Category Archives: Scholarship

Richard D. Sears — Camp Nelson, Kentucky: A Civil War History (2002)

“Burnside was at Camp Nelson just preparing to start out and I thought if I could only make it to that place I would be all right.”[1]

Portrait of Peter Bruner After the Civil War (National Park Service)

This thought was prominent in Peter Bruner’s mind as he envisioned his escape to freedom near the Kentucky border around 1862. At about seventeen years old, Bruner—an enslaved man—and several others attempted to evade their violent slaveholders by reaching safety at Camp Nelson. In his memoir documented by author Richard Sears, Bruner recalls the other members of his group being captured before they reached the camp. Bruner attempted to hide in the weeds a half-mile away from the scene but was eventually discovered. He explains that the capturers took him and the rest of the freedom seekers “before the Magistrate” and they swore they “were runaway slaves.”[2] The men were then taken to jail near Lexington, Kentucky where they stayed with more than twenty other freedom seekers.[3] When he was nineteen, Bruner again attempted to escape to Camp Nelson. This time he was successful. He enrolled in the US Army on July 25, 1864, and he served for two and a half years.[4]

In his book Camp Nelson, Kentucky: A Civil War History, Sears documents Bruner’s escape to what was later one of the most important refugee camps during the American Civil War. Sears utilizes primary documents such as letters, memoirs, and telegraphs to convey historical details about the camp. Much of the book contains background information and firsthand experiences at Camp Nelson throughout the Civil War.  Yet, the only mention of a group escape from slavery is found in Peter Bruner’s experiences.

Soldiers in the US Colored Troops Outside Barracks at Camp Nelson (National Archives and Records Administration)

Throughout his book, Sears charts how Camp Nelson evolved from a military installation to a key haven for enslaved Kentuckians and their families fleeing bondage. The camp was originally constructed in Jessamine County, Kentucky with four central goals in mind: to protect Hickman Bridge (an establishment crucial for seizing Tennessee), to prepare to invade Tennessee, to take control of the Cumberland Gap, and to gather soldiers in central Kentucky.[5] The US Army was initially optimistic about these goals, but the camp later faced hardship. As the transport roads from Camp Nelson to troops in East Tennessee became muddier, they were virtually impossible to utilize. Because of this, animals and soldiers faced starvation and received minimal military supplies.[6] Although the camp generally failed as a military installment, it served well as a pit stop for US soldiers returning from Tennessee. The camp had to expand its amenities, which enslaved people (whom Union officials referred to as “contrabands”) constructed.[7] After the US Army opened enlistment to enslaved men in the summer of 1864, Camp Nelson became the most notable Black recruitment hub in the state and the third-largest in the nation for the US Colored Infantry.[8] Many men and their families viewed enlistment as an escape from the horrors of slavery.

A refugee camp at Camp Nelson during the Civil War (National Archives and Records Administration)

In the late months of the Civil War, the camp became a place of refuge for Black and white men, women, and children. According to Sears, many believed “Camp Nelson would be the largest center for black progress…in the state of Kentucky.”[9] These hopes, however, did not ultimately come to fruition. Some refugees who arrived at Camp Nelson included white unionist families who were no longer safe in East Tennessee. Others were the families of enslaved men who enlisted in the US Army.[10] Some women and children were driven away or returned to slavery. For those permitted to stay at the camp, mortality rates soared due to overcrowding and disease.[11] In place of this unofficial camp, Rev. John Gregg Fee and Capt. Theron E. Hall opened the government-sponsored Camp Nelson Refugee Home in 1865. Black women and children with relatives fighting in the war could stay there legally, which thousands viewed as protection from slavery.[12] Despite its high mortality rate—and its relatively short lifespan from January 1865 to March 1866—the legacy of the institution was profound. It provided a place for Black people to gather, work, and attend school. When the war ended in April 1865, however, Camp Nelson was discarded. The Freedmen’s Bureau, established by the federal government to address the newly-freed four million African Americans in the US, was tasked with dismantling the camp and its Refugee Home. Many refugees had nowhere safe to relocate, so they stayed at the camp as long as possible. The camp was officially closed on March 14, 1866, and the refugees who remained at the site became the first residents of a new town.[13]

Present Day Camp Nelson National Cemetery (National Park Service)

Although Camp Nelson, Kentucky: A Civil War History mentions many instances of escapes from slavery—including the experiences of Peter Bruner and his group of freedom seekers —the term “stampede” is not used.





[1] Richard D. Sears, Camp Nelson, Kentucky: A Civil War History (Lexington, KY: The University Press of Kentucky, 2002), 13.

[2] Sears, 14.

[3] Sears, 14.

[4] Sears, 104.

[5] Sears, “Historical Introduction,” xxi.

[6] Sears, “Historical Introduction,” xxv.

[7] Sears, “Historical Introduction,” xxxiii.

[8] Sears, “Historical Introduction,” xxx.

[9] Sears, “Historical Introduction,” lvii.

[10] Sears, “Historical Introduction,” xxxii.

[11] Sears, “Historical Introduction,” lii.

[12] Sears, “Historical Introduction,” lii.

[13] Sears, “Historical Introduction,” lx.

Selected Articles from MHR (Part 1)

Atherton, Lewis E. “Life, Labor, and Society in Boone County, Missouri, 1834-1852, As Revealed in the Correspondence of an Immigrant Slave Owning Family from North Carolina.” Part 1. Missouri Historical Review 93 (Oct. 1998): 49-73. [WEB]

Hamm, Thomas.  “A Quaker View of Black St. Louis in 1841.” Missouri Historical Review 98 (Jan. 2004): 115-120. [WEB]

Hurt, R. Douglas.  “Planters and Slavery in Little Dixie.” Missouri Historical Review 88 (July 1994): 397-415. [WEB]

Merkel, Benjamin G. “The Underground Railroad and the Missouri Borders, 1840-1860.” Missouri Historical Review, 37 (April 1943): 271-85. [WEB]

Roberts, Anna K. “Crossing Jordan: The Mississippi River in the Black Experience in Greater St. Louis, 1815–1860.” Missouri Historical Review 113 (Oct. 2018): 22-40. [WEB]

Willoughby, Robert J. “‘I’ll Wade in Missouri Blood’: Daggs v. Frazier: A Case of Missouri Runaway Slaves.”  Missouri Historical Review 99 (Jan. 2005): 115-138. [WEB]


Atherton, Lewis E. “Life, Labor, and Society in Boone County, Missouri, 1834-1852, As Revealed in the Correspondence of an Immigrant Slave Owning Family from North Carolina.” Part 1. Missouri Historical Review 93 (Oct. 1998): 49-73. [WEB]

Atherton includes letters written by members of the slave owning Lenoir family who emigrated to Boone County, Missouri from North Carolina. Atherton suggests that accounts from this family are representative of property-owning families who moved west in search of economic prosperity. He prefaced the letters by explaining that these documents, while important for historical analysis, should not always be taken at face value because they provide subjective accounts of their experiences. The letters provided were written by members of the Lenoir family who moved to Missouri to family members who remained home in North Carolina. In these letters, they described the current state of affairs in Missouri with regard to the agricultural and commercial markets, the slave market, the cholera outbreak, education, and even the general scenery and the people they befriended.

There is no mention of slave stampedes or any group escape and slavery is only really mentioned in the letters when they refer to buying or selling slaves for agricultural work or to make a profit.

