Slavery – A reality in Hannibal’s early economy
The other side of Tom Sawyer's white-washed fence.
Missouri came into the Union as a slave state and depended on slave labor for its early development. It should not be forgotten that the Louisiana Purchase created a great deal of turmoil for slaves as families were separated, uprooted and relocated when a white slave owner decided to move west. Some slave families had spent four or more generations on eastern seaboard plantations and had deep connections to the surrounding black community. Movement westward disrupted these communities, permanently severing ties between family and friends.
Moses Bates, credited with being the person who settled Hannibal, he brought slaves with him; the named slaves included Jacob Lowe, Moses, Randall, and Jemima. Along with Bates, these slaves must be recognized as early pioneers and aong the first settlers in what is now present day Hannibal. They cleared the land, farmed, built cabins and fences, and planted and harvested crops. As Hannibal grew, so did the slave population. Slaves played a vital role in building early Hannibal, from constructing railroads to working in the mines, mills and factories. Moses Bates acquired many more slaves after his arrival.
The census of 1850 reveals that of the of the 12,182 people living in Marion County, 732 or 8%, of its inhabitants owned the 2,852 slaves. However, up to 40% of whites in Hannibal leased slaves to assist with small farm and domestic labor. They often relied on slave labor to meet their daily needs. The number of slaves recorded in the 1850 census reflects this dependence. Many of these slaves were children as young as nine who had been torn away from their families by sale or by hire. These slaves, and their forced, unpaid labor, played an integral role in the flourishing economy of early Hannibal.
Slavery in Hannibal did not resemble modern day stereotypical depictions of slavery in the Deep South, Missouri had no major cash crops, and thus no large plantations with vast fields of toiling slaves driven by relentless overseers. However, slaves were subject to the Slave Codes of 1804 monitoring their freedoms, with the same harsh living conditions and the same cruel and severe punishments experienced in other slaveholding states. Though Samuel Clemens’ novels presented images of loving slave owners like Aunt Polly and Mrs. Watson, he recalls several instances reflecting the harsh realities of slavery. He once saw a slave beaten to death in the streets of Hannibal for a minor infraction, he also tells the story of finding the body of a runaway slave on Bird Slough near Sny Island. The freedom-seeking slave had obviously been killed by slave catchers and left there to rot.
Pre-Civil War photograph of two African American slave children taken by J.R. Shockley in his Main Street studio in Hannibal, MO. Courtesy of the Library of Congress.
The 1804 Slave Codes were enforced with slave traders and slave catchers throughout the community. Even Missouri's free blacks experienced limitations, they were required to carry a license with them at all times and had to post a bond if they wanted to travel from one county to another county. If stopped without this identification as proof that they were free, they could be sold into slavery. Most dehumanizing was the requirement that children be registered at the county court house when they turned seven, required to be bound out as apprentices and servants at that age. It was these free blacks who created black schools, churches, and fraternal organizations.
In the Jim’s Journey museum, visitors can see bills advertising the sale or lease of slaves as well as slave want ads, ads published in the Clemens newspaper. Hannibal played an important role in the national slave-trading network because of its position on the Mississippi River. Many slave traders lived in Hannibal, slave auctions were sometimes held at Melpontian Hall, on the corner of Center and Third, only four blocks from the Clemens house. However, auctions were usually held at the courthouse of the county seat, Palmyra or New London. In his autobiography, Twain recalls, “I vividly remember seeing a dozen black men and women chained to one another, once, and lying in a group on the pavement, awaiting shipment to the Southern slave market. Those were the saddest faces I have ever seen.”
Don't be mistaken, slavery in Hannibal was no easier, more comfortable, or more secure than anywhere else. Slaves, whether domestic or farm laborers, worked from before sunrise to long after sunset. Masters provided them with very little clothing or food. Farm laborers usually slept in out buildings, while domestic slaves might sleep on a pallet in the kitchen or hallway to be available if their master called during the night. Female domestic slaves often faced the added trial of unwanted sexual advances from the white men they came into contact with on a daily basis. The growing mulatto population attested to these instances of rape. The labor and sale of African American men, women, and children financed the comfortable lives of white Hannibalians for many generations, including our founding fathers.
Not everyone in the community supported slavery. Some outspoken abolitionists called for the end of slavery in Hannibal and actively assisted escaped slaves making their way to a free state. Samuel Clemens' father, John Clemens, sat on a jury that condemned three abolitionists, James Thompson, James Burr and Alanson Work, to prison for aiding runaway slaves. Legalized slavery lasted longer in Missouri than in some southern states. As a border state, Missouri was exempt from President Abraham Lincoln's 1863 Emancipation Proclamation decreeing the immediate freedom of slaves in all territories then held by Confederate forces. Governor Thomas C. Fletcher ended slavery in Missouri on January 11, 1865, by executive proclamation.
For more information on what it was like to be a slave in Missouri, see our section on Missouri Slave Narratives.
Above: The Emancipation Ordinance of Missouri, passed on January 11, 1865, three weeks before the proposal of the Thirteenth Amendment. The three women are Liberty (left), Justice (below), and Missouri (right). A white child holds "Natural Philosophy" a black child the "Rights of Man." To the right is the state capitol at Jefferson. In the topmost register are the Missouri state arms and other emblematic devices.
The printed legend continues: "Be it ordained by the people of the State of Missouri in Convention assembled that hereafter in this State there shall be neither slavery not involuntary servitude, except in punishment of crime, whereof the party shall have been duly convicted, and all persons held to service or labor as slaves are hereby DECLARED FREE."