Tag Archives: Milton Duty

African American Lives in St. Louis and the Prospect of Legal Stampedes

Black and white portrait of Archer Alexander

Archer Alexander courtesy of Mid Rivers Newsmagazine

In Missouri during the Civil War, the Union army sometimes employed enslaved people as spies. One of these espionage agents, Archer Alexander, made his escape from St. Charles, Missouri to St. Louis before his former owners, the Hollmans, ever discovered that he was slipping the Union “information about [their] Confederate sympathies and guerrilla activities.” [1]  After Alexander established himself in St. Louis, he asked to purchase the freedom of his family. The Hollmans refused. However, with the help of a neighbor and the protection of the Union army, the reminder of the Alexander family escaped and remained safely in St. Louis until slavery was abolished in 1865. [2] The Alexanders are perhaps a good example of wartime runaways who found freedom within Missouri state lines instead of heading across them.

Historian Dale Edwyna Smith’s African American Lives in St. Louis, 1763-1865 offers an exploration of the “unique status of African Americans in that gateway to the West, highlighting the greater freedoms and opportunity that persons of color had in the city than elsewhere in the state and the blurred lines between slaves and free.” [3]  Smith focuses on the legal and social systems of African Americans, both free and enslaved, in St. Louis. In particular, she traces the laws restricting black mobility to their roots in the colonial French legal system, the Code Noir. Smith briefly mentions group escapes in Missouri, but she does not use the word stampede. Smith does note, however, that group escapes were “rare” and usually involved families. [4]

Map of Saline County 1857

Map of Saline County 1857

Using runaway ads from the Missouri Gazette, Smith tells the story of the Journey brothers, three enslaved men who ran away together from St. Charles.[5]  Another notable runaway ad, from slaveholder De Witt McNutt, described a mother and her young son, an individual man, and a husband and wife, who all ran together from Saline County. [6]  But in addition to these types of advertisements, Smith highlights two other ways that enslaved people in Missouri gained freedom. One process involved manumission, the freeing of slaves by their master or the purchasing of “slaves for the [expressed] purpose of manumitting them.” [7]   Another notable path to liberation in St. Louis was a contested legal process called “freedom suits.” At times, these two roads toward freedom intersected, such as in the case of the Milton Duty slaves.

Milton Duty wrote in his will his slaves were to be set free after his death. He moved from Mississippi to ensure that upon their freedom his slaves would be able to live in freedom. [8] However, a dispute over unpaid loans after Duty’s death halted the manumission of this group of 26. They were to be sold in order to pay off the debts Duty supposedly owed. And so, as a group, they sued for freedom in St. Louis Circuit Court in the spring of 1842. The charge was led by Preston and Braxton, enslaved brothers who seemed to have overseen organizing the Duty household in its move from Mississippi to Missouri. [9]  The adults sued simultaneously on behalf of themselves and their minor children. In Preston’s case, he sued on behalf of two boys, whose parentage was unknown, but “as their next friend.” [10] 

Black and White image of St. Louis Courthouse

St. Louis Courthouse courtesy Missouri Historical Society

According to Smith, the “Duty case [was] striking for many reasons, not the least because in it, so many slaves simultaneously, and collectively, sued to be free.” [11] In 1845, there still was no resolution, so the Duty slaves petitioned the court again. [12]  They made minor changes in the petition (adding Duty as their last name) and increasing the number of enslaved people suing for freedom, because James Duty was born. [13]

Tyler Blow, who famously purchased and freed Dred Scott after the Supreme Court denied his freedom suit, was also involved in the Duty Case. [14] In 1854, twelve years after the failed Duty case and sixteen years after Duty’s death, Blow freed Nicene Clark, whom he claimed he had purchased from the Duty estate. [15]  Although in the end, the vast majority of the Duty slaves were never set free, this extraordinary case –a veritable legal stampede– seemed to have caused high anxiety within the state because that same year (1842) the state legislature “amended its laws to prohibit anyone from bringing slaves to Missouri from other states to set them free at a later date.” [16]

[1] Dale Edwyna Smith, African American Lives in St. Louis, 1763-1865 (Jefferson, NC: McFarland, 2017), 165.