Hamm, Thomas.  “A Quaker View of Black St. Louis in 1841.” Missouri Historical Review 98 (Jan. 2004): 115-120. [WEB]

In “A Quaker View of Black St. Louis in 1841,” Thomas D. Hamm provides accounts from Quaker Minister Gershom Perdue’s journal, in which he documents his travels to other Quaker Settlements in Ohio and black churches in St. Louis, Missouri. Perdue’s journal entries indicate his concern for African Americans, which is consistent with Quakers more generally at this time. At Quaker Friends meetings, they discussed the issues facing African Americans and established a “Committee on Concerns of People of Color” that provided financial support for freedom seekers. Perdue specifically describes encounters with John Berry Meachum, the African American minister of the “Baptist Church for Colored People” in St. Louis.  In 1848, Meachum brought Perdue along with his family to his church and Perdue describes feeling warmly welcomed by the “dispised people” there.  From this point on, Perdue became interested in learning more about Meachum’s background. He discovered that Meachum was born enslaved, but paid for his freedom and eventually paid for the freedom of his entire family with money he saved from working.  He bought freedom for 20 other enslaved African Americans and provided them with work so that they could eventually pay him back.  Perdue also provided an account of how Meachum’s Baptist church in St. Louis began. It first started in 1818 as a day school that required the permission of slaveholders for their slaves to attend. It evolved into an independent organization and by 1827, they built their own meeting house and no longer required supervision by white slaveholders. Perdue died in New Martinsburg, Ohio in 1885.

There was no mention of a stampede or any variant, nor does he describe any group escapes.

Hurt, R. Douglas.  “Planters and Slavery in Little Dixie.” Missouri Historical Review 88 (July 1994): 397-415. [WEB]

Hurt examines the institution of slavery in the Little Dixie counties as an economic institution as opposed to a cultural or social institution. Specifically, he explains how agriculture and the commercial markets were essentially dependent on slave labor. Planters and slaveowners relied on their bondsmen for agricultural labor and domestic work. Booms in certain crops like hemp and tobacco motivated slaveholders to purchase more bondsmen which led the prices to rise as slave labor was viewed as less expensive and more efficient than hiring wage laborers. Hurt argues that the institution of slavery played a role in the development of Missouri’s capitalist economy. Essentially, it was a way of life in Little Dixie from the perspective of slave owners who viewed it as an economic necessity.

There was no mention of stampedes or any group escapes. 

Merkel, Benjamin G. “The Underground Railroad and the Missouri Borders, 1840-1860.” Missouri Historical Review, 37 (April 1943): 271-85. [WEB]

In “The Underground Railroad and the Missouri Borders,1840-1860,” Benjamin G. Merkel highlights prominent Underground Railroad agents and groups that were typically involved as well as common routes that ran through the Missouri borderlands. He indicates that specific Underground Railroad lines within the state were elusive, as the operators did not document them for fear of potentially incriminating themselves. Merkel also identifies certain abolitionist institutions, like the Mission Institute in Quincy, which greatly assisted the anti-slavery movement. He describes specific towns like Quincy, Salem, Tabor and Sparta that were “hotspots” for abolitionist activity and how residents of these areas provided aid for freedom seekers. He provides examples of specific efforts made by abolitionists to convince bondsmen to escape, some of which were successful and some of which were not. He also provides specific examples of individual and group escapes, both successful and unsuccessful.

Merkel does not use the word “stampede” or any variant, but he does describe multiple group escapes. He discusses an escape in 1848, in which 9 slaves escaped from Ruel Daggs’s farm in Clark County. The freedom seekers travelled to Iowa, but were located by two pro-slavery Missourians in Salem. There, they were brought before a judge in a Quaker settlement and the Quakers who were involved in Underground Railroad activity helped them escape. Merkel also describes a presumably successful group escape from Palmyra in 1853 in which 11 freedom seekers crossed the river at Quincy in pursuit of freedom in Canada.  Merkel explained how after this escape, an anti-abolition organization called the Marion Association had politician Thomas L. Anderson speak in Palmyra about legislative ways to prevent these escapes. Both of these group escapes were covered by the House Divided Project as the 1848 Daggs Farm Escape and the 1853 Palmyra Stampede. Merkel discusses another group escape in 1858, in which one freedom seeker was ushered through Galesburg to Canada. He returned back to Missouri in order to pick up 9 other freedom seekers.  A total of 5 or 6 arrived in Galesburg and presumably made it to Canada. 

Roberts, Anna K. “Crossing Jordan: The Mississippi River in the Black Experience in Greater St. Louis, 1815–1860.” Missouri Historical Review 113 (Oct. 2018): 22-40. [WEB]

Roberts discusses how for enslaved people in Missouri, crossing the Mississippi River was an important step toward obtaining some degree of freedom and finding a better life. She points out that the river served as a symbolic representation of freedom with religious undertones, alluding to the River Jordan. Although it was represented this way, Roberts indicates that most times this did not ring true, as African Americans who crossed the river into the free state of Illinois still faced discrimination in the form of legal and institutional restrictions as well as prejudice in their informal interactions with white residents. Essentially, it did not matter that legally, Illinois was not a slave state because they still treated African Americans as such. In some cases, bondsmen and women may have had more luck obtaining privileges in Missouri than they would have if they crossed the river into the free state of Illinois. She explains several ways in which abolitionists and free Blacks tried to combat this oppression on both sides of the river, including building illegal schools and churches and through missionaries who came to St. Louis to share their faith-based messages. She also discusses other options for enslaved people such as bringing their cases to the St. Louis courts, like Dred Scott did, and self-purchasing. But, she highlighted how these options were not accessible to all slaves, so crossing the Mississippi river was often the most plausible option. 

Roberts never uses the word “stampede” or any variant, but she did describe some group escapes. She mentions a group escape in 1842 in which five enslaved people, a woman and her three children and 16 year old Caroline Quarrlls, escaped on a steamboat in between St. Louis and Alton. She discusses another group escape in May of 1855 in which Mary Meachum, a free Black named Isaac, and 8 or 9 freedom seekers including Esther Shaw and her two kids crossed the Mississippi and were captured. She also describes when Bill Williams, a very experienced Underground Railroad operative, helped deliver three freedom seekers to Illinois in 1847 and briefly mentions how in 1854, a free Black man from Alton helped 15 freedom seekers across the river and to Chicago. 

Willoughby, Robert J. “‘I’ll Wade in Missouri Blood’: Daggs v. Frazier: A Case of Missouri Runaway Slaves.”  Missouri Historical Review 99 (Jan. 2005): 115-138. [WEB]

Willoughby provides details of the group escape from Ruel Daggs’s farm in Clark County, Missouri that ultimately led to the federal court case of Daggs v. Frazier. He gives detailed accounts of both legal counsels’ cases and cites specific arguments they each made. In addition, he provides context for the hostile political climate in Iowa and Missouri during the time of this case. Specifically, there was debate over the Compromise of 1850 and and the Fugitive Slave Act of 1793 that made slavery a highly contested issue in each state.

Willoughby does not use the word stampede or any variant, nor does he describe any group escape other than the Daggs Farm Escape. The only other mention of any other case important to the development of the Fugitive Slave Act was the 1842 Prigg v. Com. of Pennsylvania.

Selected Articles from MHR (Part 2)

Christensen, Lawrence O. “Black Education in Civil War St. Louis.” Missouri Historical Review 95, no. 3 (April 2001): 302-16. [WEB]

Fellman, Michael.  “Emancipation in Missouri.” Missouri Historical Review 83 (Oct. 1988): 36-56 [JSTOR], [WEB].

Frizzell, Robert W. “Southern Identity in Nineteenth-Century Missouri: Little Dixie’s Slave-Majority Areas and the Transition to Midwestern Farming.” Missouri Historical Review 99 (April 2005): 238-260. [WEB]

Lee, George R. “Slavery and Emancipation in Lewis County, Missouri.” Missouri Historical Review 65, no. 3 (April 1971): 294-317. [WEB]

Naglich, Dennis. “The Slave System and the Civil War in Rural Prairieville.” Missouri Historical Review 87 (April 1993): 253-73. [WEB]

Strickland, Arvarh E. “The University of Missouri—Columbia History Department: Training Scholars in the Black Experience.” Missouri Historical Review 95 (July 2001): 413-430. [WEB]


Christensen, Lawrence O. “Black Education in Civil War St. Louis.” Missouri Historical Review 95, no. 3 (April 2001): 302-16. [WEB]

Black education after the Civil War was a struggle for all those involved. The key providers were the Western Sanitary Commission, the American Missionary Association (AMA), Catholic Churches and subscription teachers.

