Echoes of Slavery
by Leigh Elmore
In many ways the institution of slavery, while being the primary impetus to the American Civil War, is the least memorialized aspect of that climactic era in our history. While it remains challenging today to preserve even the most prominent structures and relics of the past, the physical imprint of those days of slavery are mostly lost.
Aunt Sophie's Cabin at the Rice-Tremonti Home in Raytown, MO is one of the few vestiges of Missouri's slavery era. (photo by Leigh Elmore)
Many of the "big houses" of slaveholding families have been preserved. The battlefields have been marked. Important trails are remembered. But the humble slave quarters that used to be ubiquitous have virtually disappeared from the landscape.
"In states such as Missouri, slave architecture and its history is virtually missing from preservation activities, museum's exhibits, and local tourism board web sites," said Gary Gene Fuenfhausen, president of Missouri's Little Dixie Heritage Foundation of Arrow Rock, MO.
"One problem is that like with most historic buildings, slave related architecture does not come with certified histories and bronze plaques," he said. "The issues become: where is this slave architecture, what does it look like, how do we identify it, why should we preserve it, and how do we interpret it? The saving of these buildings is imperative, because they are disappearing rapidly," Fuenfhausen said.
With a goal of raising public understanding of slavery's place in regional history as well as finding people to identify and protect former slave dwellings, the Missouri Humanities Council recently awarded Missouri's Little Dixie Heritage Foundation with a grant of $2,500. "This grant will also help us in our continued effort to foster the much needed understanding that these buildings and their history are monuments to the African American ancestors who lived in them," Fuenfhausen said.
In Missouri's cash crop and slave intensive Little Dixie region (17 counties bordering the Missouri River), research indicates of the 13,330 slave dwellings captured by the 1860 Federal Census, only an estimated 130 (or a mere 1 percent) are still standing. "These buildings are still being razed or allowed to disappear, as was the case as recently as 2013 at the historic Waddell house in Lexington or several years ago in Gladstone at the historic Atkins House museum," Fuenfhausen said.
Slavery on the frontier
Civil War re-enactors bring history to life at Aunt Sophie's Cabin in Raytown, MO. (photo by Leigh Elmore)
It has often been maintained that life for the slave in frontier Missouri was somehow less brutal than that experienced by his or her counterpart on plantations of the deep south. "Southerners who owned a large number of slaves generally chose to migrate to regions where they believed slavery was secure and where they could engage in large-scale cotton production. Neither description applied to Missouri. The state's close proximity to free states, and a shorter growing season that was not ideal for the cultivation of cotton, generally discouraged the migration of large planters," states Diane Mutti-Burke, associate professor of history at University of Missouri-Kansas City, in her essay, "Slavery on the Western Border."
Missouri instead emerged as a magnet for small-scale slaveholders, who were interested in practicing the diversified agriculture found in their original homes in the Upper South. The small number of slaves living on most Missouri slaveholdings altered the nature of the relationship between slaves and owners, as well as the family and community lives of enslaved people, "but in the end these differences did not result in a more humane form of slavery. In fact, slavery in western Missouri was often just as brutal as elsewhere in the South," Mutti-Burke said.
The extent of slavery in the U.S., 1861.
Following the War of 1812, thousands of white settlers from the upper South, many bringing their
Red, green and yellow coded counties indicate the extent of slavery in Missouri.
slaves, flooded into the fertile river bottomlands of western Missouri. These new Missourians – both black and white – quickly set about building farms and communities that resembled those they left behind in their eastern homes. Over time, however, they created a distinctive society that was profoundly shaped by the experience of small-scale slavery – on the eve of the Civil War, over 90 percent of Missouri slaveholders owned fewer than 10 slaves, according to Mutti-Burke.
Most Missouri slaveholding households resembled family farms rather than plantations. Most Missouri farmers practiced diversified agriculture, raising a combination of cash crops, such as tobacco and hemp, as well as corn and livestock. They did not require a large number of workers to farm successfully and so many searched for other ways to keep slavery profitable.
"The result was a system of slavery that was economically flexible. Missouri slaveholders regularly employed slaves at non-agricultural tasks and hired out their underemployed workers to their neighbors," Mutti-Burke said. "In addition, they rarely hired overseers and instead often worked alongside their slaves, supervising and supplementing their labor in their homes and fields."
The demographics of Missouri slavery profoundly affected enslaved Missourians' families and
The struggle against opening Kansas to slavery was fierce.
communities as well. The small number of slaves living on individual farms forced enslaved men and women to look beyond their home for marriage partners. The average enslaved Missouri family consisted of a mother and her children living on one farm and the husband and father on another.
