Removing Slavery from Westward Expansion: Two Case Studies of Public Memorials in Missouri

Removing Slavery from Westward Expansion: Two Case Studies of Public Memorials in Missouri

The town of Marthasville, Missouri, is located about forty-five miles west of St. Louis. The oldest town in Warren County, Marthasville today is a quiet place with fertile farmland, a lakeside resort, and numerous wineries. Although I have lived in Missouri most of my life, I had never been to this place until fairly recently. I quickly discovered that residents of Marthasville are proud of their history. Dotted throughout this rural landscape are numerous historical markers celebrating the life of Daniel Boone—whose original gravesite was located two miles from downtown Marthasville—and the voyage of Meriwether Lewis and William Clark. Another historical marker explaining the history of Marthasville notes that the town was founded by Dr. John Young, who purchased more than 500 acres of land and named the town after his first wife, Martha.

It soon dawned upon me, however, that something was missing from this landscape. Dr. Young’s name rang a bell in my head, and at first I struggled to remember where I had heard his name. But then it hit me: Dr. John Young was a wealthy settler from Kentucky who had owned a large number of enslaved African Americans. The most notable of these African Americans was William Wells Brown, the famous abolitionist who went on to become a prolific writer and the country’s first black novelist with his 1853 book, Clotel.

A historical marker detailing the early history of Marthasville, Missouri, that fails to mention the famous abolitionist William Wells Brown, who lived in the town from 1817 to 1825. Photo courtesy of the author.

Of the seventeen years in which John Young owned Brown, eight of them (1817-1825) were spent in Marthasville. As Brown’s biographer Ezra Greenspan notes, Brown’s experiences distinguished him from other African American antislavery activists before the Civil War because he “grew in maturity as a participant in the great frontier drama unfolding across the interior of nineteenth-century North America. Move by move, he and his relatives were pushed westward . . . their master following the footsteps of Boone and other pioneer settlers.”[1] And yet, visitors to Marthasville today would have no idea that one of the country’s earliest civil rights leaders—a man that contemporaries compared to the likes of William Lloyd Garrison and Frederick Douglass—had spent a number of his formative years in this small town.

Brown is not the only African American missing from the story of westward expansion in Missouri. In the city of St. Charles—a nearby suburb of St. Louis that lies on the Missouri River—a statue depicting Lewis and Clark figures prominently in a local park along the riverfront. Positioned in between the two men is “Seaman,” a dog that had been purchased by Lewis and accompanied the Corps of Discovery for the entire duration of their three-year trip. Notably absent from the monument is York, an enslaved man owned by William Clark who also accompanied the Corps of Discovery and played an important role as a scout, trader, and caretaker for the expedition. As far as I can tell, there are at least ten historical sites throughout the United States with monuments or statues that either depict or mention Seaman, while York only has two statues: in Louisville, Kentucky, and Portland, Oregon (Yorks Islands in Broadwater County, Montana, are also named for York).[2] The fact that a dog in the Corps of Discovery has more statues in his honor than an enslaved man (or any Indigenous people associated with the expedition) speaks volumes about the ways Americans have chosen to remember the interconnected stories of westward expansion, colonialism, and slavery before the Civil War.

The Lewis and Clark Monument and accompanying text in St. Charles, Missouri. Photo courtesy of the author.

A few conclusions can be drawn from these two historical icons in Missouri. First, while towns and cities throughout the United States frequently celebrate their “founders” and other early settlers through monuments and historical markers, the underlying historical actors who played their own roles in shaping the history of westward expansion—enslaved African Americans, Native Americans, and/or women who may have accompanied their white husbands in their travels—are often left out of the story. “Founders” monuments and historical markers often celebrate the image of heroic, “self-made” men who braved the dangers of a new frontier and helped create a new nation. That these same men contributed to growing conflicts over slavery’s westward expansion and eventual civil war is a point often ignored when told in a public history setting.

One reason for this silence is explained by my second conclusion: while historians have covered all aspects of slavery in the Deep South and Mid-Atlantic regions in recent years, the same cannot be said about slavery in the West. In her 2009 publication Mrs. Dred Scott: A Life on Slavery’s Frontier, Lea VanderVelde argued that “although there is a very important increasing body of scholarship about antebellum southern slavery . . . there has been very little scholarship about frontier slaves.”[3] In the ten years since VanderVelde’s publication a range of studies has more closely examined slavery in wide ranging places such as the Northwest territory, Missouri, Kansas, New Mexico, and California.[4] Nevertheless there remains much work to bridge the gap and better demonstrate the interconnected history of westward expansion, slavery, and the Civil War. As Kristen Epps argues in her book Slavery on the Periphery, “enslaved emigrants found themselves participating in a westward movement designed to continue their enslavement on a structural level as well as a personal one.”[5]

How does your local community commemorate westward expansion in its public memorials? Let us know in the comment section.

 

[1] Ezra Greenspan, William Wells Brown: An African American Life (New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 2014), 12.

[2] “Seaman – Lewis’s Newfoundland Dog,” The Lewis and Clark Trail, 2011, accessed November 5, 2019, http://www.lewisandclarktrail.com/seaman.htm.

[3] Lea VanderVelde, Mrs. Dred Scott: A Life on Slavery’s Frontier (New York: Oxford University Press, 2009), 3.

[4] See Diane Mutti Burke, On Slavery’s Border: Missouri’s Small Slaveholding Households, 1815-1865 (Athens: University of Georgia Press, 2010); Christopher P. Lehman, Slavery in the Upper Mississippi Valley, 1787-1865: A History of Human Bondage in Illinois, Iowa, Minnesota, and Wisconsin (Jefferson, NC: McFarland & Company, 2011); Kristen Epps, Slavery on the Periphery: The Kansas-Missouri Border in the Antebellum and Civil War Eras (Athens: University of Georgia Press, 2016); Dale Edwyna Smith, African Americans Lives in St. Louis, 1763-1865: Race, Slavery, and the West (Jefferson, NC: McFarland & Company, 2017); William S. Kiser, Coast-to-Coast Empire: Manifest Destiny and the New Mexico Borderlands (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 2018); Stacy L. Smith, Freedom’s Frontier: California and the Struggle Over Unfree Labor, Emancipation, and Reconstruction (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2013).

[5] Epps, Slavery on the Periphery, 15.

Nick Sacco

Nick Sacco is a public historian working for the National Park Service as a Park Ranger at the Ulysses S. Grant National Historic Site in St. Louis, Missouri. He recently had a journal article about the Grand Army of the Republic published in the Indiana Magazine of History entitled "The Grand Army of the Republic, the Indianapolis 500, and the Struggle for Memorial Day in Indiana, 1868-1923" (December 2015). Nick also runs a personal blog about history, "Exploring the Past," at https://pastexplore.wordpress.com/.

One Reply to “Removing Slavery from Westward Expansion: Two Case Studies of Public Memorials in Missouri”

  1. There is a YORK plaza at the Downtown mall is Charlottesville, VA that includes stones noting
    different states that he traveled to on the expedition. It is surely not a monument but it is interesting especially since this is only a short ways from the tragedy a few summers ago

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.