MO Bicentennial Minutes: The Lives of Missouri’s Enslaved People in 1821
Statements by various writers about treatment of the enslaved in Missouri vary from “…being considered almost as one of the…family….” to descriptions of deplorable punishments. One attitude amongst enslavers was that even though they wanted to treat the enslaved humanely, maintaining discipline was foremost. Otherwise, they asserted, the enslaved would escape or even organize and rebel. Even the rosiest statements are questionable through the lens of enslavement. As one historian stated, “…mild or not. It was still slavery.”
The amount of labor expected varied. One extreme owner expected slaves in the fields by 4:30 a.m., or they received 10 lashes. Some enslavers allowed the enslaved to have Saturday afternoon and Sunday off. Some allowed the enslaved a ration of whiskey during harvest time.
State law prohibited or restricted many actions to the enslaved, including selling items without their enslaver’s consent, leaving their enslaver’s property without leave or entering another’s property; assembling in groups larger than five; seditious speech; and carrying a gun, powder, shot or club. Punishment ranged from whipping to execution.
Enslavers encouraged religious instruction directed by white ministers. While churches might perform marriages, the law considered these non-binding, and enslavers readily sold couples to different owners. Interment of enslaved people was often in separate sections of cemeteries.
Slave diets varied substantially. One woman reported that while in Madison County, she had a noon meal of meat, bread, with greens or other vegetables in summer, bread and milk for supper. When sold, however, she never had enough to eat.
Few of the enslaved were literate. Some enslavers allowed teaching the enslaved, or were indifferent. Later, teaching enslaved people became illegal through state law.