Missouri slavery differed significantly from the images of large cotton and rice plantations, complete with the big house and slave quarters, which have come to represent the Old South.
The profile of most Missouri slaveholdings reflected the family farm rather than the plantation: Nearly 90 percent of slaveholders owned 10 or fewer slaves. Farming families generally worked alongside their few slaves as they practiced the diversified agriculture common to the region.
Not long after the Civil War, white Missourians began to recall that their ancestors treated black people like “members of the family.” They described Missouri slavery as humane — in spite of the more critical picture painted by those who had actually endured enslavement.
The interactions between slaves and owners were more personal, but this never translated into a “better” system of bondage. Rather, the historical evidence suggests that Missouri slavery was often just as cruel and exploitative as anywhere.
A few slaveholders felt an affinity with those with whom they lived and worked so closely, and this at times resulted in kinder treatment. This intimacy worked both ways, however. Slaves were well placed to understand the personalities of their owners and use this knowledge to their advantage.
At the same time, the marginal economic conditions of small-scale slavery coupled with the tenuous nature of life on the geographic border of the slave South encouraged slave resistance and undermined the authority of owners.
Yet these interactions always occurred in a context where slaves’ lives were largely beyond their control. They were subject to their owners’ personalities and whims — ranging from empathy and cooperation to the worst forms of physical, sexual and psychological abuse.
What is often missed, too, is that other aspects of life on Missouri’s farms could be more difficult.
Most slaves had less access to family members and the larger black community, both of which would have helped to mitigate the harshest aspects of enslavement.
Family was a priority for slaves, but finding marriage partners on their home farms was challenging.
In fact, well over half of Missouri couples participated in abroad marriages — a slave woman and her children on one farm and the husband and father on a neighbor’s property. Married men customarily were allowed to visit their wives and children only once or twice a week.
In addition, families were more likely to be separated when slaves were hired out to local whites, at the settlement of deceased owner’s estates, or when they were sold — sometimes literally down the river.
In spite of the many restrictions placed on them, enslaved people showed an amazing ability to adapt to their difficult circumstances and resist the dehumanizing effects of their condition by developing and sustaining strong human connections across farm boundaries.
The many risks they took and the great lengths that they went to in order to maintain friendships and family bonds demonstrate the importance of these relationships.
Given the alternative of isolation, most men, women and children accepted the limitations of abroad families and relished the little time they spent with one another. In the face of high mortality and the deprivations of slavery, families were remarkably stable.
Enslaved Missourians also took advantage of opportunities to socialize with others in the greater community. Owners actually encouraged this social interaction when it promoted their economic goals.
They routinely sent men into town on farm errands, and both men and women attended barn raisings and corn huskings. They also allowed abroad men to visit their wives in order to encourage procreation and because they believed that family ties would make them less likely to rebel or flee. Owners also took their slaves to integrated churches, where white preachers directed them to obey both their spiritual and worldly masters.
Slaveholders rarely forbade their slaves’ involvement in the greater slave community outright, but instead attempted to closely monitor their activities and associations. Slaves carried a written pass from their owner when they left their home farm or risked brutality at the hands of the local slave patrol.
Despite their best efforts, owners never achieved complete domination. Enslaved Missourians converted white-sanctioned social occasions into sites of family and friendship, as well as music, storytelling and dance. Some sought social interactions that were free from white control and attended clandestine parties and black-led religious services in the local woods.
In spite of the tremendous challenges, remarkably, many enslaved Missourians, such as Spotswood and Orry Rice, managed to foster stable and long-lasting ties with others.
The Howard County couple began their married life in 1852 but spent the first 12 years living on separate slaveholdings. Their daughter Mary Bell described her parents as helping each another endure the “hard times” of slavery, even though they only saw one another twice a week.
Bell’s father often came to them bloodied from beatings he had received at the hands of the slave driver on his master’s plantation, and her mother would tend to his wounds, wash his clothes and send him back again.
Spotswood Rice eventually gained freedom through enlistment in the Union Army midway through the war and immediately set about working to bring his wife and children out of bondage. While most of his family made it to safety in St. Louis, two of his daughters remained behind.
Rice assured Corra and Mary that “I will have you if it cost me my life.”
Believing the full power of the federal government and the Union Army would support him in his quest, he even threatened Mary’s mistress that his girls were not her property, writing: “My Children is my own and I expect to get them.”
The Rice girls eventually were reunited with their parents, and the family thrived in postwar St. Louis.
Countless Missouri slaves shared similar stories. Like the Rice family, the road out of bondage was long, but they held together as they hoped for a brighter future in freedom.