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Missouri's "Little Dixie"

Map of Clay County, Missouri, in 1877. Philadelphia: Edwards Brothers of Missouri.

At the conclusion of the War of 1812 and after the status of slavery was secured by the Compromise of 1820, white settlers began moving in large numbers from their original eastern homes to the inexpensive and fertile lands along the Missouri River in Central and Western Missouri, a region that later became known as “Little Dixie.”1 These intrepid migrants ventured westward hoping to improve their economic and social circumstances in the new state. Most of the newcomers came from the Upper South states of Kentucky, Virginia, North Carolina, and Tennessee, and many brought enslaved people with them. As they pushed farther westward, the federal government supported their land acquisition goals by negotiating treaties and using threats of violence to force Missouri’s Indigenous residents into the area west of Missouri (now Kansas, Oklahoma, and Nebraska).2


In January 1822, the new state assembly responded to the influx of new residents by creating the county of Clay, named after Kentucky Senator Henry Clay, who helped broker the Missouri-Maine Compromise. The initial land mass of the new county was expansive, but by 1825, Clay County assumed its current boundaries as additional counties were carved from it to accommodate the rapidly growing population.3


Missouri’s newcomers utilized the labor of both family members and enslaved workers to quickly establish farms, homes, businesses, and towns in the new land. Most were farmers who grew crops and raised livestock for household use as well as sale in the marketplace. From the beginning of settlement, Western Missourians were connected to national and international markets by the Missouri, Ohio, and Mississippi river systems. The river trade allowed them both to transport their agricultural products to distant markets and to purchase the increasing variety of manufactured goods and merchandise shipped westward via steamboat.4


Elbridge Arnold, who bought the parcel of land that eventually became Woodneath, was typical of the many people who made Western Missouri their new home. Originally from Shelby County, Kentucky, Elbridge and his wife Finetta moved to Clay County and purchased a 160-acre property west of Liberty from William West in 1839.5 As was true of most early settlers, the Arnolds likely began their life in Missouri in a modest dwelling, possibly made of logs. They prospered in their new home, however, and by 1855-56 began construction on the grand two-story brick house that still dominates the Woodneath property today.6

Slavery and Agriculture in Western Missouri

“Appraisement Bill of the property belonging to the Estate of Elbridge Arnold,” 1855, identifying five enslaved people.

Slavery played a central role in the economy, society, and politics of Little Dixie in the decades before the Civil War. By 1860, 27 percent of Clay County’s population was enslaved, making it among the ten Missouri counties with the largest enslaved populations.7 Most white Missourians considered slavery essential to the economic development of the region, and those who had the financial means preferred to employ enslaved workers in their homes, farms, and businesses. 

Most Missouri farmers engaged in diversified agriculture. They prioritized cultivating grain crops such as corn and oats, planting gardens and orchards, and raising livestock and poultry for the use of those residing in their households. But to increase their assets and purchasing power, many cultivated tobacco and hemp, which was primarily used to make rope or bagging for southern cotton crops, as well as raised hogs, cattle, horses, oxen, and mules for sale in both local and distant markets. Little Dixie entrepreneurs eventually established light manufacturing facilities to process tobacco, hemp, and hogs before shipping them out of state.8

The Arnolds followed these same diversified agriculture practices. In 1850, the US Agricultural Census indicates they raised 400 bushels of “Indian” corn, 100 bushels of oats, and two tons of dew rotted hemp. The family reported garden and orchard produce as well as 150 pounds of butter. They also owned numerous horses, “milch” cows, and working oxen as well as 40 swine and 40 sheep.9

Slavery in Missouri was practiced on a smaller scale than in the plantation districts of the American South. Diversified agriculture required fewer workers than large-scale monocultures such as cotton or sugarcane. Fewer enslaved workers meant less need for overseers to manage farming operations. Missouri enslavers and their family members typically managed the few enslaved workers and oftentimes labored alongside them in their homes and fields. To be clear, enslaved people usually performed the most difficult and physically demanding tasks. Most enslaved Missourians worked as general farmhands and domestic servants, although a few labored in local businesses or manufacturing operations or learned trades such as brickmaking, carpentry, and blacksmithing.10

In 1840, the Arnolds listed only one enslaved female, who likely was named Ann, in the census.11 It was common for white southerners to first purchase an enslaved female. According to their gender and racial conventions, it was expected that Black women would work both in the home and the fields. Although it was considered socially acceptable for elite white women to engage in light domestic work, only poor white women worked in the fields. Therefore, an enslaved woman provided both valuable labor and elevated the white family’s social status by freeing white women from domestic drudgery and fieldwork. In addition, enslavers hoped that the birth of enslaved children would increase their labor force over time. It appears that Elbridge Arnold employed this well-known economic and social strategy by first adding an enslaved woman to his household.12

