Slavery in Missouri at the Brink of War

Slavery in Missouri, and the upper Mississippi River Valley, was quite different than the nature of slavery in the Deep South, but also had many similarities. Slavery was permitted in the Louisiana Territory under French control since the early 18th century, when trader Philippe Francois Renault brought 500 slaves to work in the lead mines. Just prior to 1800, one-third of St. Louis’ population were Native American or Black house servants. Once the United States purchased the Louisiana Territory in 1803 from the French Empire, slave codes were immediately enacted in the Missouri region to suppress slaves’ abilities to revolt or assimilate with the white population. These slave codes prohibited and severely punished slaves for the use of weapons by slaves, protest and assembly, selling alcoholic beverages to fellow slaves, disobedience to masters, education, and sexual assault against a white female. These slave codes appeared in the Missouri State Constitution when the territory officially entered the Union.


Missouri slave Louisa holding infant Harry Hayward in 1858. Courtesy of the Missouri Historical Society. 

When Missouri became the 24th state in the Union in 1821, migrants from the Upper South, such as Virginia, Tennessee, Kentucky, and North Carolina, poured into the new state to capitalize on the fertile land and invest in cheaper property. Slave owners brought their slaves west to Missouri, which uprooted their ties with surrounding African American communities in their former states. In the decades prior to the Civil War, Missouri was steadily growing in both population and its reliance upon the “peculiar institution.” In 1860, there were over 114,000 slaves in Missouri, equating to roughly 10% of the state’s population. [1] 2,800 slaves were in western St. Louis County in 1860. Roughly 1,800 African Americans in St. Louis were free. [2]

Slave-holding Missourians mainly settled along the Missouri and Mississippi Rivers, dubbed “Little Dixie,” for both fertile land and convenient riverine commerce transport. The fertile land and humid temperate climate in the Midwest was perfect for the farming of hemp, tobacco, grains, and corn along the rivers. Missouri was actually the largest producer of hemp in the country by 1850, making up 26% of national totals. In the Little Dixie region, upland cotton was a cash crop that could be used for domestic purposes. By 1860, over 16,000,000 pounds of cotton was picked in the Little Dixie region. [3] In the Ozarks and St. Francois Mountains, slaves were used to work lead and iron mines. Additionally, many black laborers worked on the river boats, especially in St. Louis.


Map showing the slave population per county in Missouri. The darker the shade, the higher the enslaved population. Courtesy of the New York Times.

Though the vast majority of farms consisted of a modest number of slaves, some of the wealthiest Missouri slave owners had extensive plantations. The wealthiest slave owner in Cooper County, for example, was J. Kelly Ragland, who owned 81 slaves in 1860. In Saline County, the Oak Grove Plantation (owned by the O’Bannon family) had a large mansion, 3 slave quarters for 13 slaves, and various outbuildings for the production of hemp.

With the average slave owner owning 1-2 slaves, slaves needed to be skilled in a variety of capacities. Not only did they need to know how to farm, they had to work as blacksmiths, house repairers, maids, nannies, masons, carpenters, tailors, cooks, bakers, and much more.[4] Emma Knight of Florida, Missouri recalled the work she performed as a slave:

“We cut weeds along de fences, pulled weeds in de garden and helped de misstress with de hoeing. We had to feed de stock, sheep, hogs, and calves, because de young masters wouldn’t do de work. In de evenings we was made to snit a finger width and if we missed a stitch would have to pull all the yarn out and do it over.” [5]

At the age of 91, former slave Mary Armstrong recalled the types of slave-holding farms in St. Louis County during the Civil War.

“The farms was lots difrunt from down here [in Texas]. They call ’em plantations down here, but up at St. Louis they was jes’ farms. An’ that’s jes’ what they was, cause we raise wheat, barley, rye, oats, corn, an’ fruit. They wasn’t no cotton growin’ up there. The houses was built with brick an’ heavy wood ’cause…. it was sure cold in the wintertime.” [6]

As for the slave quarters, they varied in Missouri – as they did in every slave state. Some were small cabins made of logs, wood planks, or brick. In Howard County, a double-pen slave quarters made of brick and constructed in the 1830s still remains. For the larger plantations, barracks-style slave quarters were constructed. In Cass County, one of these barracks-style slave quarters built in 1850 is still standing. According to slave Richard Kimmons of Lawrence County recalled, “mos’ all de slaves everywhere lived in log houses which had two rooms. We made our beds by driving logs in the dirt floor an’ makin’ a kinda scaffold. Den ropes was stretched across ‘stead of springs and we filled ticks with grass, or straw, or corn shucks an’ made our beds.”[7]

At the brink of the Civil War, slavery in the state was a contentious issue among Missourians. Since the Missouri Compromise was passed in 1820, Missouri sat at the epicenter of political conflict over slavery’s future in country, especially in the West. Violence and fiery debates erupted as a result of the lynching of Francis McIntosh in St. Louis; the destruction of Elijah Lovejoy’s abolitionist printing press in Alton, Illinois; the passing of the Kansas-Nebraska Act in 1854; and the Dred Scott trials and Supreme Court decision. As the foremost cause of secession and the American Civil War, slavery was a cornerstone of Missouri labor and society, one that would soon fade away by 1865.

1. “Slavery in Missouri,” Washington University in St. Louis Law School, accessed February 11, 2018,
2. Tim O’Neil, “Look Back 250: Slavery Was a Fact of Life in St. Louis From the Beginning,” St. Louis Post-Dispatch, May 17, 2014,
3. Gary Gene Fuenfhausen, “The Cotton Culture of Missouri’s Little Dixie,” Midwest Open Air Museums Magazine, Summer 2001.
4. “Slavery in Missouri,” Jefferson National Expansion Memorial – National Park Service, accessed February 11, 2018,
5. Emma Knight Slave Narrative in “Slave Narratives,” Jim’s Journey: The Huck Finn Freedom Center, accessed February 12, 2018,
6. Mary Armstrong Slave Narrative in “Individual Slave Narratives,” Missouri State Parks, accessed February 12, 2018,
7. Richard Kimmons Slave Narrative in “”Individual Slave Narratives,” Missouri State Parks, accessed February 12, 2018,

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