Missouri River A Flashpoint For Slavery Conflict In Missouri, Kansas
Slavery along the Missouri River in what is now the Kansas City metro area was not the slavery of Gone With The Wind.
University of Missouri-Kansas City history professor Diane Mutti-Burke, who has written extensively about slavery in Missouri, says slave owners tended to have less than 20 slaves. Those with more than 20 are historically defined as "plantations."
While they may have been smaller operations than in the deep South, they were equally inhumane.
"It's really disturbing," says Mutti-Burke. "There was advertising, you see it in Missouri papers. Speculators, or 'slavers' as they were known, coming to Missouri to purchase people cheaply and take them down to New Orleans and sell them."
Slave history is hard to document and verify. Historians piece together oral histories, newspaper accounts, advertisements, census data and personal papers. But remaining physical evidence exists.
Validating historical accounts
There are a handful of what historians identify as pre-Civil War homes with slave quarters in Platte and Clay counties.
The home of St. Clair Dimmitt, a Liberty resident in the 1850s, is an example. It sits just off the historic square in Liberty, Missouri.
Immediately behind the restored brick house sits a garage-size building. Inside there's a worn brick wall, with holes on either side for what historians believe to have been chimneys, and a concrete floor. It was slave quarters, likely with a summer kitchen attached.
Today, a young architect named Dan Wehmueller owns the home. He uses the small space in back to store tools.
Historians and archeologists are working to preserve remains like the Dimmitt house in what’s known as Little Dixie – roughly 17 counties along the river in western Missouri.
Little Dixie got its name because it mirrored the economy of the slave holders who migrated up from the upper South – Kentucky, Tennessee, and Virginia. Agriculture was at the center of the economy, says cultural and architectural historian Gary Fuenfhausen.
"In Layafette County, (there was ) a lot of hemp culture along river, because the quality of soil was better suited to it," says Fuenfhausen.
Hemp and tobacco were the major cash crops. Hemp was increasingly profitable for rope to bind the cotton coming off the large plantations of the deep South.
Slave labor was used liberally.
A beacon of hope
In ’58 I carried to my native town in Vermont a pair of manacles filed from the ankle of a stalwart black, who had escaped from the vicinity of Parkville, having drawn one foot from the encircling iron and brought the chain still attached to the other, in his hand. The man having learned that he was sold south attempted to escape and was at once put in irons. The night before the time set for delivery of the property, assisted by a fellow slave … he got loose.
"Right here is my mom, Helen Monroe Hope, and next to her is her mother and father, Zollie Sr., and Ethyl B. Monroe Hope," he says. "Behind my mom is Victoria and Walter, her grandmother and grandfather."
Over a century and a half after the Missouri River played such a central role in pre-Civil War politics, communities on both sides of the river find themselves confronting issues with roots in their past. Leaders and activists hope by understanding that past they can move forward into a more harmonious future.
This look at the Missouri River is part of KCUR's months-long examination of how geographic borders affect our daily lives in Kansas City. KCUR will go Beyond OurBorders and spark a community conversation through social outreach and innovative journalism.
We will share the history of these lines, how the borders affect the current Kansas City experience and what’s being done to bridge or dissolve them.