The AMA and the Western Sanitary Commission were providing free schools by hiring teachers and providing resources. In an effort to provide maximum help and streamline resources, the Western Sanitary Commission, the AMA and other black ministers came together to form a temporary board in 1863. Missouri did not lift its ban on African American education until 1865; the board was supposed to be the interim substitute until the Missouri State Assembly created something concrete. But with all this consolidation, the new board suffered financially and had to temporally close its doors in February and March in 1865. Fortunately, they received aid from the state that allowed them to start up again by the end of the year. But they continued to struggle. The first problem was that attendance was not constant. Some children were so poor that they could not come to school because they lacked proper clothing and shoes for the winter. Another problem that discouraged parents was its inability to hire a black teacher or superintendent.

Subscription offered the representation that parents craved. One of them was notably run by Hiram R. Revels, an ordained African Methodist Episcopal minister who later became a Mississippi senator in 1870. He was joined by three women, Jospehine Bailey, Virginia Green and Georgia L. Buckner, and they operated alongside the free schools run by the board. They were partly kept alive because of the well-to-do black population that existed and their preference for a black educator.

Before these efforts, education of African Americans was not an uncommon sentiment, especially in a time when it was heavily discouraged. John Berry Meachum, a black minister, organized a school in his basement in the late 1820s and in 1845, St. Louis Catholics had school for black girls. Then there was a state law in 1847 that prevented the education of African Americans. Even then, the Sisters of Mercy opened a school in 1856 which also eventually closed. A decade later, the opposition to education was very much the same, even from Union members and abolitionists. White AMA teachers described St. Louis “as a hostile work environment” and teachers were forced to teach and work in horrible conditions.

There was no mention of a stampede or any variant, or any group escapes.

Fellman, Michael.  “Emancipation in Missouri.” Missouri Historical Review 83 (Oct. 1988): 36-56 [JSTOR], [WEB].

This article gives a summary on how the views on slavery changed for those in Union Army and the reaction to this change by slaveholders. The Civil War led to an abhorrence of slavery by those in the Union army. Other than a small German community in Missouri, slavery was “an organic” part of Missouri society and the state economy had come to depend on the free labor it provided (More information on this German community and their relationship to slavery can be found here). But as free African Americans began to participate in guerrilla warfare and provide valuable information to the Union Army, the support for slavery began to wane for the Unionists. In exchange of information, they were ready to protect and prevent previous enslavers  from getting back their slaves. An example was the Unionist commander, John C. Fremont, who emancipated the slaves before Lincoln. He was asked to rescind his proclamation and ultimately, he stepped down from his positiion. Still, the efforts of men like Fremont were helpful in seeing the humanity of the freed people and this visibility allowed freed African American certain liberties they were denied before.

These new liberties involved the plundering of slaveholders’ properties with the backing of the Union army. In a letter written to the St. Louis district attorney, white people “shuddered over negro insurrection and terrible outrages of negro freedom.” This “shuddering of the negro freedom” led to an increased presence of lynching of freed people to restrict their liberties. Black women were even more vulnerable, as they were constanlty being sexually assualted and puninshed for the actions for the men in the army. This violence gradually helped enforce the system of segregation that took after the war was over.

While it mentions ex-bondsmen going back to destroy their slaveholders’ properties, there was no mention of a stampede or any group escapes. 

Naglich, Dennis. “The Slave System and the Civil War in Rural Prairieville.” Missouri Historical Review 87 (April 1993): 253-73. [WEB]

Dennis Naglich  provides a chronological narrative of slavery in Prairieville. The arrival of Virginia emigrants in the 1830s introduced Prairieville to the slavery. The most prominent among them were the Merriweather Lewis and Davis families. Living on the borders on Lincoln and Park, they grew tobacco, corn and raised livestock. It was important to have different crops because while tobacco, was very profitable, it fluctuated within each season and required special care.

Slave labor made Prairieville one of the richest neighborhoods. In fact, between the years of 1850 and 1860, where the value of land more than doubled. This profitability required that slaveholders adopt several practices to keep their enslaved in check. Some enslavers employed overseers, who were sometimes sons of the slaveholders. As to how these overseers worked, the article informs us that a “measured brutality often provided the only means by which an overseer could effectively do their job.” Some slaveholders were more lenient and allowed married bondsmen to live next to each other. An example is Elizabeth Lewis who left specific instructions in her will to allow her enslaved to choose their masters to make sure that families remained in the same vicinity after she passed.

But this was not freedom; escapes and stampedes occurred but they were rare. According to the article, this was because it was difficult to cross the Mississippi River into Illinois. There was no guarantee that the bondsmen would meet someone willing to help reach their freedom.  Because of this, bondsmen like Y.W. Moeseby was unsuccessful in his quest for freedom. He was able to cross the river but was caught when he reached Pleasant Hill, Illinois. There was also the incident of Resin MacKay, who was accused and convicted of murdering his slaveholder. He was hanged and the local newspaper described his death, “a spectacle so novel in its character to our county”

Fortunately for the enslaved, the Civil War loomed near and freedom was at hand. When it became clear that the Union army was against slavery, the enslaved began to walk off their slaveholders’ properties to join the war. Some enlisted in the Union army and provided valuable information to help with the guerrilla war. These walkouts were not always successful. Two freedom seekers, Aron Mitchell and Alfred, were recaptured. Aaron received some lashing and Alfred was shot in the heart. According to the article, women also bore some of the brunt when their men walked off to join the army. They were beaten, assaulted and were threatened with the safety of their children. To make matters worse, the army did not always provide the protection it promised. In Louisiana, ex-bondsmen did the back-breaking labor of digging trenches and were subjected to unsanitary condition and inadequate diet. This led to most succumbing to disease and ultimately death.

Lee, George R. “Slavery and Emancipation in Lewis County, Missouri.” Missouri Historical Review 65, no. 3 (April 1971): 294-317. [WEB]

The following article presents an overview of slavery in Lewis County, Missouri. It relies for evidence on wills, public records, newspapers and informational interviews with descendants of slaveholders in the county. Slaveholders began to steadily arrive in the early 1800s, starting with the arrival of Reason Bozarth in 1819.  During this time, manumissions were rare but once given, freedmen needed a trustee to ensure their freedom.   The article discusses the 1849 slave stampede that happened on the McCutchan farm involving their slave Lin, and another named John who belonged to James Miller. This “slave uprising” as it was termed in the newspaper, had gathered slaves from various farms including Judge William Ellis and Samuel McKim. Surrounded by thirty white men, they did not have a chance. John was shot and everyone surrendered.

Runaways from different counties counties also posed a threat. In 1853, four freedom seekers from Marion County were stopped and arrested as they tried to buy food. In 1854, there was also the arrest of two other freedom seekers, one from Howard County and the other from Tully. After these two incidents, anti-abolition sentiment rose up and it led to the Anti-Abolition Society being formed in 1853.

The article continues to describe how conditions for the enslaved changed during wartime. In 1864, restrictions on manumissions were removed and in 1865 slave clauses were repealed altogether.

Strickland, Arvarh E. “The University of Missouri—Columbia History Department: Training Scholars in the Black Experience.” Missouri Historical Review 95 (July 2001): 413-430. [WEB]

Historian Arvarh Strickland from the University of Missouri-Columbia’s History Department summarizes the list of dissertations and theses on the black American experiences between 1910 to 1994. Below are the titles of theses and dissertations produced:

1910:  The influence of slavery on Missouri politics and the features of “the Western Abolitionists.”

