A Woman in the Shadow

Louisa was born around 1810 to a woman enslaved by John McCluer, a Scotch-Irish Presbyterian elder in Rockbridge County, Virginia, who was also her father. When McCluer’s daughter Nancy married James Alexander in 1820, Louisa would meet Alexander’s enslaved man named Archer Alexander. Louisa and Archer would marry by customarily “jumping the broom”.  When John McClure died in 1822, he confirmed in his will that Louisa, along with Mary, was to go to his daughter Nancy Alexander. It is unknown if Louisa and Mary were siblings, but Mary would also be part of the caravan that took Louisa and Archer west in 1829.

That August, James Alexander’s cousin William Campbell had formed a caravan of fifty people headed for Saint Charles County in Missouri. Half of them were white, with three of the four families, the Alexanders, McCluer’s, and the Wilsons owning twenty-five enslaved among them. The Icenhauer family, German immigrants from Pennsylvania had joined the caravan, to make their way west, with the others starting a new life in Missouri. Nancy’s sister-in-law Sophie McCluer, and Nancy Alexander, had both just given birth. This was James and Nancy’s fifth child.  Louisa had just given birth to Archer and her son named Wesley, while she was also the wet nurse for both Sophia and Nancy.  When the caravan left Lexington, a problem occurred as they approached Louisville Kentucky. Somewhere on the journey, James and Nancy’s fifth child would die. Archer and Louisa’s son Wesley was left behind to be raised by relatives of James McCluer.

Artwork of Lewis Miller
Artist Lewis Miller

The families reached Missouri in October and settled in Dardenne, where several other families, the Bates, the Pitman, and the Naylors had established farms several years before. Both the Bates and the Naylors were Presbyterians and had established a church back in 1818. John Naylor served as the Postmaster and was the owner of the local mercantile on Boone’s Lick Road, a major thoroughfare across Missouri. John Naylor’s son James took quite a liking to Louisa, and one night he and his friend Gill became drunk and stole Louisa and Mary. Soon all kinds of trouble broke loose as James Alexander quickly contacted the local justices.  The Naylor family was removed from the rolls of the Dardenne Presbyterian Church, the same church they had helped establish.

Within five years, though, Nancy and James had died from cholera sweeping the Mississippi valley from New Orleans northward. They left behind four small, orphaned children, John, William, Agnes Jane, and Sarah Elizabeth, and ten enslaved people. Louisa, her husband Archer, Sam, Mary; and their children were among their enslaved, and under the administration of the Executor of his estate. James Alexander had named William Campbell as the Executor, giving strict instructions that none of his enslaved were to be sold. They were to be leased, and with the revenue from his farm, to provide all the necessary funds for his four orphaned children. The children were returned to Virginia and raised in the home of his sister Betsy with her husband Alexander B. Stuart in Lexington, Virginia.  Nancy’s brother Dr. Robert McClure had also died from Cholera and had also named William Campbell his Executor.

By 1844, the orphans would begin reaching adulthood, and their enslaved property needed to be appraised, so they could be divided among the heirs. Louisa’s seven children would be listed by the appraiser as follows: her daughter Eliza, was valued at $325, her daughter Mary was worth $300, and her son Archer, who was named after his father, was valued at $225. Louisa’s sons James was appraised at $200, and Alexander, whom they called Aleck, was valued at $175. The two youngest were Lucinda, who was appraised at $150, and Louisa’s youngest son John was valued at $125. Louisa’s children would be cumulatively worth $1500 as part of the property to be divided among James Alexander’s orphans. By 1844, the orphan’s property was sold and the distribution had been made, Louisa and some of her children were enslaved by James Naylor.

Louisa’s husband Archer had become the property of Naylor’s neighbor David Pitman, a son of Revolutionary War veteran John Pitman. David’s son Richard Pitman would eventually become the owner of Archer. In the winter of 1862-63, Archer would be visiting Louisa on a Sunday evening, when he overheard the area “secesh” men having a meeting in the back room of the Mercantile. That evening Louisa’s life would change forever. Having overheard them planning to attack the Union men, with guns they had stored in Captain Campbell’s icehouse, Archer just couldn’t keep quiet. Whether Louisa knew what Archer was about to do, will never be known. He would take off that night to warn the men stationed at the Peruque Creek railroad bridge, on the Northern Missouri Railroad, warning them that the bridge had been sabotaged. A vital link, hundreds of lives would be lost if the bridge collapsed. But it wasn’t long before the locals realized that Archer was the informant, and the Slave Patrol was after him.

In February, Archer took off for St. Louis, with the local slave catchers in hot pursuit. They caught up with him and several others seeking their freedom: on a cold night in February crossing the Missouri River. Fortunately, Archer was able to escape again. He reached the edge of St. Louis, and the home of William Greenleaf Eliot, who risked his own safety to give Archer refuge. The Pitman family would soon learn of Louisa’s husband’s whereabouts and try to retrieve the property they felt was theirs by the rights in the Fugitive Slave Law. Archer was attacked, recaptured, and thrown into the St. Louis City Jail (6th and Chestnut).  He was about to be “sold south” never to be seen again when Eliot rescued him.

Artwork of Lewis Miller
Artist Lewis Miller

Archer was hidden in Alton that summer and given work at the Union Prison in Illinois. He was able to save enough funds to rescue Louisa. By September, Archer had been given his freedom for his heroic actions, as Pitman was found disloyal. The first thing Archer did was retrieve his wife and children. The Underground Railroad, was a route to freedom, run by a network of friends to the enslaved.  Louisa and her youngest daughter joined Archer in St. Louis that November, when a German farmer smuggled them out, hidden under the cornstalks in his wagon. Soon, two more daughters joined them. Louisa’s sons had all already been sold.

In 1864, Louisa and Archer made a home with their daughters in St. Louis, hidden away. Though now free blacks, they were residents of a city torn apart by the Civil War. In January of 1865, Missouri would emancipate all its’ formerly enslaved, by amending its Constitution. The war had been bitter for Missouri. Eliot’s slave narrative, titled Archer Alexander: From Slavery to Freedom states that Louisa’s former enslaver James Naylor offered Louisa her own belongings she’d left behind. Despite Archer and Eliot’s objections, she courageously returned to James Naylor, and suddenly and mysteriously took ill, and died two days later. Other parts of Eliot’s narrative have been altered, so it is unknown if this is an accurate depiction of events. It is also unknown where Louisa was buried when she died. Her son James lived nearby in Wentzville, perhaps she was laid to rest in Grant Chapel AME, where he was later buried. A testimony to strength and resilience, Louisa’s life like thousands of women like her, should still not be forgotten.

Postscript: Archer Alexander was laid to rest in St. Peters U.C.C. Cemetery on Lucas and Hunt. Both William Greenleaf Eliot and James Naylor are buried at Bellefontaine Cemetery and Arboretum. Louisa’s great-great-great grandson is Muhammad Ali, who is buried in Cave Hill Cemetery in Louisville, Kentucky.

2 responses to “A Woman in the Shadow”

  1. Love the Louisa viewpoint!!!!


  2. Thank You! I enjoyed sharing it too.


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