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In the Beginning

This history begins in about 1720, when Frenchman Phillippe Renault led an expedition which resulted in the opening of Mine La Motte in Madison County. By 1725, Renault had opened two mining ventures in Washington County, Missouri. These mines were mostly surface diggings done my manual labor with pick and shovel, and this back-breaking work was done mostly by slaves, who had been brought to North America from Santo Domingo.




(above) Mine Au Breton - 1819; from Henry Rowe Schoolcraft's "A View of the Lead Mines"


By 1780 an outcropping of lead had been discovered in the Potosi area by Francis Azor, who came from Breton, France, and the small village of Mine Au Breton was established. The village was populated by a number of French-speaking slaves who worked not only in the mines but also as domestic servants. We know little about the lives of these early French-speaking African-Americans, but today many of their surnames survive -- Bequette, Boyer, Duclos, Lamarque.


In 1797, Moses Austin arrived from Virginia and received a grant of 7,153 arpents of land, adjacent to Azor’s original grant He set about building bridges, roads, mills, stores, a sheet lead factory and the first reverbatory furnace west of the Mississippi--a grand vision brought to fruition by forty to fifty enslaved people.

Settlement of Bellevue Valley

Shortly after Moses Austin began building Mine Au Breton, a settlement of about twenty Protestant American families formed ten miles to the south in Bellevue Valley, led by slave owner William Reed from Greene County, Tennessee. Members of this early settlement established the first Methodist church west of the Mississippi river.


After the Louisiana Purchase in 1804, dozens more families begin to arrive from Tennessee, North Carolina, and Virginia, claiming the fertile lands of Bellevue Valley. They spread the word to relatives and neighbors back east, who continued to join them for the next several decades. Many slaves accompanied their owners on the long trip across the Cumberland Valley. They were forced to endure the harsh conditions of traveling with none of the economic incentives that lured their white owners. Moreover, they also faced a future in which they would probably never see the loved ones they had been forced to leave behind.


One group of enslaved people arrived in Caledonia on November 30, 1807. They had travelled from the North Carolina Piedmont with a Scotch-Irish colony led by William Sloan and Robert Stevenson. The group--which numbered about 30 people including slaves--made their camp, arose the next morning and held a sunrise prayer meeting. According to History of the Bellevue Presbyterian Cemetery, “It was the next morning, Dec. 1, 1807, that the company arose and met the sun in a great prayer meeting of praise and thankfulness that they had reached their journey’s end. That date then became the great Natal Day of Presbyterianism west of the Mississippi River.”


In the local histories and family genealogies, we read of the deep religiosity and "high culture" of these early Scotch-Irish pioneers. In “the Kith and Kin of Caledonia,” Robert Flanders writes of their “energy, refinement, taste, cultivation, hospitality, respect for education, sense of civic responsibility, love of freedom, and striving for a Protestant Christian decency." Yet this culture depended upon the ownership of human beings. This was a learned culture steeped in Jeffersonian ideals that could nonetheless turn a blind eye to the grave wrongs of the “peculiar institution” of slavery (just as Jefferson himself turned a blind eye). Most of these pioneers owned slaves, and their stately homes, which today are on the National Historic Register, would not have been possible without slave labor.

(above) the Ruggles-Evans-Dent house in Caledonia, Mo.


As the settlements in and around Caledonia and Bellevue Valley continued to grow, a road was laid west to Belgrade, which was settled in 1821 by the Bryan and Cole families from Salem, Virginia. James Bryan had sold his 795 acre plantation on the Roanoke River in Virginia and purchased about 2,000 acres on Big River; John Cole sold his adjoining Virginia plantation and purchased a large tract on Breton Creek. Their slaves built the Bryan Mill, which required digging a quarter-mile mill-race. Other large slaveholders in Belgrade were the Hutchings  and Bennings families. These names would later be prominent among African-American families of the area.


(right) Susan Bryan was about 30 years old when slavery ended. She lived in Washington County with her children Philip, Richard, Peter, Quintilla, Martha, James, and Victor. In 1881 Susan Bryan went with her son Dick to Gunnison, Colorado, along with her white employers, Alice (Bryan) and Jesse Corum. [Photo credit: Bellevue: Beautiful View, p. 489]

Slavery in Washington County

We need only open the first deed book of Washington County to see the importance of slavery to the economy of this new territory, for in the first few pages there is the record of sale of "Phillis, Pat, Dick, and Dudley" for $2,000 (Deed Book A, Nov. 30, 1813, p14-15). By 1820, some 425 enslaved people were living in Washington County, and ten years later that number had nearly tripled to 1,168, with slaves comprising about 20 percent of the total population.

