By Bianca Lopez, PhD candidate in History
Although William Greenleaf Eliot was a moderate abolitionist, he frequently practiced anti-slavery activism in St. Louis. His primary form of protest was to use his personal funds to buy slaves and then set them free. This policy demonstrates his belief in gradual emancipation, which, rather than demanding a radical law to free them all at once, called for individuals to slowly give up slaves as property so as to avoid social upheaval.
The following examples of slave purchase receipts are very useful for social historians, scholars who study the vagaries of everyday life.
Social historians of the Civil War can use these sources to demonstrate price fluctuations, relationships between slave holders, and narratives of slave transport. The receipts pertaining to Eliot are especially revealing because they disclose his participation in the local slave economy as an abolitionist, something that would seem very distasteful to abolitionists from northern states. However, it would have been very difficult to completely avoid participation in the slave economy, as even materials made of cotton or molasses came from slave production.
Images: William Greenleaf Eliot Personal Papers, Series 01, Notebook 5, page 34; William Greenleaf Eliot Personal Papers, Series 02, folder 1842; William Greenleaf Eliot Personal Papers, Series 03, folder 1850. 15 April.
Until the 1850s, slavery had been a widespread phenomenon in St. Louis, slaves making up an estimated 15.3 percent of the city’s population by 1820. By the time Eliot purchased Sarah Green in 1860 (first document above), the practice of owning slaves had heavily declined, mostly as a result of a recent population explosion of immigrants from Germany and Ireland. Eliot purchased Green for $950 from Samuel K. Wilson. Wilson had kept Green for six weeks at Bernard M. Lynch’s slave pen, a two-story brick building located just south of the downtown courthouse on Myrtle Street.
By the end of the war, Missourians were divided on the subject of slavery. For instance, the passing of the Emancipation Proclamation into law was met with fanfare in the city and criticism in the rest of the state. As William C. Winter writes in The Civil War in St. Louis: A Guided Tour, “Although many Missourians regarded the Constitutional Convention as a radical body whose views did not represent most Missourians, St. Louisans welcomed the Emancipation Ordinance with great enthusiasm. Three days after its adoption, sixty cannon roared in salute as church bells rang and thousands celebrated in the streets.”
To find out more about Eliot, please consult the William Greenleaf Eliot Personal Papers located at the University Archives and this research guide. From the research guide you can link to more of Eliot’s online collection by perusing his materials at Missouri Digital Heritage, including reading more from Notebook 5.
Sources: Rev. Dr. Earl K. Holt III, William Greenleaf Eliot: Conservative Radical; William C. Winter, The Civil War in St. Louis: A Guided Tour.