Saturday, November 29, 2014

Threads of Memory 11: St. Charles Star for Louisa Alexander

#11 St. Charles Star for Louisa Alexander
 by Jean Stanclift

The patterns were free online for two years but now I am offering them for sale in two formats
at my Etsy shop. Buy a PDF or a Paper Pattern through the mail here:

In the fall of 1863, as Union troops and Confederate sympathizers skirmished in the countryside near St. Louis, a woman sent a letter to her husband who had escaped from slavery and run away to the city.
St. Louis in 1859

There Archer Alexander found shelter from people who also offered to donate money to buy his wife out of slavery. In reply to that welcome news Louisa Alexander dictated a response:

MY DEAR HUSBAND,--I received your letter yesterday, and lost no time in asking Mr. Jim if he would sell me, and what he would take for me. He flew at me, and said I would never get free only at the point of the Baynot, and there was no use in my ever speaking to him any more about it. I don't see how I can ever get away except you get soldiers to take me from the house, as he is watching me night and day. If I can get away I will, but the people here are all afraid to take me away. He is always abusing Lincoln, and calls him a old Rascoll. He is the greatest rebel under heaven. It is a sin to have him loose. He says if he had hold of Lincoln he would chop him up into mincemeat. I had good courage all along until now, but now I am almost heart-broken. Answer this letter as soon as possible. I am your affectionate wife, LOUISA ALEXANDER
Louisa lived near a settlement called Naylor's Store in St. Charles County where "Mr. Jim" Hollman owned her and her family. Naylor's Store is now a ghost town, but was located 20 miles north of the city of St. Charles, according to an 1855 reference.

St. Louis is the larger arrow on the right; St. Charles city the smaller arrow,
and Naylor's Store is north on the flood plains about half way
 between the Missouri River (diagonal green line) 
and the Mississippi River that curves around St. Charles County
and south to St. Louis.

Missouri, first settled by the Illiniwek tribes, then by the French and in the 19th century by Southern immigrants, was a slave state that never joined the Confederacy.

"Old Frenchtown" in St. Louis by the Mississippi River

St. Louis was its Union heart, home to Federal troops and recent German settlers opposed to slavery. St. Charles County was one of the many rural areas where Southern sympathies reigned.

Friedrich Paul Wilhelm's watercolor 
of a boat towed by slaves on the Missouri
River across from St. Charles, ca. 1825

Louisa and Archer had enjoyed a relatively stable married life for an enslaved couple, living together for thirty years and raising ten children. After their marriage, Archer's owners sold him to Louisa's master rather than take him out of the state.

Black Union troops

By the time Louisa sent her letter, only 13-year-old Nellie lived with her. Three of their girls had escaped to St. Louis and a son was fighting in the Union Army. Archer had disappeared six months earlier.
Slave holder Jim Hollman and his neighbors were characterized as "Haystack Secessionists," men who helped the Southern cause in small ways by burning bridges and blocking roads to endanger Federal patrols. Archer heard of a planned attack on a wooden bridge and alerted Union sympathizing neighbors.
Archer Alexander in later life

Knowing he'd be punished, he made his way across the Missouri River to St. Louis, where he was fortunate to meet William Greenleaf Eliot, a Unitarian minister with abolitionist sympathies. Eliot hired him and made the offer to buy Louisa.
William Greenleaf Eliot, about 1850,
from the collection of the Missouri History Museum

But "the greatest Rebel under heaven" refused to negotiate, as Louisa dictated in the letter that one of her German-born neighbors carried to St. Louis. Archer, the Eliots and the German farmers formed other plans. The Eliots offered to hide Louisa and Nellie. A farmer agreed to carry them in his oxcart to the city for payment of $20.

Typical everyday wear for enslaved women during the Civil War

Clad only in day dresses without bonnets or shawls so as not to raise suspicion they were planning to travel, Louisa and Nellie sauntered to the road near their cabin where they'd agreed to meet the farmer. After hiding them under the cornshucks in his wagon, their driver casually walked along, leading his oxen.

A hay wagon could hide quite a bit

Soon one of the Hollmans rode up demanding to know if he'd seen a woman and girl. The farmer honestly confessed, "Yes, I saw them at the crossing, as I came along, standing, and looking scared-like, as if they were waiting for somebody; but I have not seen them since." The italic emphasis is in William Eliot's published account of the escape. He added, "Literal truth is sometimes the most ingenious falsehood."

The Eliot home
Collection of Washington University

Louisa enjoyed freedom under the Eliot's roof with her loving husband and several children for only a year. In early 1865, after slavery was finally abolished in Missouri her former master sent word she could return to Naylor's Store to retrieve her things, which Eliot described:
her "bed [bedding] and clothes, and little matters of furniture….We advised her not to go, as they were not worth much, and there might be some risk involved; but she 'honed' for them, and went. Two days after getting there, she was suddenly taken sick and died. The particulars could not be learned, but 'the things' were sent down by the family."

St. Charles Star by Becky Brown

St. Charles Star combines a traditional star with an easy-to-piece curve to create a star atop a circular shape. The block reminds us of St. Charles County along the Mississippi River where Haystack Secessionists, slaves, Federal troops, and antislavery farmers were neighbors during the Civil War.

What We Can Learn About the Underground Railroad from Louisa Alexander's Story

Louisa's letter is a rare example of an enslaved woman's words. She probably was unable to write, but she dictated her letter. Her German-born neighbors held slavery in such contempt they were willing to serve as an informal and illegal post office.

We often think of illiterate people as deprived of any written communication (a possible reason for all the stories about secret visual codes) but we should realize many social systems assisted people who could not write or read. Friendship often meant helping with communication. Store keepers and postmasters wrote and read letters for a fee. Scribe-written notes about the Underground Railroad might have been far more numerous than we realize. Most correspondents must have obeyed the advice: "Burn this letter."

Read William Greenleaf Eliot's account of the Alexanders' escapes in his book The Story of Archer Alexander: From Slavery to Freedom (Boston: Cupples, Upham and Company, 1885). The book, which includes Louisa's letter, is available online at the website "Documenting the American South" sponsored by the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Click on this link:

Read more about the Alexanders and the Eliots here at this post:

St. Charles Star by Becky Brown
Becky changed the center here to 4 squares cut 2-1/2"
and fussy cut a fancy stripe.

Make a Quilt a Month

Choose high contrast coloring to evoke the night sky in a 45" wall quilt, Moon and Stars. Sash four of the St. Charles Star blocks with 3" finished strips. Add a 2" finished inner border and a 4" finished outer border.

1 comment:

Nancy said...

Is it just me or are the letters on these template pieces wrong?