Historians have pointed out that because of Missouri's shorter growing season, the work performed by slaves was more diversified, and smaller farms did not follow the typical plantation model of the deep South. Instead, without an overseer, slavery became more patriarchial in nature, with slaves often working side by side with their owners. Nevertheless it was a system of servitude and degradation. Slaves were considered property, and their lives were governed by strict laws designed to preserve this property. With Missouri's statehood in 1821, the "Code Noir" that had governed slaves under French and Spanish colonial rule was replaced by a harsh slave code based on Virginia's slave laws -- and over the next four decades, these laws became increasingly restrictive, as white citizens' fears of uprisings and insurrections grew.

(left) An advertisement for the public sale of slaves in Fredericktown.


Although most slave owners in the mining area of southeast Missouri did not buy and sell slaves on the mass scale that their counterparts in the southern states did, the threat of the auction block was still real. One of the biggest fears was of getting sold down the river.


 When interviewed in the 1930's, former slave Harriet Casey recalled traders coming through Farmington to “buy up slaves in groups like stock. On the way south they would have regular stopping places like pens and coops for the slaves to stay in; at each of these stopping places some of the slave would be sold.”


Another former slave, Joe Casey, who was born in Cadet, Missouri, recalled his Uncle John being sold because of his stubborness: “They had to sell him because they could not do anything with him. They took him to Potosi before they sold him."


Another informant recalled:  "Mother come from way south in Kentucky and she was owned by Master Calvin there and when him and the mistress died the slaves had to be divided up among the children. Then my mother’s mistress left Louisville and brought her here to Missouri. When mother come to Missouri she was only 9 years old"  (Peter Corn).


Children were separated from their mothers, brothers from sisters, husbands from wives. “Mother was sold twice," Eliza Madison reported, "and my father was sold away from my mother.” Harriet Casey echoed this theme, “A brother and sister of mine was sold as slaves ‘fore I was born. I never saw them. My father was sold away from my mother.”


Later in her interview, Eliza Madison volunteers, “My uncle’s father was his master and the master sold my uncle who was his own son.” It is apparent that even blood ties did not protect a slave from being sold. One former slave told of a white man "who had a child by one of his slaves and then sold the child" (Annie  Bridges). Indeed, even a slave who had three white grandparents and one black grandparent would be considered “black” in the eyes of the Missouri law.



Free Negroes

From the very beginning, a small population of “free negroes” lived in Washington County. In the 1830 census, ten households were headed by freedmen, with a total population of 30 to 35. Yet although they were free, their status was precarious. The presence of free Blacks threatened to destroy the very foundaton upon which slavery was built. It was believed that free blacks stirred up discontent among the slaves and caused them to run away, slow down their work, or sue for their freedom. 


The story of  Nace Boman, who is listed as a  “free colored family of 6” in 1830, shows the ambiguous position of free blacks. Nace Boman filed emancipation papers in Illinois in 1838 and bought land there a year later. Yet curiously, his former owner, the Reverend Thomas Donnell, seemed to maintain some hold on him, for in his 1842 will, Donnell, who was minister of the Bellevue Presbyterian Church, directed that “Nace Boman and  his family . . . be and remain free and at perfect liberty . . . Nevertheless, should my wife Eliza R. Donnell at any subsequent time require the servises of  any one of said Nace Boman’s family for the term of two years, it is my will that such servises [be rendered]. Because free Negroes could be reenslaved at any time, they continued to be under the control of their former owners.


Illinois was a destination for several other families of free Negroes from Washington County. After their Emancipation Bonds were filed in August 1845, Adam and Celia Hill moved to Madison County, Illinois, as did James H. Johnson and his family. George Misho and his family moved to Randolph County, IL.


In one unusual case, in 1844 Alexander McCreery travelled to Washington County with the plan of bringing the slaves of his deceased mother’s estate across the state line to Illinois, where they would be free. McCreery secretly brought three men, three women, and several children. These included the families of Richard (Richmond) Inge, Charles McCreeery, and Bruce Inge, who later established the community of Africa in Williamson County, IL.


Cases such as this are rare. Although it is common to read the phrase, written about white slave owners, “he freed his slaves” -- this is, in fact, rarely accurate. In the few cases in which slaves were able to attain freedom, it was at a considerable cost. For example, when Solomon Guy signed a deed on January 13, 1852 to buy the freedom of his wife Esther, “aged 28 years light color and about five feet inches high” and his children, Margaret, age 6, and Robert, age 2, he had only $125 of the total $550, which bought Esther’s freedom but not the children’s. As the deed states:


I have agreed to give indulgence to the said Solomon to pay the balance of the purchase money as follows: one hundred dollars at Christmas, 1852, one hundred dollars at Christmas 1853, one hundred dollars at Christmas 1854, and seventy-five dollars at Christmas 1855, now I hereby bind myself my heirs to manumit and set free the aforesaid Margaret and Robert when the said Solomon shall pay the said sum of three hundred and seventy five dollars in installments as above set forth.


