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“Agriculture and Slavery in Missouri’s Little Dixie,” by R. Douglas Hurt, University of Missouri Press, 1992. This 334-page hardback tells the story of Little Dixie, a region on the Missouri River favored by settlers from the upper South–especially Virginia, Kentucky, and Tennessee. It was noted for fertile soil, easy transportation by river, and slavery. Hurt limits his coverage to the counties of Boone, Callaway, Clay, Cooper, Howard, Lafayette and Saline. Daniel Boone and family lived in St. Charles County to the east, but they operated a salt lick. It was served by the Boonslick Trail, precursor to the National Road, US 40, and I-70. The region is sometimes known as Boonslick country.

Boone and family typify those who moved from Kentucky at the invitation of the Spanish before the Louisiana Purchase in 1803. He arrived in 1799. After the Osage Treaty of 1809, Congress freed the land of Indian claims in 1814, and settlers began to arrive soon after. Boonslick became the first major settlement along the Missouri River west of St. Charles.

Settlers brought with them Southern crops and slaves. As slaves were a major asset, Hurt tells the story from an economic point of view. With available slave labor, what crops were most profitable? They brought cotton but found it unsuited to the climate. They raised tobacco, hemp, and livestock–especially hogs but also cattle and mules. Corn was the major grain crop but was not profitable to ship. Most went to market as salt pork, some as whiskey. Little wheat was raised due to a shortage of grist mills. Cornbread was the staple. The first steamboat arrived in 1819, but regular service began in 1829. Until then products were shipped to St. Louis or New Orleans by flatboat.

Hurt outlines the many problems of early settlers. Claims from Spanish land grants took years to resolve. The land had to be surveyed, but the north-south baseline, known as the Fifth Principal Meridian, was first surveyed only in 1815. The land office in Franklin opened in 1818. Squatters had preemption rights after 1814. Hard money was rare; paper currency issued by banks was unreliable. Bartering was common. Farm products were often sold for store credit rather than cash. After statehood in 1821, settlers poured in. By 1850, the land was claimed.

The Sante Fe Trail opened trade with Mexico in 1821. It began in Arrowrock in the heart of Little Dixie. Western trails to California and Oregon followed. Trails brought travelers looking for provisions. Beef, pork and mules sold well. Missouri is well known for its mules. They were preferred over horses or oxen as they were sure-footed and worked longer. The first mules came from Sante Fe, but also from Kentucky. Missouri mules were sold throughout the South-- usually for cash.

In the early days, hogs were most important. Hogs roamed free–identified by earmarks, but in autumn were herded to cornfields or orchards to fatten. They were butchered after the first frost. Most were razorbacks which were not well suited to commercial pork packing as they had small hams and gave little lard. To upgrade herds, Berkshires from England began to arrive around 1840. The quality of farm packed salt pork varied and was detrimental to pricing. The state began an inspection program in 1841 to improve quality.

At first, men and women wore deerskin clothing. Native sheep were raised for their wool. Homespun was common. Little Dixie had cattle from the beginning. As early as 1816 herds from Missouri were noted in Ohio. They crossed the Mississippi River at Clarksville and Alton. They were fattened in Ohio for sale in Philadelphia. By 1834, Shorthorns were brought from Kentucky to upgrade herds. By 1850, Texas Longhorns began to arrive in Missouri for markets in Kansas City, Independence, and St. Louis bringing with them Texas Tick Fever, which was fatal to Shorthorns. By 1858, cattle from Texas were not allowed in Missouri.

About 1850, plank roads were thought a solution to muddy dirt roads, i.e., inexpensive to build from local materials. Half a dozen plank road companies were chartered. Planks warped, washed out, wore down under heavy traffic, and sometimes were stolen. None of the projects succeeded.

Railroads attracted attention. The Hannibal and St. Joseph Railroad, completed across the state in 1859, ran north of Little Dixie. The Pacific Railroad completed to Jefferson City in 1856, ran south of Little Dixie. River towns sought branch lines to connect but couldn’t agree on a plan.

First settlers built single room log cabins between 12 and 18 ft square. With success, they built large, two-story brick homes in the Federal or Classic-Revival style. Frame houses began to appear by 1820.

Baptist, Methodist, and Presbyterian preachers served the area. Some found families “wretchedly ignorant and filthy.” Some had services disrupted by rowdies. Gradually churches were formed. By the 1840s colleges were chartered to train ministers. Among them are William Jewel College (Baptist, Liberty, 1849), Westminister College (Presbyterian, Fulton, 1849), Columbia College (Columbia, 1834), Christian College (co-ed, Columbia, 1852), Chapel Hill College (Presbyterian, Lexington, 1849), and Central Methodist College (Fayette, 1857). By donating land and funds Boone County landed the University of Missouri in 1841. Private academies also dotted the area as did female boarding schools. The state authorized public schools in 1825. Until 1831, public schools were supported by rental income from Section 16 of each township. Thereafter tuition was $2.50 to $4 per quarter.

Three chapters describe slavery in Little Dixie, a thoroughly studied subject. Slavery was much smaller than in the Deep South. A few owners reported over 50 slaves, but the average slave owner had five slaves. Most did not have overseerers and were managed by the owner. Slaves of working age were valued at $500 to $1000. For most, slaves were their largest asset worth more than their land.

Slavery was regulated by a slave code enacted as early as 1804 in the District of Louisiana and later as part of the state constitution in 1820. The code specified rules such as slaves could not travel without a pass from their masters. Punishment was often whipping up to 30 lashes. The most severe punishment was for attacking their master.

Abolition produced tensions in the slave owning community. Outsiders were suspected abolitionists and supporters of the Underground Railroad. Escape to freedom in Iowa, Illinois or ultimately Canada was a worry. During the Civil War, many slaves ran away.

Slave families often were broken up when slaves were sold or when estates were settled. Slave marriages were informal and not officially recognized.

After the Civil War, farmers adopted labor saving machinery. What happened to freed slaves is less reported. Did they work as farm hands or servants? Did they become sharecroppers? Hurt says: “although some were honest and hardworking, the majority allegedly loafed about the city and earned a precarious living by hook or crook particularly by stealing chickens.” (The statement shows bias but reflects the views of the time.)

This is a thoroughly researched volume with extensive references to earlier publications as well as local newspaper articles. The quality is similar to that of “Sugar Creek: Life on the Illinois Prairie,” by John Mack Faragher, Yale University Press, 1986. (Slavery was not allowed in Illinois, but apparently the exclusion was not strictly enforced.) This is an excellent resource for those who want to learn how Missouri was settled. One criticism is the author’s tendency to over use the word “consequently.” Bibliography, index.
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