Most men only saw their families on the weekends. Slave hiring and sales, as well as owners' migration decisions and the divisions of their estates, separated countless families.
Seeking freedom in Kansas
The crisis over Kansas statehood exposed the vulnerability of border slavery, but the explosive
violence of the Civil War years resulted in its ultimate destruction. The Union Army swept through Missouri during the early months of the war, and a Confederate guerrilla insurgency emerged to counter what many considered an enemy occupation. The unfolding conflict destabilized slavery as many of Missouri's nearly 115,000 slaves took advantage of the ensuing chaos and struck a blow for their own freedom.
The tensions that always existed in the relations between Missouri owners and slaves became more pronounced during the war years as enslaved people became empowered by wartime events. They simply had less incentive to work hard for their owners as discipline eroded and as freedom appeared possible.
"White Missourians recognized that the greatest threat to slavery was that their slaves would simply leave," Mutti-Burke wrote. Enslaved Missourians capitalized on the presence of the Union military and the political divisions among white Missourians and fled their owners in large numbers.
"As they ran away, they took advantage of the intricate web of social relations that they had so carefully cultivated during slavery, putting their associations and knowledge of the local geography to good use."
Enslaved Missouri men, women and children left for the surrounding free states by the thousands during the war years, "but most believed that the ray of freedom shined brightest in Kansas," Mutti-Burke states. As early as November 1861, Kansan John Wood reported that thousands of escaped Missouri slaves had already made their way to Lawrence. During the frigid winter of 1861-62, Platte County slave George Washington literally walked across the frozen Missouri River to freedom in the abolitionist stronghold of Quindaro, KS, and in April 1863, a Kansas City newspaper reported that large numbers of freed slaves were "constantly streaming through our streets," presumably on their way to Kansas.
Many of the residents of the new state of Kansas did not eagerly welcome the newly freed people. Fueled by virulent racism and white supremacy, many Kansas whites feared competition from the influx of African American workers. For example one former slave, Henry Bruce, reported that some Leavenworth citizens took advantage of his lack of understanding of personal finances to cheat him out of the fruits of his labor.
Jesse Hope displays shackles from the slave trade at the Quindaro
museum. (photo by Ken Weyand)
Quindaro became a destination on the fabled "Underground Railroad" that ferried escaped slaves to freedom in northern territories. It was founded by abolitionists in the 1850s who were looking for a "portal" on the Kansas side of the Missouri River. Many became Quindaro citizens. But Quindaro's boom was brief, as abolitionists wrested control of the Kansas Legislature, ensuring that Kansas would not succumb to slavery. By the end of the Civil War, Quindaro had been virtually abandoned.
In the early 1980s, Jesse Hope III founded the Old Quindaro Museum and Information Center (www.oldquindaromuseum.org) and led the effort to have Quindaro designated as an official historic site before he passed away last year. The museum's board of directors, led by Anthony Hope, the son of Jesse, is continuing preservation efforts at Quindaro.
Contrast In Space: Slave Places At 'Prairie Park'
Gary Gene Fuenfhausen, an architectural and cultural historian living in Arrow Rock, MO has created a series of programs illuminating the lives of slaves in Missouri. One such program is at Arrow Rock's Prairie Park Plantation where he interprets Prairie Park's slaved-built environment using historic records, written and oral histories, and archaeological evidence, together with the plantation's surviving buildings.
"The lives of the Sappingtons and their extended local family differed greatly from the slaves who lived in the small cabins situated on this massive farm," Fuenfhausen said. The presentation also provides information on African American slaves who not only helped build the estate, but also assisted in its running as cooks, field and livestock workers, tradesmen and managers. Built in a traditional Southern plantation block plan, Prairie Park mansion was center of William Breathitt and
Mary Mildred Sappington's 2,300 acre farm. "This massive plantation estate, which included overseers and some 40 slaves producing hundreds of head of livestock, tons of hemp, corn, and hay, was a mirror image of the great plantations of the Deep South," he says.
The contrast between the master's house (above) and the slave quarters (below) at Prairie Park is stark. (photos by Gary Gene Fuenfhausen)
"The white folk had a nice big house an' they was a number of poor little cabins fo' us folks. Our' was one room, built of logs, an' had a puncheon floor."
- Betty Abernathy, Missouri Slave
Leigh Elmore can be contacted at email@example.com
Feature Stories Archive past articles