1920: “Missouri and the Extension of Slavery, 1840-1850”

1930: The Social and Economic status of the Enslaved; “Social and Economic Aspects of Plantation Slavery;” the Extension of suffrage to African American in both the South and the North after Emancipation; and Imperialism in tropical Africa.

1940: “British Travellers’ Versions of American Negro Slavery;” “An Appraisal of the Historical Value of Negro Slave Narratives;” and “A History of Slavery in Cole County, Missouri” from 1820 to 1860.

1950: The ‘Invisible Empire’ and Missouri Politics: The Influence of the Revived Ku Klux Klan in the Election Campaign of 1924 as Reported in Missouri Newspapers” and “The Effect of Radical Reconstruction Upon Education in Arkansas”


  • “The English View Negro Slavery, 1660- 1770;” “Desegregation of the United States Armed Forces, 1939-1953;” “The Development of More Open Racial and Ethnic Relations in British Honduras During the Nineteenth Century;” “A History of the Missouri Negro Press” in1876 to 1966; and “The Little Rock Central Desegregation Crisis of 1957,”
  • Donnie Bellamy, first black recipient, and wrote about “Slavery, Emancipation and Racism” He began his work in 1967 and he received his degree in 1971.

1970: Thesis on the slave schedules, slave sales, hiring of the enslaved, slave values and enslave families in Boone County; “Slavery in Callaway County, Missouri: With Primary Emphasis on the Period 1845-1855;” Slavery in Missouri River Counties, 1820-1865;” “The Desegregations of the University of Missouri: A Policy Study;” “Black Suffrage in Missouri, 1865 – 1877;” “Black St. Louis: A Study in Race Relations 1865-1916;” Study of Africans Americans in Boone County; A study on the relationship of African Americans and political machines in St. Louis and Kansas; Dissertation on the Little Rock desegregation; “The Development of the Anti-Lynching Reform Movement in the United States, 1883-1932;” and “The Associated Negro Press: A Medium of International News and Information 1919-1967.”

1980 – 1994: “The Slavery Debate in Missouri, 1831-1855;” “Their Place in Freedom: African American Women in Transition from Slavery to Freedom, Cooper County, Missouri 1865-1900;” Aunt Jemima Explained: The Old South, the Absent Mistress, and the Slave in a Box;” “Columbia CORE and the Campaign to Integrate Public Accommodations;” The Making of a Student Activist: The Story of James Henry Rollins;” “A Study of Civil Disorder in Kansas City, Missouri, Following Martin Luther King’s Assassination;” “Darwinism and Race in Jamaica, 1859-1900;” “Birmingham Miners Struggle for Power, 1894-1908; and ” “Nathan B. Young and the Development of Black Higher Education;” “The Bottom of Heaven: A Social and Cultural History of African Americans in Three Creeks, Boone County, Missouri;” “School Desegregation in Kansas City, Missouri, 1954-1974;”

1994: “Intertwining Paths: Respectability, Character, Beauty, and the Making of Community among St. Louis Black Woman 1900-1920”

There was no mention of dissertations concerning stampedes or any variants, or any group escapes 

Frizzell, Robert W. “Southern Identity in Nineteenth-Century Missouri: Little Dixie’s Slave-Majority Areas and the Transition to Midwestern Farming.” Missouri Historical Review 99 (April 2005): 238-260. [WEB]

Frizzell uses the changes in Little Dixie before and after the Civil War to represent Missouri’s struggle with a midwestern and southern identity. Little Dixie is a microcosm of Missouri’s identity politics. Just like other parts of Missouri, Little Dixie’s southern influences is seen in its use of slave labor to produce cash crops such as tobacco. Howard and Callaway, two towns in the county, became one of the highest produces of tobacco.

After the war, Little Dixie and much of the state began to have an economic downturn. Firstly, the war reduced the labor supply because enslaved people escaped to fight the war and never came back. Additionally, during the guerrilla attacks on both sides, property was being destroyed and confiscation of lands was affecting the status of wealth in the county. Tobacco, the chief produce, along with other products such as hogs, hemp decreased as there was not enough labor to grow them.

After the war, farmers began to focus on less-labor intensive crops like oats and wheat to stay afloat. Large farms were divided and there was more dependence on the agricultural technology to work the land.  To assert their freedom, Blacks moved out of former rural slave-majority areas. Unfortunately, they were relegated to working as laborers, farmhands and household servants. Most of them did not own land; in fact, only 2 out of the 126 black families owned property. Without its slave labor to grow crops like tobacco, Little Dixie, and in a larger context Missouri, according to the article, shed its southern identity and became a midwestern state.

There was no mention of a stampede or any variant, or any group escapes.

Darrel Dexter – Bondage in Egypt (2011)

escaping enslaved people

A group of freedom seekers escape during the night. (House Divided Project)

A group of 14 enslaved Missourians escaped from St. Louis in early January 1850, traversing the frigid waters of the Mississippi river to reach free soil in Illinois. On the morning of January 16, however, eight of the escapees––two disabled men, one able-bodied man, three women and two children––were overtaken north of Springfield, Illinois by Constable Strother G. Jones and a posse of white men, eager to claim the hefty $2,400 reward offered for their recapture. What followed was a series of surprising twists and turns. Outside of Springfield, one-legged captive Hempstead Thornton swung his crutch and knocked Jones and two white accomplices unconscious, enabling the other seven freedom seekers to bolt. Five were recaptured, but escaped once again (this time for good) in the predawn hours of January 17. All but Thornton, that is, who gained his freedom not by physically eluding his captors, but rather in court. In a sweeping decision handed down months later, the Illinois Supreme Court not only declared Thornton to be free, but also struck down the state’s 1819 law providing for the recapture of runaway bond people. [1]

Hempstead Thornton’s oft-overlooked legal victory is one of many such court cases explored in Darrel Dexter’s richly detailed study, Bondage in Egypt (2011). Dexter, who teaches high school in southern Illinois, pored over court records, contemporary newspapers, and recollected accounts to reconstruct the struggle over slavery in “Egypt,” the moniker commonly applied to the southern counties of the state. He traces chattel slavery’s origins in the region back to 1720, when Jesuit missionaries imported more than two dozen enslaved Africans into French-controlled Kaskaskia. Slavery remained a legally sanctioned institution in Illinois throughout the 18th century, even after the territory’s incorporation into the nascent United States. [2]

Congress’s adoption of the Northwest Ordinance in 1787 seemingly barred slavery from the region, though a critical loophole allowed French citizens to continue to observe “their laws and customs now in force among them.” This provision was quickly construed by slaveholding Illinoisans as a protection for slavery. Slaveholders pushing a loose interpretation found a reliable ally in the Northwest Territory’s first governor, Arthur St. Clair, who insisted that the ordinance “was intended simply to prevent the introduction of other” enslaved people, not outlaw bondage altogether. St. Clair’s logic, argues Dexter, “established the Northwest Ordinance as a governmental plan that did not call for the immediate abolition of slavery in the territory,” and paved the way for a later territorial governor, William Henry Harrison, to pass an 1803 law sanctioning term slavery. Couched in the language of indentured servitude, the statute stipulated that any African-descent person who entered the territory could be bound to service, creating a system that in practice “was little different than chattel slavery in the South,” writes Dexter. The ensuing decades, moreover, saw an influx of white emigrants from Kentucky, Tennessee, North Carolina, and Virginia. The growing numbers of pro-slavery southerners, coupled with Egypt’s geographic location, hemmed in as it was by slaveholding Missouri to the west and slaveholding Kentucky to the south, transformed Egypt into a “quasi slave state,” Dexter claims. Slaveholders’ power over early Illinois politics was so entrenched, he maintains, that soon after attaining statehood, the Illinois legislature passed a law in 1819 calling for the arrest of any black person who was not carrying free papers. [3]

