric Sandweiss; Missouri Historical Society, St. Louis, Mo; 2003

Fremont's Emancipation Proclamation:

On August 30, 1861 Gen. John C. Fremont declared that anyone who has taken up arms against the Federal government or "actively supported those who did so", would be tried by court-martial, shot and all property confiscated. Any slaves among this property would be declared free.

President Lincoln was opposed to Fremont's proclamation. Lincoln said if " shoot a man, according to the proclamation, the Confederates would very certainly shoot our best men in their hands in retaliation." Also, the emancipation of slaves would "alarm our Southern Union friends". Lincoln told Fremont's wife, Jessie Benton Fremont, "General Fremont should not have dragged the Negro into it..." Thus, Lincoln ordered Fremont to rescind the proclamation.

Did Fremont's proclamation free any slaves ? Yes, but very few. Author James Neal Primm states that "the first slave so freed, and the first freed anywhere in the nation by federal authority was Hiram Reed, the property of Thomas L. Snead of St. Louis." Snead had sided with Missouri Governor Claiborne Fox Jackson who commanded the rebel "Missouri State Guard".

What was the difference between Fremont's emancipation proclamation and Lincoln's First Confiscation Act (issued Aug 6, 1861) ?  Fremont's proclamation would have freed slaves peacefully employed on farms or businesses owned by Confederate soldiers (or even by friends or relatives that may have sent letters or "care packages" to someone serving in the Confederate Army). Lincoln's 1st Confiscation Act, on the other hand,  generally was restricted to slaves that were actively employed in the rebellion (construction of rebel defenses, production of war supplies, or combat support functions)

Lincoln's 2nd Confiscation Act (issued July 1862) was very similar to Fremont's proclamation in regard to property. It was based upon the confiscation of property of persons disloyal to the United States. In unclear situations where slaves were owned by close relatives of a Confederate soldier (like a father, son or sibling), "disloyalty" needed to be proven in a Federal civil courts. In Fremont's proclamation, a military court decided who was disloyal.

Federal Procedures of  Processing of Slaves in Civil War Missouri:

Missouri had two governments during the Civil War, one Confederate (under Gov. Claiborne F. Jackson) and the other Union (Gov. Hamilton Gamble). The Constitutionally elected government was driven into exile by Federal forces. This government in exile (under Gov. Jackson) would join the Confederacy. Although the U.S. military occupied Missouri, the pro-Union government under Gov. Gamble was staunchly pro-slavery. For this reason, most Missouri slave owners were at least nominally pro-Union in sentiment. They formed a very strained alliance with anti-slavery citizens. Because of the loyalty of Missouri's slave owners, President Lincoln's Emancipation Proclamation did not pertain to Missouri's slaves. Slaves in Missouri would remain slaves until 1865. But the State was inundated by slaves from the Confederate States that were freed by the Emancipation Proclamation. Sorting runaway Missouri slaves from emancipated slaves was a big problem for Federal officials in St. Louis.

Enforcement of these policies tended to vary depending on the general in charge of the Department of Missouri. For instance, Gen. Samuel Curtis, was fairly liberal with the issuance of "Certificates of Freedom" often simply based up "on the mere statements of slaves." Primarily due to protest by pro-slavery Unionists, President Lincoln removed Curtis from command and replaced him with slavery friendly Gen. John M. Schofield. (Curtis was in command from September 1862 to May 1863)

How it worked under Gen. Curtis:

1) Slaves captured in the service of the Rebels: In Missouri these were deemed "Contrabands" and given their freedom under the 1st Confiscation Act. In reality, Missouri had very few slaves that fell into this category. In other slave States contrabands were sometimes treated harshly, such as in Louisiana, many were forced to work on government owned plantations.

2) Slaves freed by Lincoln's Emancipation Proclamation (issued Jan 1, 1863): Missouri slaves did not qualify for freedom under this proclamation. If slaves entered Missouri originating from States that did qualify them for freedom under this provision, they were required to provide some proof that their owners lived in qualifying areas. If they could do this, then they would receive a "Certificate of Freedom".

3) Slaves that were owned by "disloyal" owners. If slaves could provide proof of this and the evidence was credible, these slaves were issued a "Certificate of Freedom" under the 2nd Confiscation Act.

