Not long ago I was intrigued by an 1860 US Map of Slavery, which showed the population density of slaves in theSouthern United States. What particularly caught my interest was the locus of slavery in Missouri.
I knew Missouri was a “Border State” with slaveholding and Confederate sympathies, but still remained part of the Union. But I always assumed that the slave population would be concentrated in southern Missouri– contiguous with the Deep South. So, I was surprised to see the slave-rich counties along the Missouri River between St. Louis and Kansas City, on the northern edge of the Ozarks. They call this area “Little Dixie.”
Little Dixie on the Map
Little Dixie is the collection of counties along the Missouri River midway between St. Louis and Kansas City. You can see these counties on the map (above) distinguished by their high slave population density. Historians differ on precisely how many counties constitute Little Dixie – the number ranging from seven to fourteen or more. Most agree that Clay, Lafayette, Saline, Cooper, Howard, Boone, and Callaway form the heart of Little Dixie. Nearly a quarter of the population in these counties was slaves and they ranked among the top ten slave counties in the state in 1850.
But why were the slaves there? What made this area a magnet for slaveholders?
Little Dixie and the Slave Population
The answer lies in the land. The land along the Missouri River is naturally very rich soil, ideal for farming. Additionally, the Missouri and the Mississippi Rivers made for easy transport of their crops to the markets East and South. It was the perfect environment for cash crops and farmers seeking to create wealth from the land far beyond mere subsistence. The two tenants of plantation-style, slave rich lifestyles – rich soil and easy transport – formed the foundation for the growth of Little Dixie.
So entrepreneurial settlers came west from Tennessee, Kentucky and Virginia and brought with them the knowledge and skill of farming tobacco and hemp and raising livestock – all labor-intense farming operations. Further, they brought with them the culture of the Deep South, where slavery was an institution.
The waves of immigration began immediately after the War of 1812, as the Missouri Territory was opening up and bounty land in Missouri became available. The next wave was generated in 1820 with the passage of the Land Act of 1820 making Public Domain Lands (Missouri) available for purchase with cash at $1.25/acre. And finally a third wave of immigrants settled in Little Dixie in the 1830s, when immigrants from the East sought cheaper and better farm land.
The Genealogy Keys Hidden in this History
What can we take away from this little narrative that will help us find our ancestors? There’s quite a bit of information that can be helpful in our search.
If my ancestors settled in Little Dixie prior to the Civil War I would research –
- Possible origins in Kentucky,Virginia, or Tennessee
- Whether or not they owned slaves (look for large amounts of personal property in the 1860 Census)
- If they were Confederates
- If they purchased land through the Land Act of 1820
- If they purchased land with Bounty Land Warrants from the War of 1812
- Were they farmers of cash crops
I would turn to the following resources for answers
- Town and county histories
- Tax, probate and estate records for indication of “slave” property
- Land records at the Bureau of Land Management / General Land Office website
- War of 1812 Pension and Bounty Land Records
- Confederate records at the State of Missouri Archives
- Agricultural and Slave Schedules with the 1850 and 1860 US Censuses
- The Family Maps of… series of books by Gregory Boyd.
If my ancestors didn’t settle in Little Dixie, I would use this as a guide for my own migrant settlers. What was the terra firma and the culture like where they settled? Where would that environment have been similar further east?
The history of the region in which our ancestors settled can open up a rich back-story to their experiences shedding light on their lives and lifestyles. I find this aspect of genealogy research so rewarding because it brings life and color to the lives of those who came before us.
Source: For more information on Missouri’s Little Dixie, check out Agriculture and Slavery in Missouri’s Little Dixie by R. Douglas Hurt.