The end of term slavery in Illinois only came following a constitutional ban in 1848. By that time, the fertile border region was intensely divided over slavery. Most white Illinoisans living in Egypt found slavery to be anathema, but were also virulently racist and shuddered at the prospect of freed African Americans migrating to their state. Three years after the Illinois Supreme Court freed the Missouri runaway Thornton and overturned the 1819 law, the legislature passed a new statute barring the entry of free blacks. Through his detailed account of Illinois’s lengthy but often forgotten relationship with slavery, as well as the anti-black sentiments harbored by many white residents in Egypt, Dexter provides crucial context to understanding the social and political climate encountered by enslaved Missourians and Kentuckians as they wound through southern Illinois in their quest for freedom. [4]

Boat Escape

Enslaved people escaping by boat. (House Divided Project)

Dexter devotes three lengthy chapters to examining the runaway bond people who passed through Egypt, as well as the black and white anti-slavery activists in the region who aided freedom seekers. In doing so, Dexter recounts a number of group escapes, though he does not use the term “stampede” to describe the mass flight of enslaved people. An 1835 case saw seven enslaved people escape from a U.S. army officer stationed in St. Louis, only to be recaptured in Illinois, along with two white men who reportedly assisted them, both of whom were hauled across the Mississippi and severely beaten by an anti-abolitionist mob. [5] Nearly a decade later in 1844, four enslaved people escaped from slaveholder James Bissell in St. Louis, successfully making their way to Chicago. There, the city’s abolitionist newspaper, the Western Citizen, openly mocked Bissell’s relentless attempts to re-enslave his erstwhile human property. The paper addressed a mocking communique to inform Bissell that “John and Lucy have arrived safely here, via the underground railroad.” [6] Sometime around 1849, John and Lucinda Henderson, along with their two children, escaped from St. Louis, spurred by news of an impending family separation. The family of four were helped across the Mississippi by a white woman named Susan Yates, then moved on foot to Alton, Illinois, where black activists helped them reach Chicago. [7] Around the same time, the January 1850 escape of some 14 enslaved people from St. Louis was labeled a “slave stampede” at the time by Springfield papers, though Dexter does not use the term. Instead, he primarily focuses on the case’s broader legal ramifications, highlighting the subsequent ruling of the Illinois Supreme Court. [8]

Randolph 1857 map

Located directly across the river from Ste. Genevieve, Randolph county, Illinois was the site of two violent clashes between freedom seekers and slave catchers in the late 1850s. (House Divided Project)

Bondage in Egypt also examines two largely overlooked group escapes from eastern Missouri during the late 1850s, both of which culminated in violent confrontations. In June 1857, four enslaved people escaped from Iron Mountain in St. Francois county, Missouri, but were overtaken by a posse of white men at Gravel Creek Bridge, located near the riverside town of Chester, Illinois. In a pair of violent clashes, two of the freedom seekers were killed, one severely wounded and recaptured, while one managed to successfully escape. A pro-slavery mob afterwards decapitated the corpse of John Scott, one of the slain escapees. Two white Illinoisans, who had opened fire on the enslaved Missourians, were charged with manslaughter, but later acquitted in 1861. [9]

Little more than two years later in September 1859, five enslaved people escaped from Fredericktown, Missouri, but were pursued by a sizable group of Missourians, who intercepted the freedom seekers at Gravel Creek Bridge (the site of the 1857 conflict). In the ensuing fight, one enslaved man was killed, while the other four escaped, though at least two were wounded in the fray. However, local authorities in Illinois arrested a white Missourian for murder, prompting a mob of upwards of 50 angry southerners to cross the Mississippi in protest. The stand-off did not escalate into outright violence, though pro-slavery Missourian responded by charging two Fredericktown residents with slave stealing under a Missouri statute. [10]

Dexter’s book is an invaluable repository of information regarding slavery in Illinois itself, but it is the volume’s robust trove of insights on Missouri freedom seekers that are of especial interest to this project. Bondage in Egypt harnesses newspaper accounts and court records to shine a light on little-known group escapes from eastern Missouri, revealing critical new details about the mass flights from bondage which contemporaries so often styled “slave stampedes.”


[1] Darrel Dexter, Bondage in Egypt: Slavery in Southern Illinois (Cape Girardeau, MO: Center for Regional History, Southeast Missouri State University, 2011) 271-274.

[2] Dexter, 14-17, 24-25.

[3] Dexter, 14-17, 48-50, 69-71, 248.

[4] Dexter, 10-11,17.

[5] Dexter, 259-260.

[6] Dexter, 318.

[7] Dexter, 330. According to Dexter, the same Susan Yates may have also been convicted of “enticing” another bond person away in 1844.

[8] Dexter, 273-274. On contemporary newspapers’ use of the word stampede when describing the January 1850 escape, as well as the episode’s intriguing connections to future president Abraham Lincoln, see this post.

[9] Dexter, 313-315.

[10] Dexter, 285. Also see “A Batch of Runaway Negroes––Excitement in Randolph County, Ill.,” St. Louis, MO Republican, October 8, 1859. The report in the St. Louis Republican describes the group of five freedom seekers as part of a larger “batch” of “ten or fifteen slaves” who had escaped from the vicinity of Fredericktown, and had “stirred up considerable feeling in that part of this State.” The account also noted that the five escapees Dexter refers to had “joined some of those who had previously escaped” from Fredericktown, and were “furnished with fire-arms.”

John Todd and Iowa’s Underground Railroad

The diminutive town of Tabor, Iowa in western Iowa served as a critical junction for freedom seekers on the Underground Railroad and abolitionists keen to end slavery on the western frontier. James Patrick Morgans’ biography of John Todd and the Underground Railroad (2006) not only focuses on Todd’s life story, but also offers valuable background on the antislavery networks that existed across Iowa.   Morgan does not use the word “stampede” when referring to escapes of multiple enslaved people, however the book recounts several notable instances of group escapes.

Tabor quickly became known as a hospitable place for freedom seekers. Todd and his town co-founders George Gaston and Samuel H. Adams, (all of whom were abolitionists), offered their time and resources to aid formerly enslaved people fleeing from Missouri.[1]

Map, Iowa

Map of Fremont County, Iowa, 1858 (House Divided Project)

The town also served as a safe haven for antislavery warriors from Kansas territory, such as John Brown and James Lane. In effect, Tabor became their forward operating base. The settlement was close enough to Kansas that they could raid from it, but far enough away, that if things went poorly, they could also retreat to it.  Brown even sent one of his injured sons back to Tabor to receive medical attention during the worst of the Bleeding Kansas period. For a period of time, Todd’s family also stored 200 Sharps rifles for Brown. Those rifles were later shipped to Virginia and used in the Harper’s Ferry Raid.[2]

The first major group escape featured in Morgans’ book occurred in 1848 when nine enslaved people fled north from Missouri in search of freedom. Their intended destination was the Quaker town of Salem, Iowa. Ruel Daggs, the slaveholder, sent a large posse of slave catchers after them, however, and there was soon a physical confrontation and legal showdown in Salem.

Morgans discusses the legal and political repercussions of the case in some detail. In June, 1850, he local court in Burlington, Iowa decided that the Iowa residents aiding the escape were responsible for Daggs’ monetary loss and therefore required to reimburse him $2,900. The fines were never paid, however.[3].