In today’s dollars, Solomon Guy would have to produce over $13,000 to purchase his family’s freedom. In Tom Green’s case, he would need to pay more than $23,000 in today’s dollars for his freedom, as so stated in his owner’s will:


 … my wife Jane shall have the privilege if she so wishes to take the slaves belonging to the estate at valuation so far as they go with the exception of Tom for in as much as I have agreed with him (Tom) that when he pays me or my estate one thousand dollars he is to do and act for himself which amount ($1000) is to be paid as follows viz one hundred and forty four dollars per annum until the above amount one thousand dollars is paid if he (Tom) fails to comply with the above terms …the contract with him to be null and void” (Will of Durant Green, 1859)


No historical records have been discovered to reveal whether Solomon Guy was able to secure his family’s freedom, nor do we know whether Tom Green’s contract with his owner was ever satisfied, but in his case perhaps this was a moot point -- for four years later, he was able to declare himself free. At age 45, he enlisted in the 68th U.S. Colored Infantry, and several years after the Civil War, he formally legalized his marriage to Cassie Green that had taken place twenty-five years earlier.

The Civil War

On January 1, 1863 the Emancipation Proclamation went into effect and by the spring of that year widespread recruitment of the U.S. Colored Troops had begun. Only men ages 18 to 45, of good health and physical condition could enlist. Originally, if the slave owner was a Union supporter, his consent was required before a slave could enlist. By November 1863, that consent was only necessary if the owner requested compensation for the loss of a slave. Under this law, Jane Green of Caledonia appeared in Ironton, Mo., to sign her consent for Austin Green, aged 24, and Taylor Green, aged 21. On the same day, Allen S. Hutchins, also of Caledonia, signed consent for Scott Hutchins, aged 17.


Around the same time, sixty-five volunteers presented themselves for a medical examination with John B. Bell, who was examining physician in Potosi for the Department of the Interior. Twenty-eight of them were rejected because of age or physical impairment. The youngest was George Crouch, aged 14, who presumably was deemed too young to enlist, although his 16-year-old brother Isaac was accepted. Edward White, age 65, was rejected because of overage, but many men in their thirties were also rejected because of injuries such as “mines sickness,” hernias, pleuritis, and loss of teeth. The medical records attest to years of hard labor that had taken a physical toll, yet these African-Americans were eager to fight for something they believed in --freedom from slavery.


The majority of the recruits who passed Dr. Bell’s examination enlisted in the 4th Missouri Infantry, which was organized into the 68th U.S. Colored Infantry in March 1864 at Benton Barracks in St. Louis. The regiment traveled as far as Barrancas, Florida.  and the Rio Grande in Texas, and in April 1865 played a key role in the capture of  Fort Blakely (Alabama). The official record states that the troops mustered out February 5, 1866; however, since no accurate records were kept, there is no way of knowing whether the soldiers from Washington County traveled to these distant locations or were present at the siege of Fort Blakely. In his 1909 application for a Civil War pension, Columbus Sloan, explaining why his name did not appear on the final muster roll, dictated these words: “I having permit to go home my Company was mustered out of service in my absence and [I] failed to receive a discharge.”  His application for a pension, like many, was rejected. This situation seems to have been a common one.


On the home front in Caledonia, Robert Bryant, who was a young child at the time, was separated from his family during Confederate General Sterling Price’s raid on Fort Davidson at Pilot Knob, which killed or wounded some 1,200 soldiers:


The government gave [my father] a team to make it to St. Louis. Me and my mother and my brother who was deaf and dumb went with them but the soldiers captured us and the old man jumped off the mule and high tailed it to the woods. My mother got out of the wagon and took my brother to the woods too. The solder rid up to the wagon and said, ‘Little boy, you don’t need to be afraid, I’m after your father.’ I started to get out of the wagon and fell down under the mule and there I was on the ground. I got up and made for the woods and got in a hole where the hogs was a-wallerin’. I had on a dress and was standin’ in the mud up to my knees. I got lost out in the woods for three days. I just laid around and slept behind a log at night and durin’ the day I played in that mud hold. If I seed somebody comin’ in the woods I would go and hide. A colored lady found me after three days and called me and took me along. I stayed with her three weeks before my mother found me.


