In January of 1863, Archer Alexander had overheard the area men, plotting to destroy the Peruque Creek railroad bridge, a vital link for the Union troops. Risking his life, he would make his way to warn the troops of what was about to happen. By February, the identity of the informant was known, and his enslaver had sent the Slave Patrol after the fugitive slave. Caught once by the Patrol, he managed to escape and made his way to the home of a Unitarian minister, William Greenleaf Eliot.
The Provost Marshall in St. Louis had issued a Temporary Order for his protection, and permission to live in Eliot’s home. He was grateful and happy to make himself useful, doing carpenter work, making repairs around the estate, and whatever else was needed. A beautiful spring morning would find him plowing up a garden patch, while the children and their nurse looked on. Reverend Eliot had just left the house to teach a class at his school, Washington University when a man approached six-year-old Christopher asking if the black man in the garden was named Archer. As soon as the little boy acknowledged his identity, the men strode over to him and viciously attacked him.
According to Eliot “He had no sooner said the word than one of them raised his bludgeon and knocked him down with a blow on the head. The others pulled out knives and pistols, and kicked him in the face. Then they handcuffed him and forcibly dragged the helpless man to their wagon, pushed him in, and drove off at the top of speed towards the city. The children and nurse ran to the house to tell the story.”* Knocking him unconscious, they grabbed him and threw him in the back of their wagon.
When he awoke, he found himself behind bars! The crowded calaboose was filled with others that were also shackled and chained, awaiting their fate. Filled with dread, he thought of Louisa and his children and grandchildren, sure that he would never see them again. Knowing that it was only a matter of time before he would be standing on the block opposite the Courthouse. He didn’t regret what he had done, only that Rev. Eliot’s had been drawn into the matter. He worried that they would be in a lot of trouble for protecting him. He knew his fate would be worse than death.
Suddenly the Reverend Eliot stood before him as the jailor unlocked the gate. “Why, Archer,” [Eliot] said to him, “you’d clean given yourself up for lost, hadn’t you?”–“No, sir,” he answered solemnly, with tears running down his bruised and swollen face. “No, sir, I hadn’t quite give up. I trusted in the Lord. And I sort a knowed you’d follow me up and find me.” By ten o’clock he was quietly in his bed at his usual quarters, and I thanked God with all my heart that the captors were captured….”* Beckoning him to come with him, they had headed home. He wondered if it was all a dream, he imagined he would soon wake up. But instead, he soon found himself in the kitchen, with his wounds bandaged and his stomach filled. Reverend Eliot informed him that he had sent a message to his enslaver Richard Pitman, asking him to name his price. Only an owner had the power to give a man his freedom, and the Marshall’s Order had only been temporary. However, Pitman had given his answer by sending men to retrieve what he believed to be rightfully his. This had angered the Marshall so much that the Order had been made permanent! Now Reverend Eliot told him, that he was sending Pitman a letter…
30 March 1863
“SIR,–About a week ago I sent a message to you by Judge[Barton] Bates, that your man Archie was at my house, and asking you to set a price on him. Since that time he was forcibly taken from my place, but immediately brought back by order of the provost-marshal, under whose protection he has been since he first came to me, more than a month since. He has now papers which will protect him as long as martial law continues. But I prefer to obtain full legal title to his services if I can, and am still ready to buy him from you if you will fix a fair price, under the circumstances. I should emancipate him on the day of purchase. As to the price, I am willing to leave it to Governor Gamble and Judge Bates. My desire has been and is to do what is right in the premises.
W. G. ELIOT.
“This note was sent through Governor Archibald Gamble, but no answer or notice of it ever came in return.”
To read more of this story also see January 1863 and February 1863
In March of 1863, St. Louis was a city under Marshall Law. Missouri’s Constitution permitted slavery, and Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation did not alter that status because the State had not seceded from the Union. Military Law was maintained thouugh by the Union Troops under President Abraham Lincoln. The Fugitive Slave Law of 1850 allowed the City Jail, being an institution of the municipality, to hold those enslaved, considered fugitives. Archer Alexander is said to be the “last fugitive slave” captured in St. Louis.
In order to emancipate Archer Alexander, William Greenleaf Eliot would need to purchase him from his current enslaver Richard Hickman Pitman of St. Charles County. This would, in all legal purposes, make Eliot appear as a “slave owner” on a census. However, Eliot could give him his freedom, in the form of “his papers” which he would need to carry with him, to prove he was not a fugitive. These papers were not always filed in the Court records. All freemen were required by Missouri Law to file a bond of a $1000 in order to continue living in Missouri. Many of those enslaved did not have those funds, so by law were sometimes still considered enslaved.
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