Augustus Caesar Dodge (House Divided Project)

The Daggs Case was one of the last cases litigated under the 1793 Fugitive Slave Law. In the fall of 1850, after almost a year of debate, the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850 passed through Congress to shore up the 1793 law as part of the Compromise of 1850.[4] During the debates, Augustus Caesar Dodge, a United States Senator from Iowa, bragged that Iowa had a perfect record of compensating slaveholders for their escaped slaves, citing the Daggs case as an example.  James Todd was a vehement critic of Dodge’s and used his platform in Tabor to actively work against what he considered to be the senator’s pro-slavery leanings. [5]

Another group escape featured in this book occurred on Independence Day. On July 4th, 1854, fellow Tabor abolitionists Gatson and Adams helped five enslaved people flee from their Mississippi slaveholder. The three adults and two children were led across the Nishnabota River on a fallen cottonwood tree and on to the next Underground Railroad station in Quincy, Iowa. When the slaveholder realized his slaves had made an escape to freedom, he rounded up a group of slave hunters. John Todd and some allies in Tabor not only assisted in the escape of the freedom seekers, but also then hindered the progress of the slave hunters by infiltrating their group. According to Morgans, some of the Tabor abolitionists volunteered to search the areas where they knew the freedom seekers to be hiding but then falsely reported that they were nowhere to be found. Despite some close calls, the escapees successfully made their way across Iowa, and eventually to Canada where they could not be captured.[6]


Effects of the Fugitive Slave Law” (House Divided Project)

In fall of 1857, three armed, male freedom seekers on their way to Tabor and eventually to Canada were spotted by slave hunters south of Brownsville in the Nebraska Territory. A fight broke out between the groups. One of the slave hunters was killed while one of the escapees was badly injured and taken into custody. The injured slave survived his wounds and stood on trial in Brownsville but was acquitted of all charges. The two other escapees found their way to Iowa where they were shortly captured by another slave posse.[7]

John Brown (House Divided)

On December 20, 1858, John Brown and some of his men conducted a raid into Missouri to free a group of enslaved people. A slaveholder, David Cruise, was killed during the raid, but eleven enslaved people (eventually twelve, after a birth en route) successfully fled with Brown’s group to Kansas, then north to Nebraska, Iowa, Illinois, and then eventually to Detroit, Michigan and Canada. The dramatic escape was applauded by abolitionists, but the killing of Cruise was controversial.  Some citizens of Tabor adopted a resolution proclaiming,“…while we sympathize with the efforts for freedom, nevertheless, we have no Sympathy with those who go to Slave States, to entice away slaves, & take property or life when necessary to attain that end.”[8] 

Morgans’ also details a group escape that took place in January 1859, when twelve slaves were captured near Holton, Kansas while attempting to cross into Iowa. Dr. John Doy, an Underground Railroad conductor who aided the escape was sentenced to five years in a Missouri jail. Kansas abolitionists soon freed him, however, in a shocking and successful rescue from St. Joseph, Missouri.[9]

Another major group escape occurred in March of 1860. Four, armed, male freedom seekers fleeing from the Cherokee Nation in modern-day Oklahoma made their way north to Iowa on their way to Canada and freedom. Upon hearing of the arrival of the escapees to Iowa, Gaston and others brought them into Tabor . Unfortunately, the conductors and escapees were discovered leaving Tabor and then consequently imprisoned. The conductors aiding them were given a trial date two days later, and the freedom seekers were imprisoned at an undisclosed location. Yet, in a surprising turn in events, the Tabor abolitionists discovered the location of the escapees, and as soon as the conductors were cleared of charges relating to aiding fugitive slaves, the men of Tabor found and released the four men from Oklahoma. In the end, all four freedom seekers successfully made it to Canada in a success for them and the abolitionist movement in Tabor.[10]

Morgans’ biography of John Todd serves as an excellent investigation into the mostly successful abolitionist network in Tabor, Iowa during the 1850s. Although many people in this region were opposed to their radical ideas, the abolitionist movement nevertheless conducted several liberation operations that involved helping large groups of freedom seekers avoid capture.


[1] James Patrick Morgans and John Todd, John Todd and the Underground Railroad: Biography of an Iowa Abolitionist (Jefferson, NC: McFarland, 2006), 54.

[2] Morgans, 8.

[3] Morgans, 63.

[4] Library of Congress, “District Court of the United States for the Southern Division of Iowa, Burlington, June term, 1850 : Ruel Daggs, vs. Elihu Frazier,” Library of Congress, accessed July 2, 2019, [WEB].

[5] Morgans, 61.

[4] Morgans, 8-10.

[5] Morgans, 78.

[6] Morgans, 8.

[7] Morgans, 78.

[8] Morgans, 127-129.

[9] Morgans, 78.

[10] Morgans, 12-13.


East or West? Group Escapes on the Western Frontier

Marion County Map, Historical Atlas 1855.

In November of 1853, 11 enslaved people escaped from six different farms in Marion County, located right along the Mississippi River. The group of freedom seekers converged from their different escape points, joining together on a Saturday evening to cross the Mississippi River heading eastward. [1] The group traveled through the night, moving through Missouri and eventually arriving in Quincy, Illinois. By Sunday morning, the group had reached nearby Menden. Then they pursued freedom in Chicago. [2]

The Marion County group escape was just one of many mass slave escapes profiled in James Patrick Morgans’ book, The Underground Railroad on the Western Frontier (2010). Morgans focuses on slave escapes from the western border of Missouri and does not explicitly use the term stampede within the text, but his book covers a number of important group escapes, including some within our main project area (such as the one from Marion).[3]

Morgans also describes how increasing slave escapes along Mississippi River prompted many slaveholders in Eastern Missouri to move their slaves into the interior of the state, closer to the Missouri River and toward the states’ western border. During the 1850s, Missouri slaveholders hoped that Kansas Territory would eventually become a slave state, permanently fortifying the western border from slave escape.

Burlington Hawk-Eye, July 11, 1850. Courtesy of

Yet Missouri slaveholders were rightfully concerned. Throughout the 1850s, the eastern border of Missouri became riddled with slave escapes like the 1853 Marion County group escape described above. Enslaved people residing along the Mississippi River in Missouri used their geographical location to their advantage, slipping across the Mississippi and moving north and east towards the free states of Iowa and Illinois. Many slaveholders along the eastern border became repeated victims of such slave escapes. In Clark County, MO, a slaveholder by the name of Ruel Daggs experienced the difficulties of owning slaves in the most eastern parts of Missouri. [4] In 1848, one of Daggs’ 16 slaves, John Walker, escaped his farm. Walker, who found safety in Salem, Iowa, eventually returned to Clark County in June to help rescue other slaves, helping not only his wife and children but also seven others escape from Dagg’s farm. [5]  With help from a free black man in the county, Walker and his group built a raft and crossed the Mississippi River into Iowa. [6] Daggs responded to this episode by organizing a large armed posse of Missouri slave catchers, who eventually crossed over into Iowa and threatened the heavily Quaker settlement with violence.  Some of the freedom seekers were recaptured, but most escaped.  The case also led to a major verdict in Daggs’s favor (under the 1793 fugitive statute) in the summer of 1850 (before passage of the new federal law), but Daggs was never able to recover the thousands of dollars that the courts had ordered him to be paid.

St. Joseph Commercial Cycle, October 5, 1855. Courtesy of

Although some slaveholders believed that moving their human property to the western part of Missouri would prevent mass escapes like the one experienced by Ruel Daggs, they were soon put on notice that such group flight could occur out west as well  when 30 more slaves on the Kansas border attempted to escape bondage in 1850. [7] The group, “armed with knives, clubs and three guns,” were eventually stopped, but there were more efforts to come. [8] In 1855 in the western town of St. Joseph, MO, a slaveholder offered a $200 dollar reward for each of his four escaped slaves, double the amount of a typical reward for recapture. [9] According to Morgans, by the mid-1850s, it “wasn’t unusual to see ten or a dozen successfully escape at the same time- especially from western Missouri.” [10]

While group escapes may have proved more feasible along the eastern counties of Missouri, Morgans’ research on the western frontier demonstrates that mass escapes could and did occur almost anywhere.