At the age of nine, Emmett Byrd of Caledonia was kidnapped by soldiers during Price’s Raid:


Me and my older brother [Hugh Byrd] was both stole. It was in September. A gang was out stealing horses stole us. We was playing about. They overtook us and let us ride, then they wouldn’t let us git off. They would shot us if we had. In a few days we was so far off. We cried and worried a heap. . . . The old snag I was riding give out and they was leading so they changed me. I cried two or three days. They didn’t pay my cring no ‘tention. They had a string of nigger men and boys, no women, far as from me ‘cross to that bank. I judge it is three hundred yards over there. After the battle of Big Blue River my man got killed and another man had charge of me and somebody else went off with my brother. I never seen him. That battle was awful, awful, awful! Well, I certainly was scared to death.


It would be eighteen years before Emmett Byrd found his mother, by then working as a cook in St. Louis.


By the time slavery was officially abolished in Missouri (January 11, 1865), most slaves had either run away, joined the Army, or become sharecroppers. According to Ira Berlin, "In Washington County, Missouri, slaveholders asked the local Provost Marshall to forcibly enlist their slaves, who had "left them and gone to work for themselves'" (Freedom: A Documentary History of Emancipation, 250). But although slavery had come to an end, the cruel separations of families continued. Rhody Holsell was seventeen when the Civil War ended. Both of her parents had already died, and she decided to make her way to Fredericktown to try to find her mother’s people. It took her five years to work her way from farm to farm, but when she got to Fredericktown she discovered that all her people had moved to Illinois.


In the chaotic years following the Civil War, separations continued as former slaves scrambled to find work. Seventy years after the war, when Joe Casey was interviewed in Festus, Mo., the legacy of separation remained:


My children is scattered so I don’t know how many is livin’. I got a boy that went to this last war and I think he is out west somewhere. I got two boys here. One is workin’ for the factory in Crystal City. The other one knows lots about cement. I got another child in New York. They don’t write to me. I can’t read or write.


The "Nadir of History"

After some initial gains made by African-Americans during Reconstruction, a long period of segregation, discrimination, and anti-black violence would follow. Historian Rayford Logan has called this period “the nadir” of race relations (The Negro in American Life and Thought: The Nadir, 1877-1901). During this period, the Ku Klux Klan came into more prominence in the border states, and lynching became a powerful tool used by whites to intimidate and suppress blacks. In 1882, among the 50 reported black victims of mob murder in Missouri, one was Henry Caldwell, a resident of Ironton. On August 3, 1882, the local newspaper, the Iron County Register, reported:

The following is the verdict of the coroner's jury who viewed the body and heard the testimony relative to the hanging of HENRY CALDWELL:  "Said deceased came to his death on the night of July 29, 1882, at about 12:30 A.M., in the township of Arcadia, in the county aforesaid, by being forcibly taken from the Iron county jail, where he was held in the custody of the lawful authorities of the county of Iron and State of Missouri, and hung by the neck from the railroad bridge southeast from the city of Ironton, Missouri, and shot in numerous places in his body, neck and head, until he was dead, by parties composing a mob and who are unknown to us." The verdict was signed by Jos. F. Lindsay, foreman, Wm. Brewington, P. Whitworth, C.A. Downs, Isaac Woolem and Gus. Tollman, jurors.

The story of Henry Caldwell's murder was also reported in the Rome, N.Y. Citizen:


By the early 1900's, the black population of Washington county had dwindled, as families moved to St. Louis & other northern cities in search of better jobs -- and to escape the oppression and indignities of Jim Crow.

(Below):  Potosi ragtime band, about 1905.  Philip Benjamin Lankford, seated front row, far left. [Photo credit:  Collection R234, Western Historical Manuscript Collection, University of Missouri-Rolla].

Camp Thunderbird

On June 4, 1943, a group of African-American stonemasons, the 1743rd Company of the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC), was sent to develop Washington State Park near Desoto, Missouri.  Inspired by the Indian petroglyphs in the park, the company named their barracks "Camp Thunderbird"  and established a camp newspaper, Thunderbird Rumblings.  During the five-year project of developing the park, the master stonemasons worked on 14 buildings, did extensive roadside work, and laid stone for what is known as the  1,000 Steps Trail.  The main lodge (right) has an Indian thunderbird symbol carved in its stone chimney, and the theme is repeated in the handmade iron door hinges. The exceptional quality of the Company's craftsmanship in stone earned them high praise in the National Register of Historic Places' citation for the park.



A Lost History

Other Links

Washington County, MO Genealogical Web Page 

Iron County, MO Genealogical Web Page 

Washington County, Missouri in the Civil War 

African-Americans in Missouri 

Slavery in St. Louis

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