By 1850, there were seven enslaved people living on the Arnold farm: a female, 22 (there is a light mark in the census indicating she may have been a fugitive from the property on the date of the census); a male, 13; a male, 7; a female, 4; a female, 1; a female, 70; and a male, 22.13 But when Elbridge died in 1855, only five enslaved people were listed and appraised in his will: Ann, 25; Mary Jane, 8; Lucy, 6; Henry, 19; and David, 12.14 The young adult man and the elderly woman no longer were listed. While they might have either died or been sold in the ensuing five years, they also could have legally belonged to either Sarah Cox or S. P. Arnold, both individuals listed as living in the Arnold household in 1850. Another possibility is that the young man was hired by the Arnolds for the year.15 Hiring of enslaved workers was a common practice in Missouri. Enslavers often hired out enslaved workers whose labor was underutilized, to provide financial support for widows and orphans, or to supplement their income. They also turned to hiring when they did not have enough available working age individuals in their household, as appears to be the case with the Arnolds in 1850. Finetta also regularly hired enslaved men to work on the farm after her husband’s death.16

By 1860, Finetta Arnold claimed only two enslaved people: a female (likely Ann), 30; and a male (likely David), 15.17 Finetta sold Mary Jane and Henry in 1858 to satisfy the family’s debts before the final settlement of her husband’s estate. As was common in Western Missouri, which was a growing region with a persistent need for workers, both Mary Jane and Henry were sold to men who lived in Clay County. These local sales may have allowed Mary Jane and Henry to maintain some contact with family members and friends still living on the Arnold farm. It is unknown what happened to young Lucy.18

Enslaved People’s Lives in Little Dixie

Clay County African American Pioneers Marker, 2013. Photograph taken by William Fischer, Jr.

The small-scale of most slaveholdings in Western Missouri profoundly influenced the everyday lives of enslaved people.  As was the case on the Arnold farm, there typically were few enslaved people on any given property.  Many slaveholdings were comprised of one or two adults and numerous children. These demographics made it challenging for enslaved Missourians to find marriage partners on their home farms or regularly socialize with other enslaved people. 

A majority of Missouri enslaved couples were involved in abroad marriages, the name for unions between men and women who lived on different properties. When men and women could not find suitable non-related partners on their home property, they typically sought spouses elsewhere in their neighborhood. Abroad husbands customarily were allowed to visit their wives once or twice a week depending on the distance they had to travel.  Most men left to visit their wives and children after work on Saturday evenings and returned before the start of the workday on Mondays.  Although there were risks associated with allowing enslaved men to travel to visit their wives, enslavers permitted abroad unions because it was in their best interest to promote the creation of enslaved families.  The children born to these unions increased the financial assets of their mothers’ enslaver. It also was believed that individuals with family connections were less likely to resist or run away.  The circumstances of abroad family arrangements were challenging, but enslaved people tenaciously worked, often over many years, to maintain these important family ties.  

The demographic features of small-scale slavery also made it difficult for enslaved Missourians to maintain regular contact with enslaved people outside their home property.  Often isolated on farms with only a few others for most of the week, enslaved people valued any opportunity to socialize with others in their neighborhood.  They met one another at churches on Sundays (most Missouri churches had both white and Black parishioners), while running farm errands, or at enslaver-sanctioned social gatherings such as corn huskings, barn raisings, or enslaved people’s weddings.   They also gathered clandestinely in slave cabins, caves, and nearby woods for unsanctioned parties or brush arbor church services.  Enslaved men enjoyed considerably more physical mobility than women as they traversed the countryside visiting their families and doing the business of their enslavers.19

There is no way to know for certain the family connections or circumstances of the enslaved residents of the Arnold farm, but it appears that Ann was the mother of the younger children.  She most likely was part of an abroad marriage with her husband living somewhere in the vicinity.  The individuals enslaved at Woodneath would have spent most of their days with limited access to other enslaved people in the greater community.  

The End of Slavery in Western Missouri

Emancipation Ordinance of Missouri, 1865. E. Knoble, artist.