[1]  James Patrick Morgans, The Underground Railroad on the Western Frontier (Jefferson, NC: McFarland & Co. 2010), 69.

[2] Morgans, 69.

[3] Morgans, 1.

[4] Morgans, 94.

[5] Morgans, 94.

[6] Morgans, 95.

[7] Morgans, 77.

[8] Morgans, 77.

[9] Morgans, 77.

[10]Morgans, 77.


Missouri Slave Stampedes Crossing State Borders: The Underground Railroad in Western Illinois by Owen Muelder

In Peoria County, Illinois in the 1850s, many enslaved people escaping from their slaveholders stopped to seek shelter in Brimfield’s Congregational Church, which was under the ministry of “violent

Brimfield Congregational Church Drawing

Brimfield Congregational Church (Brimfield Union Church)

abolitionist” J. E. Roy. According to Illinois historian Owen Muelder, one episode even involved “a party of 11 freedom seekers, who had fled from Palmyra, Missouri, carrying along “a crippled woman whom the others carried in a sheet, tied at the corners and suspended on a pole.”[1] If nothing else, this remarkable incident demonstrates the importance of looking beyond the state’s borders when examining the experiences of escaped Missouri slaves.

In The Underground Railroad in Western Illinois, Muelder, who is the director of Knox College’s Galesburg Colony Underground Railroad Freedom Center, presents a thorough overview of the major agents and activities of the Underground Railroad (UGRR) network in the “military tract” region of Western Illinois. Each chapter, organized based on the different counties of the region, is filled with stories quoted directly from original sources. In sharing these stories exactly as they were told from the voices of the abolitionist agents themselves, Muelder helps readers to “visualize more fully” the lives and stories of runaway slaves, many of which originated from Missouri, “in the late 1840s and 1850s in their valiant bid for freedom from bondage.”[2]

According to Muelder, everyone –including slaves, slaveholders, and abolitionists– was aware of the importance of the borderland between enslaved Eastern Missouri and Western Illinois. In fact, Illinois abolitionists frequently took advantage of this proximity, leading to the concentration of UGRR agents who were “eager to liberate slaves from across the river” in towns right along that border, such as in Quincy.[3] According to abolitionist Hiram Mars, Quincy abolitionists would even go as far as actually crossing the state line to seek out slaves and convince them to escape.[4]

Many of the abolitionists who risked traveling into Missouri to guide freedom seekers across the Mississippi River were themselves once escaped slaves. Throughout his text, Muelder makes reference to the ubiquitous figure of “Charlie,” an escaped Missouri slave who spent his whole life traveling in and out of slave states along the UGRR. According to numerous sources presented by Muelder, Charlie helped Missouri slaves escape along the UGRR to the Illinois counties of Plymouth, McDonough, Knox, and Stark.[5] Little is known of Charlie’s actual life and most of what is known is impossible to corroborate, but the popular narrative is that after Charlie escaped his enslavement, he returned to seek out and rescue his wife only to find that she had already been sold away. Charlie then spent years helping countless other enslaved families escape, perhaps always still searching for his wife.[6] It is possible that this story has been romanticized over the years, but nonetheless it underscores the important role that previously escaped slaves often played on the UGRR.

Charlie was certainly not alone. Chapman’s History of Knox County, Illinois describes an 1858 stampede in which “a colored man was taken through [Galesburg] to Canada, who shortly afterward found his way back to Missouri and started with nine other slaves for the land of freedom, but reached Galesburg with only five or six. With these it is presumed he got safely through to Canada.”[7] This important fact about the nature of slave stampedes, that some of them may have been initiated and led by former slaves still in hiding, emphasizes a critical aspect of the network that was essential to enabling larger group escapes.

[1] Owen Muelder, The Underground Railroad in Western Illinois (Jefferson, NC: McFarland & Co., 2008), 93.

[2] Galin Berrier, “The Underground Railroad in Western Illinois,”  Annals of Iowa 67:2 (2008): 225.

[3] Muelder, 35.

[4] Muelder, 8.

[5] Muelder, 55-56, 69-71, 112, 136.

[6] Muelder, 136.

[7] Muelder, 110-111.

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 slaveholders, 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 slaveholder 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.

Andrew Delbanco’s The War Before the War

Daniel Drayton

Daniel Drayton, captain of The Pearl, arrested in 1848, received a pardon in 1852

The Pearl incident was one of the largest attempted mass slave escapes in American history. On April 15, 1848, more than 70 enslaved people, including many children, boarded a schooner named The Pearl on the Potomac River in Washington, DC, in a daring effort organized after weeks of “preconcerted planning,” as scholar Andrew Delbanco puts it in The War Before the War (Nov. 2018), managed by an impressive network of free African Americans, white abolitionists, and the enslaved themselves. The effort was shocking to many of their opponents. Delbanco writes memorably in his new book about the fugitive crisis, that slaveholders in Washington awoke to find “Breakfasts were not ready, babies were not dressed, horses and chickens were going hungry; nobody was performing the morning tasks expected of urban slaves.” [1]

The freedom seekers, however, did not get far. Poor sailing conditions forced the ship to dock 150 miles down the Potomac, where officials soon boarded the ship, recaptured the freedom seekers and arrested three white men who helped them escape. The failed escape’s size and proximity to the nation’s capitol exacerbated slaveholder fears about slave resistance, rebellion, and violence. While the Pearl escape was itself nonviolent, the jarring nature of the event made the threat of slave resistance seem ever more palpable in the slaveholder’s imagination.

1848 broadside

1848 poster made by the District of Columbia government shortly after the Pearl Escape, courtesy of

Delbanco uses the Pearl incident as part of his wide-ranging effort to explain how the long crisis over fugitive slaves in the United States was a key dynamic behind the rising sectional tensions that ultimately led to the American Civil War. He describes the incident as the “capstone event of a decade during which the nation moved closer and closer towards a decisive confrontation with itself.” [2]

Delbanco does not use the term “stampede” to describe the 1848 event, nor does he apply that terminology to other types of group or mass escapes that he relates in his gripping narrative.  However, the noted scholar from Columbia University routinely employs phrases such as “group escape,” “maroons” and “mass exodus” when detailing larger bodies of freedom seekers escaping bondage together.  Nor does Delbanco focus explicitly on Missouri or the Mississippi Valley, but his work is still immensely helpful in contextualizing aspects of this project.  He does mention, for example,  that the “sheer volume of absconding slaves was immense” from the border state of Missouri. [3] He also explains how being a “slave in, say, St. Louis or Baltimore …meant better prospects for escape.” [4]  Although group escapes sometimes occurred in the deeper South or within interior regions, he details how they more often resulted in movement toward life as “maroons” hiding in “cleared ground and the swamp or forest beyond” for extended periods of time. [5] 

The term “stampede” does appear in Delbanco’s new book though in contexts different from antebellum mass escapes.  When describing the impact of the pivotal Kansas-Nebraska Act of 1854, for example, Delbanco writes that it “set off a stampede of enraged adversaries.”  The scholar also uses a memorable image from Frank Leslie’s Illustrated Newspaper in June 1861, captioned originally as “Stampede Among the Negroes in Virginia,”  This vivid cartoon predated a more famous one that appeared in Harper’s Weekly in August 1861, captioned, “Stampede of Slaves from Hampton to Fortress Monroe.”  Both illustrations from the summer of 1861 depicted the emergence of wartime runaways or contrabands at the very outset of the war.  And ultimately, that is Delbanco’s point.  The resistance of runaway slaves, especially through stampedes or various types of group or mass escapes, had an outsized impact on the paranoia of slaveholders. “Black violence was always lurking- at least in the white mind. And no matter how much whites wanted to believe that blacks were passive under the putatively benign regime of slavery, fugitives and rebels were a continual rebuke to this belief,” argues Delbanco. [6]

Stampede from Leslie's

Frank Leslie’s Illustrated Newspaper, June 8, 1861 (Library of Congress)

Stampede by Harpers

Harpers Weekly, August 17, 1861 (Library of Congress)




[1] Andrew Delbanco, The War Before the War: Fugitive Slaves and the Struggle for America’s Soul from the Revolution to the Civil War (New York: Penguin Press, 2018), 214.

