Less than 40 years after the Civil War, General John G. Haskell, the president of the Kansas Historical Society, described slavery in western Missouri as “a more domestic than commercial institution,” in which the “social habits were those of the farm and not the plantation.” Many of his white contemporaries remembered slavery in a similar way, arguing that conditions were much more favorable on the farms of western Missouri than in the cotton fields of the Deep South.
This belief in the mild nature of Missouri slavery has largely persisted in spite of the more complex picture painted by the men and women who actually endured enslavement in the state. Indeed, the state’s geographic location on the border of the slave South determined the characteristics of slavery there. 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.
In fact, slavery in western Missouri was often just as brutal as elsewhere in the South.
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. In the end, however, the many contradictions and tensions inherent in the small-scale system of slavery practiced in Missouri resulted in the institution’s rapid collapse during the violent years of the Civil War.
Missouri’s Small-Slaveholding Households
Following the War of 1812, thousands of white settlers from the Upper South, many bringing their 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.
The profile of 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. In addition, they rarely hired overseers and instead often worked alongside their slaves, supervising and supplementing their labor in their homes and fields.
Small-scale slavery greatly influenced the work conditions and social interactions of black and white Missourians.
Small-scale slavery greatly influenced the work conditions and social interactions of black and white Missourians. Close living and working conditions frequently eroded the authority of owners and provided slaves with opportunities to resist their enslavement. Intimate relations resulted in better treatment for some slaves, but at the same time exposed others to the worst forms of physical and psychological abuse. In the end, each owner’s personalities and whims determined the treatment of their slaves.
The demographics of Missouri slavery profoundly affected enslaved Missourians’ families and 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. In spite of these many challenges, enslaved Missourians tenaciously created and maintained strong family ties that often endured for many years.
Enslaved Missourians also resisted isolation by creating social and kinship networks within rural neighborhoods. They established relationships with other enslaved people as they traveled throughout the countryside running errands for their owners, on hiring assignments, or visiting family members. Most owners allowed slaves to celebrate with family and friends at weddings, births, and funerals, as well as at work-related parties such as corn huskings, but slaves also clandestinely attended religious services led by black preachers, visited their loved ones without permission, or gambled and danced at underground parties in the woods. These human connections forged across farm boundaries were vital to individuals’ self-identity and to their ability to survive their enslavement. Additionally, knowledge of the local geography and friendships cultivated through years of socializing served enslaved Missourians well as they approached the revolutionary moment of emancipation.
Missouri’s Fight Over Slavery in Kansas
Although most white Missourians remained supportive of slavery, a small minority, primarily comprised of these newcomers, began to voice criticisms of the institution.
Missouri was convulsed by dramatic demographic and political changes in the years leading up to the Civil War. While by 1860 a vast majority of Missourians still had ancestral roots in the Upper South, nearly a quarter of the state’s residents were born in free states or were immigrants, who mostly hailed from Germany. This influx of non-slaveholding settlers resulted in a decline of enslaved people as a percentage of the total population, from 18 percent in 1830 to 10 percent in 1860. Although most white Missourians remained supportive of slavery, a small minority, primarily comprised of these newcomers, began to voice criticisms of the institution.
After the U.S. Congress passed the Kansas-Nebraska Act in 1854, which allowed the new residents of the territories to determine the status of slavery, white Missourians generally agreed that it was essential that Kansas become a slave state. In order to ensure that outcome, a number of western Missourians staked land claims in Kansas – some even moved there with their slaves, while many others crossed the state line into Kansas Territory to vote illegally on election days in 1854 and 1855. Violence soon erupted between Free-Soil and proslavery forces along the Missouri-Kansas border.
White Missourians were troubled by the national political implications of a free soil victory in Kansas, but they were more concerned that it would destabilize slavery in Missouri. Slaveholders had long feared that Missouri’s border location increased the possibility of successful slave escapes, but the growing presence of Free-Soil and antislavery settlers in Kansas was a grave concern. Western Missourians worried that antislavery Kansans might “steal” or entice their slaves to flee, or, even worse, encourage their rebellion. Sensationalized “slave stealing” raids led by Kansas abolitionists, such as John Brown and John Doy, as well as the increased number of runaway slaves who took advantage of their geographic proximity to Kansas, validated their fears. Proslavery conventions and vigilante committees, such as the Platte County Self Defensive Association, were organized in western Missouri in response to the perceived abolitionist threat in Kansas.
