The View from the Missouri Frontier

William Tecumseh Sherman

William Tecumseh Sherman

People in western Missouri wanted Kansas for themselves. To some of them, that meant also wanting it for slavery. To others, having it meant that slavery would come and they could live with that. To a third set, it meant keeping out interloping Yankees. But to all of these it meant taking what rightly belonged to them.

The Missouri river separates only a small part of Kansas from Missouri. The rest comes down, then and now, to a surveyor’s line. By 1854, the edge of the world might run down that surveyor’s line. But that line formed no flaming chasm or iron curtain to stop those living on the frontier from stepping across. If the law prohibited you from doing much across that surveyor’s line in the Indian Country, its officers rarely made the restriction stick. You could get rich with a plantation. You could get rich selling supplies to the emigrant trains moving on to California or Oregon. Both of those options kept you inside the law, more or less. But you could also get rich by laying down markers across the line so you would have fist claim to any new land opened for settlement.

An obscure, if well-connected, military man who missed out on the fighting in Mexico, William Tecumseh Sherman, passed through the area

in the spring of 1852 I had occasion to visit Fort Leavenworth on duty, partly to inspect a lot of cattle which a Mr. Gordon, of Cass County, had contracted to deliver in New Mexico, to enable Colonel Sumner to attempt his scheme of making the soldiers in New Mexico self-supporting

[…]

I found Fort Leavenworth then, as now, a most beautiful spot, but in the midst of a wild Indian country. There were no whites settled in what is now the State of Kansas. Weston, in Missouri, was the great town, and speculation in town-lots there and thereabout burnt the fingers of some of the army-officers, who wanted to plant their scanty dollars in fruitful soil.

I don’t know what edition of Sherman’s memoirs Allen Nevins worked from, but mine had this on page 117 to his 89. As a result I read a bit more than I planned, including Sherman’s similar account of land speculation in California. He even surveyed some land for a claimed “New York on the Pacific” that never panned out. Americans on the frontier just did that. Get in early, stake a claim, buy it cheap and wild, then resell it to the next wave of white settlers. Sherman himself did some of it and reported his profits in his memoirs.

David Rice Atchison (D-MO)

David Rice Atchison (D-MO)

While Missourians could not legally settle in Kansas before the Kansas-Nebraska Act passed, they’d been there, by the hundreds before the bill became a law, and wasted no time scouting out and then staking out claims, law or no law. Less speculative, but no less land-hungry, many would have had an eye on expanding their existing holdings rather than reselling. Some would even have fit the standard image of a family leaving one state entirely to move to a new one for good. Likely which category each settled into depended as much on market forces as initial intentions.

Kansas might not have money just coming out of the ground like California did, but its ground was money. A bunch of rich Yankees with their Emigrant Aid Society planned to come buy it all up before an honest Missourian could get a chance at it? To give to a bunch of dirty Irish thugs and slave-stealing abolitionists? One did not need to have a large, personal investment in slaves or slavery to see a threat in that. The big chance had arrived, only for a big company to try taking it all out of their hands. Worse still, everybody knew that only so much of Kansas had any real value. The rest, part of the great American desert, could never support a farm and would never amount to much. Only the eastern third had any potential.

With so much at stake and so little of Kansas to go around, small wonder Atchison could find plenty of men prepared to sign on and do violence for his cause if it meant helping along their own. They had their American dreams at stake.

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The Crafts (Ellen’s Life in Bondage)

Ellen Craft, dressed as she did when fleeing to freedom

Ellen Craft, dressed as she did when fleeing to freedom

Previous in this series: Some Context. White Children Sold into Slavery? Full text of the narrative.)

To remove the reminder of her husband’s infidelity, his wife gave Ellen away at age eleven. That separated her from her mother, but Ellen took it as a mixed blessing since it also took her away from the cruelty her family resemblance earned her from that same wife. Ellen had some positive things to say about her second owner, Eliza Cromwell Smith:

My wife’s new mistress was decidedly more human than the majority of her class. My wife has always given her credit for not exposing her to many of the worst features of slavery. For instance, it is a common practice in the slave States for ladies, when angry with their maids, to send them to the calybuce sugar-house, or to some other place established for the purpose of punishing slaves, and have them severely flogged; and I am sorry it is a fact, that the villains to whom those defenceless creatures are sent, not only flog them as they are ordered, but frequently compel them to submit to the greatest indignity. Oh! if there is any one thing under the wide canopy of heaven, horrible enough to stir a man’s soul, and to make his very blood boil, it is the thought of his dear wife, his unprotected sister, or his young and virtuous daughters struggling to save themselves from falling a prey to such demons!

A kind owner? Such creatures populate many slavery apologetics, then and now, but the Crafts count her an exception. It also does well to remember to imagine them complexly: a master or mistress might show a kind face to domestic slaves who live with them in the Big House and share their intimate moments, but quite another to a field slave that lives in a shack and only comes to his or her attention for something like running away or breaking tools. We must also remember that a kind owner still held slaves as property and might use them as collateral to make investments that fall through, requiring the sale of those slaves. Kind owners could also die and leave slaves to cruel owners or, if they manumitted slaves in their will, end up with heirs who have the will overturned in court.

Aware of the possibility that crediting Ellen’s owner might have their British audience too generous an impression of slavery, the Crafts immediately continue:

It always appears strange to me that any one who was not born a slaveholder, and steeped to the very core in the demoralizing atmosphere of the Southern States, can in any way palliate slavery. It is still more surprising to see virtuous ladies looking with patience upon, and remaining indifferent to, the existence of a system that exposes nearly two millions of their own sex in the manner I have mentioned, and that too in a professedly free and Christian country. There is, however, great consolation in knowing that God is just, and will not let the oppressor of the weak, and the spoiler of the virtuous, escape unpunished here and hereafter.

I believe a similar retribution to that which destroyed Sodom is hanging over the slaveholders. My sincere prayer is that they may not provoke God, by persisting in a reckless course of wickedness, to pour out his consuming wrath upon them.

The kind owner in slavery apologetic always ends up with slaves who refuse to take any offered freedom. Neither of their owners made any such offer for them to renounce. Their bold deeds, even in the face of less than maximally horrific slavery, tell us how they would have answered if asked. They wanted freedom enough not to wait on white kindness, but instead to take it for themselves at great risk of life and limb. Furthermore, they believe slaveholders worthy of divine obliteration.

I do not propose to speak for the Crafts’ god; I believe in none myself. But whatever provocations Georgia slaveholders directed Heavenward, those they issued to Washington ultimately brought William Tecumseh Sherman down on them.