Missouri was a Border State during the American Civil War. Although the men elected to Missouri’s State Constitutional Convention in early 1861 voted to remain in the Union, a significant number of people supported secession. White Missourians remained politically divided throughout the war with men fighting for both sides. There was conventional warfare throughout Missouri in 1861, including the Battle of Liberty, but by early 1862 the Confederate army by and large had been forced from the state.20 The Union army attempted to consolidate its military gains and subdue any remaining civilian opposition through a military occupation of the state. A Confederate guerrilla insurgency challenged the Union army presence. Clay County men, such as Frank and Jesse James, joined Western Missouri pro-Confederate guerrilla bands in an effort to protect their loved ones who remained behind Union lines and to preserve their families’ property, which often included enslaved people. The violent conflict between Confederate guerrillas and Union soldiers directly engaged the civilian population, devastating many Missouri communities. Many Missourians suffered due to the destruction and theft of their property and countless people were displaced from their homes.21  

Enslaved Missourians quickly recognized that the political and military chaos of the war presented them with opportunities that might lead to their freedom. From the conflict’s earliest days, enslaved people in Western Missouri increased their resistance to their enslavers. Over time, they increasingly sought protection at nearby federal military encampments or escaped across the state line into the free state of Kansas. They also rendered aid to the Union cause by informing Union military authorities of their enslavers’ disloyal activities and many men joined the Union army when the recruitment of Black soldiers began in Kansas in Summer 1862 and Missouri in late 1863. Enslaved people engaged in these various acts of resistance at great personal risk as many white Missourians worked to maintain their enslavement through intimidation and violence. Missouri was not included in President Lincoln’s January 1863 Emancipation Proclamation due to its status as a Border State, but by this point slavery in the state was already fatally undermined. On January 11, 1865, enslaved Missourians finally were legally freed by the Republican-dominated Missouri State Constitutional Convention.22

The Arnolds’ wartime political loyalties are unclear. No matter the side they supported, life on the Arnold farm would have been severely disrupted by the war and emancipation. What is more certain is that the Civil War and the advent of freedom had a profound, and overwhelming positive, impact on the lives of the enslaved members of the Arnold household, as well of those of the many other enslaved Clay Countians.

