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Look Back 250 • Slavery was a fact of life in St. Louis from the beginning

Look Back 250 • Slavery was a fact of life in St. Louis from the beginning

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ST. LOUIS • “They are habitually cruel to their slaves.”

Army Capt. Amos Stoddard wrote that private observation regarding some local citizens in 1804. A New Englander, he was the United States’ first representative here after the Louisiana Purchase.

If Stoddard found slavery distasteful, he bowed to the wishes of St. Louis’ prominent families, who fretted that their slaves might get dangerous notions under new management. He agreed to enforce a “slave code” of restrictions.

Slavery was a central fact of life in this region — even some early missionary priests owned slaves. When young Auguste Chouteau directed land clearing for the village in 1764, slaves probably were in his workforce. The first baptisms here included children of Indian slave women.

Chouteau, who became the town’s richest man, owned more than 30 slaves. He used his considerable influence to preserve the institution.

In the early years, perhaps half of local slaves were Indians. That changed after 1770, when Spanish colonial rulers decided to abolish Indian slavery to avoid trouble with the tribes in their vast territory. They were fine with owning blacks.

When St. Louis slaveholders simply ignored the decree, colonial leaders let them keep the Indians they already had. (Not until 1834 did the Missouri Supreme Court end Indian slavery.)

By the late 1790s, when one-third of the town’s 900 residents was held in slavery, most were black and many were house servants.

As the city grew, the percentage of residents in bondage declined sharply — to 20 percent in 1830 and 3.4 percent by 1850, when 2,636 of St. Louis’ 77,860 people were slaves. But many of the most prominent families were slaveholders, and they knew how to protect privilege.

Powerful racism also kept things going. In 1836, a white mob dragged Francis McIntosh from the city jail, lashed him to a tree and burned him to death. McIntosh, a free black who worked as a steamboat cook, had killed a sheriff’s deputy in a struggle. One year later, a mob in Alton killed anti-slavery newspaper editor Elijah Lovejoy, who had railed against the “savage barbarity” of the McIntosh lynching.

  Missouri slave with master's son
    Slave with master's son

By 1860, the 1,800 free blacks living here slightly outnumbered the declining slave population. Many free blacks worked as laborers and seamstresses. A lucrative trade was barbering. A few got rich.

But pro-slavery politics dominated Missouri, which entered the Union as a slave state in 1821. Sentiment hardened with the growth of Southern-style plantations in the region along the Missouri River known as “Little Dixie.” The Legislature prohibited education of blacks, slave or free.

Even as slavery waned in St. Louis, the city was a major market for selling surplus slaves “down the river” to the Deep South — a prospect that filled Missouri slaves with dread.

If the city slave population fell, there were about 2,800 slaves in rural St. Louis County and an additional 110,000 across the state — all told, 10 percent of Missouri’s population on the eve of the Civil War.

In 1846, slaves named Dred and Harriet Scott sued for freedom in the St. Louis County Courthouse downtown (now known as the Old Courthouse). Their case would draw little notice for a decade.

Former slave here writes book about winning freedom

Most slaves lived and toiled anonymously, noted only in owners’ wills or on bills of sale. An exception was Lucy Delaney, who wrote a book about her life as a slave girl in St. Louis.


Delaney’s mother, Polly Berry, had been a free black in Illinois when she was kidnapped and sold to a wealthy couple in St. Louis. She married another slave and had two daughters.

They served in relative tranquility until a new owner suddenly sold Delaney’s father down river to the Deep South.

Her sister escaped to Canada. Her mother tried to follow, but was captured in Chicago and returned in chains.

Undaunted, the mother filed suits in the St. Louis County (Old) Courthouse to win freedom for herself and Lucy. Because she had was a free person forced into slavery, the mother argued, she and her daughter couldn’t be slaves.

Edward Bates, who later was President Abraham Lincoln’s attorney general, won Lucy’s freedom in 1844 when she was 14. Her mother, also freed, died before her husband was found on a plantation near Vicksburg, Miss.

Delaney and her husband, Zachariah, were living in St. Louis when she published her book in 1891. Called “From the Darkness Cometh the Light; or Struggles for Freedom,” it is available online and in a few libraries as a rare book.

Madame Chouteau battles an in-law over death of slave

What is the worth of a man?

In the case of Baptiste, a black man in bondage to St. Louis matriarch Marie Therese Chouteau, the value was $600, ordered by the Spanish colonial government. The case offers a glimpse of colonial St. Louis and the steel of Madame Chouteau.


Baptiste was one of her slaves. On Dec. 27, 1785, he accidentally was killed as a posse put down a raid into town by escaped Indian slaves. Baptiste was trying to distract the runaways with rum when he was hit by a stray shot.

A leader of the posse was Joseph Papin, one of Madame’s sons-in-law. She quickly filed suit, alleging that Papin “acted very hastily and inconsiderately.”

As for Baptiste, she wrote, “His services were invaluable to me.” Still, she demanded $1,000.

Local colonial officials kicked the sensitive case to New Orleans, where the Superior Tribunal ordered that Madame get her due. Baptiste’s “value” was set at $600, assessed to Papin and five others.

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Tim O'Neil is a reporter for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch

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