4) Slave refugees entering Missouri from Kentucky or Tennessee: These slaves were "presumed free" (mainly because of the difficulty of verifying if out-of-state owners were loyal or not), but they were NOT given "Certificates of Freedom". They were, instead granted a pass to depart Missouri and enter a free State, like Illinois or Iowa.

5) Slaves wishing to enlist in the Union Army:  The Union Army began recruiting slaves in Missouri after May 1863. Loyal slaveowners were paid $300 for each slave that enlisted. The soldier was given his freedom from slavery upon enlistment. If a slave attempted to enlist without their owner's permission, the owner sometimes punished the family they had left behind. Also slaves were frequently killed on the roadside by "bushwhackers" while they attempted to reach enlistment posts.  In Feb 1864, male slaves of military age qualified for the draft. Over the duration of the war, over 8,300 Missouri blacks served as soldiers in the Union Army.

6) All other slaves in Missouri remained slaves until the State issued its own Emancipation Proclamation, January 14, 1865.

How Slaves Were Processed Under Gen. John M. Schofield and Provost Marshal James O. Broadhead:

As reported by The Westliche Post, a St. Louis German language newspaper:


Our Jail, under the administration of General Schofield and Provost-Marshal
Broad-head, has become area; "slave-pen? Every day blacks and colored people
of all shades--men, women, and children--are thrown into it, who had
believed in the gospel of liberty proclaimed by "honest "--it is too great a
shame that this word must now be written with quotation marks--by honest
Father Abraham. This honest man has made Missouri a real hunting-ground for
nigger-catchers, and the authorities appointed by him protect this "honest"
calling in every possible way. If we say the Jail has become a slave-pen, we
don't mean to censure the jailer. He is bound to receive the slaves that are
arrested by order of the provost-marshal and brought to jail; he is bound to
do it as his duty, and we are sure it is a disagreeable duty to him. But who
has given our Provost-Marshal-General Broadhead authority to recall and
declare null and void the free papers which have been given by his
predecessors or by former commanders of this department to the slaves of
rebel masters? Does a slave become a free man by a certificate of liberty,
duly made out by competent authority, or is such a certificate of liberty a
mere piece of paper, which may be torn up at pleasure? Is the great liberty
proclamation of the President himself also a mere rag, which every
provost-marshal may spit upon and kick with his feet, if he so chooses?
Every day fugitive slaves from all quarters of the rebellious States are
arrested in our streets by professional rascals and dragged to jail. The
process of such an outrage is a very- simple one. Any rebel from Missouri,
Arkansas, Tennessee, Kentucky, Louisiana, Mississippi, or any other slave
State sells his human property to a dealer in men's flesh, who is, of
course, a "loyal" man, Just as Mr. Lincoln is an "honest man, and this
slave-trader puts immediately his blood-hounds on the track of the scented
game, which is then surely fated, for the provost-marshal-general never
neglects to play his role. Thus, in the past month hundreds of liberated
slaves have been carried back into slavery; thus, yesterday, six of them sat
in the jail waiting for the next boat to Kentucky, and thus things will
continue as long as Schofield and Broadhead are at the head of affairs, and
probably as long as "honest Old Abe" sits in the White House. We spoke to an
old soldier of the Twelfth Regiment, who had carried a musket in the service
of liberty since the commencement of the war, and we heard him say, "May my
right hand wither before it ever again throws a ticket for Abraham Lincoln
into the ballot-box and may my lips be struck dumb if ever I pronounce that
name otherwise than with contempt!" A negro who has gone through all the
toils of the Twelfth Regiment for two years is now a fugitive slave in the
jail, caught on Lincoln's slave-hunting ground in Missouri.

To such a pass has a weak-brained and weak-spirited Republican
administration brought affairs in Missouri that it has incurred the hatred
and the disgust of all true Union men, of all true emancipationists, and of
all those who are honestly in favor of liberty..."

"Every damned abolitionist in the country ought to be hung."

--James O. Broadhead, Union Provost Marshal St. Louis, Mo.

Black Civil War Units Organized in St. Louis

All of the following units, except the 3rd Arkansas (see note below), were organized for service at Benton Barracks, located in the vicinity of Fairground Park in north St. Louis. In the 1st Iowa, companies A thru F were mustered into service in Keokuk, Iowa, but it did not complete its organization until it came to St. Louis where it added companies G, H, I and K.

