Slave Market by Henry Byam Martin, 1833. Courtesy of the Library and Archives of Canada.



Slavery in the Missouri Territory differed from bondage on sugar and cotton plantations in the Deep South. Most enslaved people in territorial Missouri worked on smaller hemp and tobacco farms, as domestics, or were leased out in the growing slave market in St. Louis.

Some viewed Missouri’s small-scale slaveholding as more benevolent than the large-scale plantations typical in the south. However, accounts by enslaved people in Missouri disprove this claim. William Wells Brown noted the frequent use of the whip on his owner’s plantation in St. Charles. The whip made “of cowhide, with platted wire on the end of it, was put in requisition very frequently and freely.”


In territorial Missouri, as elsewhere, enslaved people were valuable commodities. As laborers, they produced crops for regional and national markets. As slavery became more profitable, the slaves’ bodies also increased in value. In St. Louis, slave owners could lease their bondspeople through the slave-hiring market, or they could buy or sell their human property on the auction block. Slave owners could also mortgage enslaved people in order to increase access to credit. The slave markets in Missouri connected masters and their slaves to a global financial system that stretched across the world.

Freedom & Resistance

In the Missouri Territory, enslaved people resisted the violent and dehumanizing effects of slavery and struggled to secure their freedom. Men and women, like William Wells Brown, often chose to run away from their masters and escape the bonds of slavery.


Others used the law to challenge their enslavement. In 1769, Spanish officials ended the enslavement of American Indians in territorial Missouri. Thus, if enslaved people could prove American Indian ancestry in court, they could be freed.


William Wells Brown

William Wells Brown, a Missouri slave, first tried escaping in 1833. He was eventually captured but later ran away while a steamboat he was working on was docked in Cincinnati. He found his way to freedom in Canada and became a well-known abolitionist writer and speaker. Brown learned to read and write in the St. Louis printing office of the antislavery newspaper editor Elijah P. Lovejoy.

Before his escape, William Wells Brown was hired out by his owner to work as a handyman for James Walker, a slave trader. In his autobiography, Brown writes about trips he made with Walker between St. Louis and the New Orleans slave market. This illustration from Brown’s book shows Brown and Walker leading a group of enslaved people to the St. Louis slave market.

"William W. Brown," from The Narrative of William W. Brown: an American Slave, 1849. Courtesy of The New York Public Library Digital Collections. 

“The slave trader Walker and the author driving a gang of slaves to the southern market,” from the Illustrated Edition of the Life and Escape of Wm. Wells Brown from American Slavery Written by Himself, 1851.

"Marguerite v. Pierre Chouteau, Sr.”

In 1805, the children of Marie-Jean Scypion, an African slave with Natchez Indian ancestry, first filed suit for freedom on the basis of their mother’s Native Amerian ancestry. Thirty years later, Marie’s daughter, Marguerite renewed her claim, suing for freedom against her owner Pierre Chouteau, Sr. Although Scypion initially lost her suit, she later won her emancipation when her case went to the Missouri Supreme Court in 1836.

6.3.1b Marguerite v. Chouteau.jpg

“1825 July Case Number 16 – Marguerite,
a free woman of color v. Chouteau, Pierre, Sr.” Courtesy of the St. Louis Circuit Court Historical Records Project.

5.3.2 Freedom Suit.jpg

“1821 April Case Number 105 – Marie,
a free mulatoo girl v. Chouteau, Auguste." Courtesy of the St. Louis Circuit Court Historical Records Project.

This sketch is believed to be of Auguste Chouteau. It was drawn on the back of a petition filed in the Freedom Suit of Marie against Chouteau in the St. Louis Circuit Court. Marie won her case and freedom in 1821.


Some enslaved people saved money to purchase freedom for themselves or for family members. While manumission was common under French and Spanish colonial law, American lawmakers increasingly sought to restrict the practice. By passing a number of laws that curtailed free blacks’ liberties and mobility, white Missourians discouraged free blacks from entering or settling in the territory.

Did you know?

 Despite hostilities, a small but growing free black population existed in Missouri as early as 1763. This community of St. Louisans made a living as small business owners and laborers. The community grew throughout the 19th century and had its own social season and debutante balls.