Missouri Bicentennial Minutes: Enslaved People in Missouri at Statehood
A primary reason for the Missouri crisis was Congress attempting to dictate prohibition of slavery. Most Missourians supported the institution, including many who owned no enslaved people. However, leaders and others in many northern states, while not committed to full equality, began to question slavery in view of the promises of the founding documents and growing uncertainty about the efficiency of slave labor.
The enslavement of indigenous peoples in Missouri by Europeans began with the French, and tribal groups enslaved captives or sold African-Americans. Few of the enslaved were natives by 1821, and laws prevented enslaving them for fear that practice would unite natives against white settlers. Exceptions were those of mixed native-African ancestry.
Enslaved people comprised 30-40% of Missouri’s population in the late 1700s. The percentage was roughly 20% by statehood. The level of enslavement varied regionally, being highest where large scale farming or labor-intensive industries predominated. For example, in the Boone’s Lick country, enslaved African-Americans comprised 1/3 of recent settlers.
Inducements encouraged bringing the enslaved into Missouri. The Spanish offered land grants by head right, including 20 arpens per slave. Many enslavers immigrated to Missouri from the Old Northwest, where regulations favored restrictions on slavery. Moreover, economic expansion resulted from enslavement. The more enslaved people an entrepreneur purchased, the higher the marketable surpluses produced.
In fact, enslaved people accomplished most of the hard labor. At initial settlement, enslaved people and their owners cleared land and built shelter. In established areas, most enslaved workers grew hemp or tobacco, requiring much hand labor. Enslaved people built structures in settlements and on their owners’ property. Examples include churches, the seminary in Perryville, and larger houses and buildings.