**Organized in St. Louis, Mo., Aug. 12, 1863, at Schofield Barracks. At that point in time the Missouri Governor did not want Missouri credited with having a regiment of colored troops, so it was organized under the State name of Arkansas (a Confederate State, with no pro-Union State government)

For More see: Missouri's U.S. Colored Troops


What About Black Confederates ?

Across the South there was a significant minority of slaves and freemen that sided with the Confederacy. Some were promised freedom others were doing it because they believed it was their duty to defend their native States from invaders. This does not mean they were fighting to preserve slavery.

In Missouri, since most slave owners were pro-Union, and the State was occupied by the Union Army, there were very few black Confederates. For free blacks in Missouri, the Confederacy had nothing to offer to rally them to their cause. A dozen or so rode with Confederate guerilla forces of Quantrill and a few served elsewhere. Their numbers in Missouri do not compare with the visibility of black Confederate in other southern States. Please see the author's article on Black Confederates in the Civil War for more information.

"Camp Ethiopia"

Both black and white refugees flocked to St. Louis during the Civil War. Many fled from areas that had experienced fighting or simply areas that have been stripped of all food by the passing armies, both Confederate and Union. In many areas of the South both homes and farms had been burned. Starvation loomed for masses of people both white and black. Whites frequently stockpiled food and other essentials by burying it underground as soon as they were aware of approaching troops. Black refugees often had it worse since they had fewer resources available to them. 

The congregation of thousands of slaves at the St. Louis riverfront became known as "Camp Ethiopia". The vacant Missouri Hotel (at Main and Morgan Streets) was acquired as temporary quarters for a thousand refugees. Another building nearby was turned into a hospital. The Contraband Relief Society and the St. Louis Ladies Contrband Relief Society provided assistance.  A school was opened for the children in a neighboring church. The adult slaves were put to work during the day repairing and building up the city's fortifications. Eventually Camp Ethiopia was shut down and the black refugees were moved to Benton Barracks in the north part of the city. Still even with assistance many died of diseases, especially small pox claimed many lives.

When Slavery Ended in Missouri:

Missouri Governor Thomas C. Fletcher's emancipation proclamation (this was not Lincoln's emancipation proclamation, that no one in Missouri) was approved by the pro-Union Missouri constitutional convention on July 6, 1864. It did not take effect until Saturday, Jan 14, 1865. After the proclamation was read on this date by George K. Budd, the St. Louis delegate of the convention, a sixty-gun salute was fired, to announce that Missouri was free. 

That night there was a great fireworks display in the skies over St. Louis.  Although the streets of St. Louis were filled with people of all races, not everyone was happy. Many feared the freed slaves would riot in the streets, but instead all was in proper order.

Free, But Not Equal: 

Although Missouri Radical Republicans supported the immediate abolition of slavery, most radicals in the State were against equality of the races. In the new Constitution, one had to be "white" to hold elective office or to vote. Black suffrage still had not been approved three years after the war ended. Only after the U.S. Congress passed the 15th Amendment in 1869, did the State of Missouri approve it. (suffrage at this time period  was  for males only, females of all races still had to wait another two generations.)


Brown, William Wells, "Narrative of William Wells Brown, An American Slave": London: Bishopgate-St.Without, Charles Gilpin; 1849. A reprint of this book is available at Also a complete digital version available at University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill website: A biography about Brown is available at: 

Clamorgan, Cyprian and Winch, Julie (editor), "The Colored Aristocracy of St. Louis": Columbia, Mo: University of Missouri Press, 1999 reprint

Frazier, Harriet C., "Slavery and Crime in Missouri, 1773-1865". Jefferson NC: McFarland and Co., 1999

Gerteis, Louis S., "Civil War St. Louis"; Lawrence, KS: University Press of Kansas, 2001

Lee, George R., "Slavery North of St. Louis"; Canton, MO: Lewis County Historical Society, (not dated)

Library of Congress; Prints and Photographs Division.

National Park Service, displays at the Old Courthouse, Jefferson National Expansion Memorial.

Sandweiss, Eric, "St. Louis in the Century of Henry Shaw",  Missouri Historical Society, St. Louis, Mo; 2003

St. Louis Star Newspaper article, "St. Louisan Recalls Days When Slaves Were Sold at Auction at Entrance to the Court House"; 30 Jan 1922.

Winter, William C., "The Civil War in St. Louis, A guided Tour"; St. Louis, Mo.: Missouri Historical Society Press, 1994.

