Enslaved people risked everything to escape Missouri for Kansas — even walking across a frozen river
The banks of the Missouri River have changed the 1850s and 60s, when slavery in the U.S. was in its final throes — especially in St. Joseph, where a double-decker highway now separates most of the city from the river. Back then, before the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers channelized the river, the Mighty Mo was wider and shallower.
For enslaved people in this booming part of western Missouri, the muddy river was all that separated them from Kansas, and freedom. Escape attempts happened regularly.
“Usually it was by log rafts, and they would try to go across that way,” said Kami Jones, who leads large group tours at St. Joseph Museums, which include the city’s Black Archives Museum. “But a lot of times, they would wait until it was cold enough that the river was almost frozen, or there was chunks of ice in it, and then cross through the ice.”
Slavery in Missouri is sparsely researched and rarely discussed, and when it is, it’s described as less severe than in the Deep South. But the river, and western Missouri’s location, made it a dangerous place to be in bondage, and one of the first places where American slavery began to crumble.
The prospects of a frigid escape over the river must have been terrifying, Jones said. “These weren't easy choices. I mean, there's no good option.”
A historical marker overlooking the river memorializes one such instance, during the winter of 1862-63, when hundreds escaped by walking across the ice.
Historians call these “slave stampedes,” and this was perhaps one of the biggest in Missouri, the front lines of the mass-escape phenomenon.
Despite how straightforward crossing the river to freedom seems, the decision to do so was anything but simple.
“You know, a lot of people, half the family would go and the other half wouldn’t,” Jones said. “Some of them stayed in slavery because they had kids, and they could not run the risk of making it across.”
Diane Mutti Burke is a history professor at the University of Missouri-Kansas City, and the director of the Center for Midwestern Studies. Her research shows slavery here was just as brutal as anywhere, and most escape attempts failed because there was an entire apparatus built around returning slaves.
“A slave patrol is basically (a) community organized operation where everybody was supposed to ride on the slave patrol, let's say, one night a month,” she said. “They would ride around and look for people that they considered to be out of place … (including) enslaved people who weren't on their home properties.”
In the lead-up to the Civil War, as violence in territorial Kansas intensified and the number of escape attempts from Missouri increased, those slave patrols morphed into vigilante groups.
“Oh, it was a huge concern of enslavers,” said Mutti Burke, who wrote a book about Missouri slavery, called “On Slavery’s Border: Missouri's Small Slaveholding Households, 1815-1865.”
“They were incredibly paranoid about (slaves escaping),” she said.
Missouri’s brand of slavery — think family farms instead of sprawling plantations — meant masters and their slaves lived and worked in close quarters. As a result, Mutti Burke wrote, the owners’ authority was easier to erode, and the enslaved had more opportunities to resist.
“Enslaved people were very politically astute. They knew what was going on, and even though very few people could read or write … enslaved people would get ahold of information by listening to white people talk,” she said.
That “grapevine” knowledge steered many slaves away from pro-slavery strongholds in Kansas, like Atchison, and toward abolitionist bulwarks, like Lawrence or the Union fort at Leavenworth.
In the 1860s an enslaved man named George Washington made that his route, from a plantation located where Kansas City International Airport is now. Washington crossed the Missouri to Quindaro, an abandoned township in what is now Kansas City, Kansas.
His story was told in part by the Missouri Department of Natural Resources’ Historic Preservation Program.
Washington left little trace in Quindaro, but there are folks working to preserve some sense of what the place looked like in his time.
Luther Smith is the director of the Quindaro Underground Railroad Museum, just up the bluff from where a river landing welcomed people to town.
“I’ve been around Quindaro all my life. I was born right down here on 29th Street,” Smith said. “My mother's family, especially, they lived here in Quindaro all their lives.”
Out of the boarded-up old Vernon School building, Smith and others are working to turn Quindaro’s 160-year-old ruins into a tourist attraction, complete with paved trails and interpretive signs.
“Quindaro’s got a lot of history to it, and that’s what I want to leave for people to know, you know? Cause I’m getting a little bit older myself — a little bit,” Smith laughed.
In 2019, the Quindaro ruins were designated as a National Commemorative Site but, for now, seeing the ruins still requires a muddy hike through overgrown woods. Like Missouri’s little-discussed legacy of slavery, the stone foundations sit mostly forgotten, but still relevant.
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