Missouri in 1850

Thomas Hart Benton

Thomas Hart Benton

Thomas Hart Benton thought his Missouri home a Western state, not a Southern state. Nor did he count his preferred transcontinental railroad route from St. Louis as a Southern route. Roughly midway between Chicago and New Orleans, Benton needed only show a map to support the claim. Missouri had slavery and so belongs in the South, but not quite in the same part of the South as the Carolina Lowcountry, Mississippi Delta, or Alabama river bottoms. Like the rest of the Border States, its demography ran somewhere between North and South.

I have previously looked at demographics on the level of states and sections, but Benton’s position seems like as good a chance as any to narrow the focus and look just within a particular state. The University of Virgina’s historical census browser supplied the raw data, down to the level of individual counties. It differs somewhere from the state aggregates I took directly from Census Department summaries, but across the whole state that adds up to less than a one percent discrepancy. That could come from human error on my part, especially considering the amount of numbers typed into a spreadsheet in quick succession, but I think it’s close enough to make fair comparisons in any event.

For context, the Sixth Census found the United States 13.82% enslaved, with a typical variance of up to 29.67% enslaved. Taking out the almost absolutely free North and just counting the South puts those numbers at 33.15% enslaved, with a typical range from 19.35% to 46.95%. How does Missouri measure up? It enslaved 12.88% of its population, including some of Benton’s own human property. That brings it in well below Southern norms. That low percent enslaved still meant bondage for 97.09% of its black population, though. One does not find another Delaware (2.50% enslaved and that amounting to only 11.25% of its black population) or Maryland (15.50% enslaved, 54.74% of its black population) beside the Mississippi and astride the Missouri. But nor does one find another South Carolina (57.59% enslaved, 97.73% of its black population) or Mississippi (51.09% and 99.70%, respectively).

But a place as big as Missouri, until the admission of Texas the biggest state in the Union, can hide a lot of diversity inside it. Fortunately the census has breakdowns by county. A county in most states probably does not seem like a big deal to most modern Americans. But in 1850 the telegraph didn’t even reach California from the East Coast. Nor, of course, did rail link the two. Most people moved by foot or by horse over roads we might barely recognize as such. Poorer, slower communication and transportation made for a much bigger world where the nature of small numbers and isolated populations could generate a lot of heterogeneous areas in a space we would call quite confined.

Due to the large size of the spreadsheet, I had to split it in two. Sorry about that.


Missouri in 1850, counties Adair to Knox


Missouri in 1850, counties Laclede to Wright and state totals.

Missouri’s hundred counties do not disappoint. The most enslaved, Howard, weighs in at 35.01% enslaved. While that makes Howard nearly thrice as enslaved as the state average, it hardly casts a shadow over South Carolina and Mississippi. It would hardly stand out in Virginia (33.24%) or North Carolina (33.20%). If we call a black belt county a county where half or more of the population live as slaves, Howard doesn’t fit even after it exceeds the national norms. Lafayette and Saline counties join it in enslaving more than 30% of their populations, but all three have more Upper South than black belt in their demographics. Only fourteen other counties exceed South’s lower bound of 19.35% and qualify as typically enslaved.

But Missouri at least includes a kind of Upper South. Did it also have a sort of Lower North? Not quite, as in 1850 the North had 262 slaves total, mostly in New Jersey, but all of those states outlawed slavery decades earlier even if gradual emancipation meant they still had residual slaves waiting for freedom and the occasional superannuated slaves born too early to benefit from the laws. As Missouri still had legal slavery, Delaware makes for a better benchmark. The first state had 2,290 slaves in 1850, just 2.50% of its population. Of its black population, 88.75% lived free. Twenty of Missouri’s counties came in below Delaware’s benchmark.

It appears then that we have two Missouris. One, including the Delawares and other very lightly enslaved places, looks very much like Benton’s vision. It includes much of the state’s land and its demographics do not differ all that much from states on the edge of emancipation decades earlier and a few degrees further North. But the other Missouri looks more like the Upper South. Down the Missouri valley, profitable plantations grew hemp and tobacco like those in Virginia and North Carolina. Standing there in 1850, with Indian country on the edge of organization and opening to white settlement so near, both measures Benton favored, the future must have looked very promising for slavery indeed.


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