[2] Delbanco, 215.

[3] Delbanco, 25.

[4] Delbanco, 35.

[5] Delbanco, 109.

[6] Delbanco, 199.

Cheryl LaRoche – The Geography of Resistance (2013)

Slave escape boat

Fugitive slaves escaping by boat. (House Divided Project)

An enslaved man in St. Louis, Missouri, William Wells Brown was filled “with the most intense anxiety” as he plotted his escape across the Mississippi River. Late one evening in 1833, Brown and his mother finally executed their plan, and riding a small skiff on a “very swift” current, the mother and son duo were “soon upon the Illinois shore.” Their taste of freedom was brief, however, and they were soon manacled by slave catchers and returned to bondage in Missouri. Yet in January 1834, Brown at last succeeded, smuggling himself on board a steamboat bound for Ohio. [1]

Brown headshot

After escaping from slavery in St. Louis, William Wells Brown became a prominent figure in the anti-slavery movement. (House Divided Project)

Brown’s story is one of many profiled in Cheryl LaRoche’s book, The Geography of Resistance (2013). For years prior to his escape, Brown had worked on steamboats that canvassed the Mississippi River, gaining an intimate familiarity with the surrounding region. That he and his mother landed near the abolitionist stronghold of Alton, Illinois, was no accident, maintains LaRoche. Not only was Alton filled with anti-slavery sympathizers, but just miles away was a crucial, although often overlooked free African American settlement, known as Rocky Fork.

Rocky Fork is one of four African American communities along the North-South border that LaRoche profiles in her book. Of these four settlements (Rocky Fork and Miller Grove in southern Illinois, Lick Creek in Indiana, and Poke Patch in southern Ohio), just Rocky Fork survives today. With few written sources available, LaRoche taps into archaeological evidence, oral histories and geographical analysis (“using the land as a type of document”), to produce an account of what she terms “the geography of resistance.” What emerges is a portrait of African Americans, on both sides of the border, acting as central agents in determining their own fates. Most freedom seekers, LaRoche notes, “negotiated either all or the most difficult or dangerous portion of the trip alone or with the help of other Blacks.” Quakers and other white abolitionists, she writes, while playing important roles, also harbored “ambivalent sentiments” towards African Americans, and were not the driving force behind the resistance to bondage. In LaRoche’s view, geography bears this out. Many well-known Underground Railroad sites “operated within a two- to three-mile radius of small Black enclaves.” Documenting these often-overlooked black hamlets, LaRoche maintains, “visually clarifies and exposes the relationships between African American churches, settlements, and historic Underground Railroad routes.” [2] 

Missouri escapes figure prominently in LaRoche’s book, largely due to her first case study, Rocky Fork. A black settlement situated mere miles from the Missouri border, LaRoche notes that Rocky Fork was “ideally located, remote and not easily accessed.” The larger and better-known abolitionist community of Alton lay just three miles away. Difficult to reach by land, Rocky Fork was instead “highly accessible” by water, via the Mississippi River. Missouri fugitives could follow the river north to Piasa Creek, where two islands enabled them to swim or boat across to Rocky Fork Creek. The small settlement (at its peak counting 45 families) provided “a secluded, safe refuge” for Missouri fugitives, who by the 1830s were arriving with increasing regularity. Escaped slaves, LaRoche writes, enjoyed the advantages of rural living, often setting up house in remote, wooded areas, which “helped discourage pursuers,” who feared for their own safety venturing into the unknown wilderness. [3]

Map Alton

An 1857 map showing the abolitionist stronghold of Alton, Illinois (left center), a short distance upriver from St. Louis. Not specified is the free black community of Rocky Fork, located just three miles west of Alton. (House Divided Project)

LaRoche does not use the term slave stampede, but she does identify and discuss multiple “group escapes,” including many from eastern Missouri into Illinois. She posits that “as the slavery crisis deepened, the mechanisms of escape extended from lonely singular escapes to groups and families attempting to free themselves from bondage.” These larger escapes, LaRoche argues, turned increasingly violent and eventually gave way to “armed conflict in the name of freedom.” One of the earliest potential stampedes may have been the work of “Mother” Priscilla Baltimore, a former slave who resided in Brooklyn, Illinois, an historically black enclave located across the river from St. Louis. In 1829, Baltimore reportedly led 11 Missouri families (including both free and enslaved persons) across the Mississippi to freedom. Later, a “series of group escapes in 1845,” LaRoche notes, caused considerable consternation among Missouri slaveholders, who seethed that abolitionists had enticed their slaves to escape. Yet another potential stampede dates from 1854, when a free black coachman from Alton concealed 15 Missouri slaves in his carriage. He helped them cross the Mississippi in skiffs, and then sent them on to Chicago. [4]

Garnet engraving

As a child, Henry Highland Garnet escaped slavery in a potential slave stampede. (House Divided Project)

Accounts of other potential stampedes abound throughout the book. Josiah Henson escaped from slavery in Kentucky, traveling to Indiana and eventually Canada, but returned to help lead 30 Bourbon County, Kentucky slaves to freedom. Years later, during the Civil War, eight Kentucky slaves followed in Henson’s footsteps, escaping northward into Indiana. One was recaptured, but the remaining seven managed to reach freedom and enlist in the 28th U.S. Colored Troops. LaRoche also discusses potential stampedes from the eastern slaveholding states. One involved the noted black abolitionist and preacher Henry Highland Garnet, who escaped slavery as a child in 1824, along with 10 enslaved relatives. The group left New Market, Maryland, and reached the Delaware home of Quaker abolitionist Thomas Garrett, and from there moved on to upstate New York. Another potential stampede dates from 1847, when 13 freedom seekers headed north from Williamsport, Maryland, after learning of their impending sale. Just across the border in Chambersburg, Pennsylvania, the fugitives linked up with a black operative, George Cole, who guided them to the small town of Boiling Springs, where they briefly stayed at the home of white abolitionist Daniel Kaufman. While the fugitives were ushered off to safety, the Pennsylvania abolitionist was later convicted of aiding their escape. [5]

In terms of this project, The Geography of Resistance adds valuable insight to our understanding of slave stampedes. In discussing group escapes, LaRoche highlights the often neglected roles played by free African Americans living along the North-South border. Over the span of several decades, free black residents of Rocky Fork, Illinois, assisted large groups of enslaved Missourians in their attempts to escape bondage. As we continue our research into slave stampedes, LaRoche’s work reminds us that the border’s free black communities were not simply remote or isolated enclaves, but also potential paths to freedom for groups of escaping slaves.


[1] William Wells Brown, Narrative of William W. Brown, a Fugitive Slave (Boston: Anti-Slavery Office, 1847), 67-70, [WEB]; Cheryl Janifer LaRoche, Free Black Communities and the Underground Railroad: The Geography of Resistance (Urbana, Chicago and Springfield: University of Illinois Press, 2013), 36.

[2] LaRoche, 15, 37, 40-41, 70, 85, 87-88, 101-102, 140.

[3] LaRoche, 22-24, 33-34, 37.

[4] LaRoche, 30, 33-36, 157.

[5] LaRoche, 66-68, 97, 128.