[2] Smith, 165.

[3] Robert Kett, “The Eventual Impossibility of Compromise,” Western Illinois Historical Review 8 (2017): 34, [WEB]

[4] Smith, 129.

[5] Smith, 127.

[6] Smith, 129.

[7] Smith, 130.

[8] Smith, 109.

[9] Smith, 109.

[10] Smith, 120.

[11] Smith, 119.

[12] Smith, 122.

[13] Smith, 122.

[14] Smith, 124.

[15] Smith, 125.

[16] Smith, 119.

Redemption Songs and Mrs. Dred Scott by Lea VanderVelde

stampede article

“Slave Stampede,” Daily Missouri Republican, July 16, 1856, p. 3 Courtesy of the State Historical Society of Missouri.

On July 16, 1856, the Daily Missouri Republican reported on a large reward being offered to help recapture a group freedom seekers: “Slave Stampede: A reward of $1,500 was offered yesterday for the apprehension of eight negroes-a man and wife, three sons, two daughters and the wife’s sister, who disappeared on Monday night. They are the property of Messrs R. Wash and John O’Fallon Jr. Several other slaves are supposed to be in their company on the underground track.”[1] This short article, located in the middle of four pages of local and national news, described a group escape of eight or more enslaved blacks as a “stampede.” Yet what does the term mean in this context? Was it meant to sensationalize the news to grab readers’ attention? Or was it designed as a way to dehumanize enslaved people by comparing them to a hoard of wild animals?

Lea VanderVelde, a noted legal historian from the University of Iowa School of Law, attempts to answer these questions and many others in two recent books, Mrs. Dred Scott: A Life on Slavery’s Frontier (2009) and Redemption Songs: Suing for Freedom Before Dred Scott (2014). The former is a biography of Harriet Scott that examines her life as a slave and as an often-overlooked plaintiff behind the infamous Scott v Sandford decision. The latter study is a review of around 300 original court case files for freedom suits from the circuit courts of St. Louis, Missouri. All of these cases, described by the author as “songs of freedom,” can be viewed online here.[2] Most of these suits involved claims of enslaved people being held illegally in bondage in either free territories or states, often by masters, such as army officers (in the case of the Scott family) who traveled widely. In both studies, VanderVelde reveals valuable information not only about the nature of freedom suits, but also about the dynamics of group slave escapes in 19th century Missouri.

For example, VanderVelde mentions the July 1856 stampede of eight in a footnote to Redemption Songs (2014) as way to help elaborate on her use of the term “stampede.”[3] In the text, she writes that “As slaves, petitioners are described by witnesses in a passive voice as having the characteristics of objects…They are stolen, even ‘stampeded,’ by third parties.”[4] In her work, VanderVelde always emphasizes the agency of the enslaved, but here she seems to suggest that the term “stampede” was used by their oppressors as a way to dehumanize them.

The term “stampede” surfaces in Mrs. Dred Scott (2009) as well, during an exploration of the ramifications of the 1850 Fugitive Slave Law.  VanderVelde writes, “for the first time [after September 1850], the newspapers noted the new phenomenon of slaves running away in groups. They initially referred to these departures as ‘slave stampedes’ as if the escapees were witless horses.”[5] Yet such group escapes, or “stampedes,” caused slaveholders great anxiety, because as VanderVelde notes, “this sort of exodus suggests [to them] some prior planning and outside assistance to avoid detection.”[6]

One exceptional case, the freedom suits of Milton Duty’s 26 slaves, reveals that the concept of “stampedes” might also be applied to the freedom suit process. During his lifetime, Mississippi slaveholder Duty had ensured the manumission of his slaves by moving them to Missouri (with more liberal manumission policies). They lived together for a year in Missouri, where Duty instructed the slaves to rent out their labor in St. Louis in order to start saving money for their new lives free after bondage. When Duty died in 1838, greedy stakeholders, including both creditors and the executor of Duty’s will, immediately went through Duty’s personal items, tearing up and destroying as much evidence of Duty’s intention to free his slaves as possible. Over the following decade, Duty’s slaves were forced to enter a bitter legal battle to seek their freedom.  More than two dozen of them filed for freedom at the same time in St. Louis Circuit Court in 1842. Yet despite the clarity of Duty’s intentions as outlined in his will, and after years of legal struggle, only one of the twenty six slaves was eventually granted freedom. Jesse, the drayman, won his case based in part on his ownership of Duty’s horses. By the time the petition was officially rejected by the Missouri Supreme Court in 1846, several of the original slaves who filed had already died. The story of Duty’s slaves reveals the struggles and obstacles faced by enslaved folks who chose to fight for their freedom legally rather than escaping.[7]