In reality, abolitionists did not swarm over the border to liberate Missouri slaves, but both white and black Missourians understood that if fugitives successfully made their way to Kansas, there was a good chance they would find sympathetic residents who would aid them in their quest for freedom. Indeed, abolitionists had developed a network of safe houses along the so-called “Lane Trail,” a part of the Underground Railroad named after free soil politician and future U.S. Senator James H. Lane, which ran north through Nebraska Territory and across Iowa to freedom.
The experience of living in the “middle ground” between the North and the South led most to move cautiously when it came to the question of disunion.
In spite of their growing concerns about the stability of slavery in Missouri, most white Missourians voted against secession in early 1861. The experience of living in the “middle ground” between the North and the South led most to move cautiously when it came to the question of disunion. Missourians’ goals were conservative. They wished to preserve the state’s social and economic institutions, including slavery. They understood that Missouri’s exposed border location left the state vulnerable should it side with the South. In the end, a majority of Missourians decided to remain in the Union, which posed no immediate threat to slavery in the border states.
The End of Border Slavery
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.
Missouri slaveholders’ long-term fears about the stability of slavery were suddenly realized. Even as white Missourians desperately tried to isolate slaves from the political discussions of the day, enslaved people actively worked to collect and share information with one other about what the war might mean for them. According to former Missouri slave Henry Bruce, slaves “understood the war to be for their freedom solely, and prayed earnestly and often for the success of the Union cause.”
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. 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.
View a video of historian William C. Harris analyzing Lincoln's efforts to keep the border states in the Union. An event at the Kansas City Public Library.
At first, many Missouri slaveholders could not accept that their slaves were making their own decisions to flee. Instead, they frequently accused Union soldiers, especially Kansas troops whom they disdainfully called jayhawkers, of enticing away or outright stealing their slaves. In most cases, enslaved people actively sought out the protection of the Union Army or made their own way to Kansas, where they believed they would find aid and protection. In December 1861, for example, a “train” of 129 escaped slaves that stretched a “mile long,” complete with confiscated livestock, ten wagons, and two carriages “all loaded down with Household Furniture,” accompanied Union troops out of Jackson and Cass counties into Kansas.
During the first two years of the war, army officers sent enquires up the military chain of command, asking about the status of escaped slaves. President Abraham Lincoln’s and Union military leaders’ primary objective was to keep Missouri in the Union; therefore, they believed that they could not afford to alienate loyal Missouri slaveholders. At first, soldiers were allowed to protect secessionists’ slaves who made their way to Union Army camps, but they were ordered to send back fugitives belonging to slaveholders who supported the Union.
By midway through the war, soldiers no longer debated the status of escaped slaves and in most cases actively worked to protect them.
This policy began to unravel once it became apparent that it would be difficult to determine owners’ true loyalties and as Union soldiers began to appreciate the usefulness of employing escaped slaves in their camps. By midway through the war, soldiers no longer debated the status of escaped slaves and in most cases actively worked to protect them.
Missouri slaveholders became increasingly motivated to arrest the erosion of slavery in the state. Many took their frustrations out on their slaves, threatening and intimidating them to keep them working on their farms. Others moved their slaves to secure locations within the Confederate interior or, as slave values continued to decline in Missouri, transported them to Kentucky or Texas for sale.
White Missourians wished to keep their slaves working on their farms and plantations. Owners continued to rely on slave patrols to monitor slaves’ movement but now sanctioned extreme violence as they worked to control an increasingly unruly slave population. As local governments broke down and regular slave patrols became unreliable, many owners turned to Confederate guerrillas, who ruthlessly helped them maintain slavery.
But Missouri slaveholders also were concerned about those slaves who remained behind on their farms. Union military authorities regularly arrested or retaliated against apparent secessionists on the word of slaves who reported their owners’ disloyal activities. If discovered, the consequences could be dire for those who informed on their owners.
Berlin, Ira, et. al. Freedom: A Documentary History of Emancipation, 1861-1867. New York: Cambridge University Press.
Bruce, Henry Clay. The New Man: Twenty-Nine Years a Slave. Twenty-Nine Years a Free Man. York, PA.: P. Anstadt & Sons, 1895.
Mutti Burke, Diane. On Slavery's Border: Missouri's Small-Slaveholding Households, 1815-1865. Athens: The University of Georgia Press, 2010.
Rawick, George, ed. The American Slave: A Composite Autobiography. Series. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1977– 1979.
Sheridan, Richard B., ed. Freedom's Crucible: The Underground Railroad in Lawrence and Douglas County, Kansas, 1854-1865: A Reader. Lawrence: Division of Continuing Education, The University of Kansas.