Notes and Resources

  1. The region was not called “Little Dixie” until after the American Civil War.  It was so-named because of its strong ties to slavery and the support for secession during the war.  It also was a bastion of support for the Democratic Party until late in the 20th century.
  2. Indigenous peoples who inhabited Missouri included: the Chickasaw, Delaware, Illini, Kanza, Ioway, Otoe-Missouria, Osage, Potawatomi, Quapaw, Sac & Fox, and Shawnee, among others.  After the Platte Purchase of 1837 (this area became the six counties in Northwest Missouri), forced the remaining Indigenous peoples westward from their homes. For discussions of the eviction of First Nations people from Missouri, see: Stephen Aron, American Confluence: The Missouri Frontier from Borderland to Border State (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2006); and Robert Lee, “The Boon’s Lick Land Rush and the Coming of the Missouri Crisis,” in Jeffrey Pasley and John Craig Hammond, eds., A Fire Bell in the Past: The Missouri Crisis at 200 (Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 2021), 77-112.
  3. “Formation of Clay County”, The Clay County Archives and Historical Library
  4. R. Douglas Hurt, Agriculture and Slavery in Missouri’s Little Dixie (Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 1992).
  5. Commissioner of General Land Office Certificate, Woodneath Archival Collection, Kansas City, MO.
  6. For the settlement practices of the early white settlers in Little Dixie, see: Diane Mutti Burke, On Slavery’s Border: Missouri’s Small-Slaveholding Households, 1815-1865 (Athens: University of Georgia Press, 2010), 17-51. The property was not called Woodneath until after the Arnolds sold it. See Woodneath Homestead.
  7. Mutti Burke, On Slavery’s Border, 310.
  8. Hurt, Agriculture and Slavery.
  9. 1850 Agricultural Schedule for Clay County, Missouri, Missouri State Archives.
  10. For discussions of enslaved Missourians labor, see: Mutti Burke, On Slavery’s Border, 93-141; and Kristen Epps, Slavery on the Periphery: The Kansas-Missouri Border in the Antebellum and Civil War Eras (Athens: University of Georgia Press, 2016), 45-84.
  11. The enslaved female was listed as between the ages of 10 and 23. 1840 Federal Census, Clay County, Missouri:
    See Ancestry Library Edition.
  12. Mutti Burke, On Slavery’s Border, 105-107.
  13. Slave Schedule, 1850 Federal Census, Clay County, Missouri:*1cce9bu*_ga*MTQwMjIyODQ4MS4xNjYxNDU5NDA0*_ga_4QT8FMEX30*MTY2NDQ2NzAzMy4xNS4xLjE2NjQ0Njc1OTUuMC4wLjA
    See Ancestry Library Edition.
  14. Elbridge Arnold Will and Probate Records, Clay County, Missouri, 1855-58:
    See Ancestry Library Edition.
  15. In 1850, the Arnolds had five children aged 4-17 living in their household. Their son Benjamin, 17, was listed as a farmer, although he also attended school that year. A young man S. P. Arnold, 21, listed as a farmer, and Sarah Cox, 60, also lived in the household. Cox was possibly Finetta Arnold’s mother. Census takers typically listed the head of household, usually a man, and then the others living in the household in descending order by age. This was true both for nuclear family members and enslaved people owned by the household head. Those individuals listed after the people listed in descending age order were typically not members of the nuclear family or were enslaved people owned by someone other than the household head. This census taking practice suggests that Sarah Cox and S. P. Arnold were extended family members and that the two enslaved people listed last were not owned by Elbridge Arnold. 1850 Federal Census, Clay County, Missouri: 
    See Ancestry Library Edition.
  16. Elbridge Arnold Will and Probate Records. For additional information on the hiring of enslaved people in Missouri, see: Mutti Burke, On Slavery’s Border, 107-118.  
  17. 1860 Federal Census, Clay County, Missouri: Slave Schedule, 1860 Federal Census, Clay County, Missouri:*fpi2yy*_ga*MTQwMjIyODQ4MS4xNjYxNDU5NDA0*_ga_4QT8FMEX30*MTY2NDQ2NzAzMy4xNS4xLjE2NjQ0NjgyOTYuMC4wLjA.
    See Ancestry Library Edition.
  18. For information on the sale of enslaved people in Missouri, see: Mutti Burke, On Slavery’s Border, 118-128. Henry was purchased by John Gr[a]gg [likely Gregg] for $1100. There was a John Gregg listed as living in Gallatin Township in the 1860 census. He claimed two enslaved men, ages 50 and 22, that year. It is likely that the 22-year-old man was Henry. Mary Jane was purchased by John Talbott, who was likely John B. Talbott of Liberty Township. Talbott died the following year, but it appears Mary Jane, now called Jane, remained with the family until at least 1864.  
    Henry and Mary Jane sale bills:
    John Gregg, Slave Schedule, 1860 Federal Census, Clay County, Missouri:*1irakwc*_ga*MTQwMjIyODQ4MS4xNjYxNDU5NDA0*_ga_4QT8FMEX30*MTY2NDQ1OTQyNS4xNC4xLjE2NjQ0NjAzNjIuMC4wLjA.
    John B. Talbott, 1859 Will and Probate:; and John Talbott, 1850 Federal Census, Clay County, Missouri:
    See Ancestry Library Edition.
  19. For discussions of Missouri’s enslaved families and communities, see: Mutti Burke, On Slavery’s Border, 198-267; and Epps, Slavery on the Periphery, 45-84.
  20. For a survey of the conventional war in Missouri, see: Louis Gerteis, The Civil War in Missouri: A Military History (Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 2012.  For the Battle of Liberty, see:
  21. For discussions of guerrilla warfare in Missouri, see: Michael Fellman, Inside War: The Guerrilla Conflict in Missouri during the American Civil War (New York: Oxford University Press, 1989); Joseph M. Beilein, Bushwhackers: Guerrilla Warfare, Manhood, and the Household in Civil War Era Missouri (Kent: Kent State University Press, 2016); and T. J. Stiles, Jesse James: The Last Rebel of the Civil War (New York: Alfred Knopf Press, 2002).
  22. For discussions of the end of slavery in Missouri, see: Mutti Burke, On Slavery’s Border, 268-307; Diane Mutti Burke, “Slavery Dies Hard: Enslaved Missourians’ Struggle for Freedom,” Jonathan Earle and Diane Mutti Burke, eds., Bleeding Kansas, Bleeding Missouri: The Long Civil War on the Border (Kansas: University Press of Kansas, 2013), 151-168; Diane Mutti Burke, “Slavery on the Western Border: Missouri’s System of Slavery and its Collapse during the Civil War,” Civil War on the Western Border website; and Epps, Slavery on the Periphery, 116-186.

This essay was researched and written by Dr. Diane Mutti Burke, Professor of History and Director of the Center for Midwestern Studies, University of Missouri-Kansas City. She is the author of On Slavery’s Border: Missouri’s Small-Slaveholding Households, 1815-1865, published by the University of Georgia Press in 2010, among other books.

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