VanderVelde’s work also suggests that whether escaping or petitioning, an important element of enslaved agency was about gender and family. In Redemption Songs (2014), she writes that far more women than men filed for freedom in court. “Most St. Louis freedom suits were initiated by women,” she observes, “Filing suit kept mothers and children together.”[8] Legally, the status of slavery was passed through the mother to children. If the mother’s status changed from enslaved to free, then her children would also become free. This meant that enslaved women had much more incentive than men to take the effort to legally change their status rather than risk family separation in escape. This concept that “men run, [and] women sue” reveals a specific way in which gender, race, and conceptions about motherhood intersected to create unique experiences for enslaved women, and explains one reason why some slaves chose to sue for their freedom.[9]

Freedom suits, much more than escapes, “preserved the status quo.”[10] Many successful petitioners didn’t move away even after winning their cases.  Winny, an enslaved woman who won her case, spent the rest of her days in freedom as a washerwoman in St. Louis.[11] Dred and Harriet Scott, who eventually achieved freedom through manumission, also continued their free lives in St. Louis, where Dred worked as a doorman at Barnum’s Hotel.[12]

Scott statue

A statue of Harriet and Dred Scott outside the St. Louis courthouse where they first filed for freedom in 1846 (Dred Scott Heritage Foundation)

A second likely reason that some eligible slaves chose to sue for freedom over escaping was the simple fact that until the Scott case (Scott v. Emerson in the Missouri Supreme Court in 1852 and then Scott v. Sandford in the US Supreme Court in 1857), slaves had a genuine chance at freedom through legal means. In the years leading up to the final Dred Scott decision, St. Louis courts had set a precedent that often surprisingly favored the petitioner in freedom suits. In 1824, this Missouri statue established that if a court reached a “judgment of liberation,” for a petitioner, then that individual was deemed wholly free, even if that judgment directly opposed the wishes of the slaveholder. Of the 300 original court filings from St. Louis that VanderVelde examined, over 100 litigants were granted their freedom.[13]

Still, slaves took on great risk to their lives and livelihoods by making any type of bid for freedom in a system that tried to strip them of their humanity. Both freedom suits and escapes were dangerous acts of bravery that undermined the institution of slavery. They were especially so, because as VanderVelde writes, “survival is a much more significant objective in influencing human behavior than attaining freedom.”[14]  What we hope to uncover, however, is how a family of eight, running away together on a July evening in 1856, might have seen their “stampede” as both an act of personal and political survival.


[1] “Slave Stampede,” Daily Missouri Republican (St. Louis, MO), July 16, 1856. [WEB]

[2] Lea VanderVelde, Redemption Songs: Suing for Freedom Before Dred Scott (New York: Oxford University Press, 2014), 22.

[3] VanderVelde, 263n.

[4] VanderVelde, 203.

[5] Lea VanderVelde, Mrs. Dred Scott: A Life on Slavery’s Frontier (New York: Oxford University Press, 2009), 287.

[6] VanderVelde, Mrs. Dred Scott, 287.

[7] VanderVelde, Redemption Songs, 159-176.

[8] VanderVelde, Redemption Songs, 195.

[9] VanderVelde, Redemption Songs, 195.

[10] VanderVelde, Redemption Songs, 195.

[11] VanderVelde, Redemption Songs, 65.

[12] VanderVelde, Mrs. Dred Scott, 322.

[13] VanderVelde, Redemption Songs, 20.

[14] VanderVelde, Redemption Songs, 194.