Other: "Official Records of the Union and Confederate Armies in the War of the Rebellion"

About the Author

Scott K. Williams of Florissant, Mo. a life long history buff, is a descendant of abolitionists, slave-owners, and Civil War soldiers. A 1985 graduate the University of Missouri, Columbia, with a B.S. in Geology. Besides doing web pages on St. Louis history, he has worked approximately 20 years at the old St. Louis Arsenal, a historic site important during the Civil War. He is also has been a volunteer for the Missouri Civil War Museum.

The Author's Abolitionist Roots:

Scott Williams is the ggg grandnephew of Dr. Samuel Minton Mitchell (left) who was very active in operations of the underground railroad in southern Illinois. His home, "Cedar Hurst", was used as a station for slaves coming up from  Cairo. To ensure secrecy, Dr. Mitchell kept armed guards on the road leading to his land in Williamson County.  Unique to other underground railroad operations, at least some of the slaves were allowed to settle in "Little Africa", located in the vicinity of Mitchell's 2,500 acre farm.

  Once during the Civil War, Dr. Mitchell was arrested and charged with bringing slaves into the State, which was a crime but acquitted because the slaves were U.S. property, "contraband of war". Although this was after Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation, it was still illegal to blacks, free or slave to enter Illinois.

The Mitchell family, through Dr. Mitchell's paternal grandmother (Elizabeth Mitchell, nee Hunt)  was descended from the slave owning Hunt family of middle Tennessee. Dr. Mitchell's uncle, William Nazareth Mitchell, (not pictured)  was forced to leave the Hunt family home because he taught a slave to read the Bible. During the Civil War, at age 50, William Nazareth Mitchell returned to Tennessee, as a 2nd Lieutenant of Co E, 60th Illinois Infantry, U.S. Army.

The Founding of Africa, Illinois:

The author's other ancestor, Alexander McCreery (photo left), obtained the ownership of family slaves at the death of his mother, Margaret McCreery who was living  in the area of Washington County, Missouri.  So in 1844, Alexander went to Missouri with the intention of bringing the slaves to settle on land in Illinois. This was an illegal act as it was against the law to bring blacks into the State of Illinois at this point in time. So the operation required secrecy. However,  proslavery men blocked  an intended crossing point of the  Mississippi River. McCreery and party had found an alternative route and crossed safely.  It is certain had McCreery not rescued the family slaves, it is likely these proslavery men would have kidnapped the slaves and sold them back into slavery. According to family history, one slave was apprehended by slave kidnappers and never seen again. Another slave, a woman, was the wife of one of the McCreery slaves so she had to be purchased from an adjoining farm. The slaves that made it to Illinois included three men, three women, and numerous children, all valued at $10,000 on the slave market. These included the families of ex-slaves:  Charles McCreery, mulatto age 31; Richard Inge, age 45 and Bruce Inge; age 33 (ages based upon the 1850 Franklin Co., IL census).

Once in Illinois, secrecy was especially important. Liberty Methodist Church (Cave township in southeast Franklin County, Ill.).  This is a congregation that McCreery and the Mitchell's were founding members. The church provided support for these ex-slaves, and allowed them to hide in a barn owned by the church. The former slaves attended this church until they were able to found one in their own community of Africa in northeastern Williamson County, Illinois. Unlike the "underground RR" that only used Illinois as a temporary conduit in the escape of slaves to Canada, these slaves and others remained in Illinois permanently in this unique little community of Africa.

Africa was located on land once owned by Alexander McCreery, and Dr. Samuel Minton Mitchell. Although Africa never became more than a farming community, it was a prosperous settlement in northeast Williamson County, IL. Many descendants of the original slaves lived there well into the twentieth century.

Photo of Alexander McCreery, thanks to ggg granddaughter, Dorothy Willis of Portland, Oregon.

Portrait of Dr. Samuel M. Mitchell photographed by the author during a visit to the old Mitchell home known originally as "Cedar Hurst", but renamed "Cedar Crest". (Corinth township of Williamson Co., Illinois). Dr. Mitchell's son, John H. Mitchell founded another estate in Mt. Vernon, Illinois which carries on the name "Cedar Hurst" that now has been turned into the "Mitchell Museum of the Cedar Hurst Sculpture Park"

Additional Resources: 


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