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Slave cabins in Boone County

How these buildings help connect us to the past

October 4, 2012 | 12:00 a.m. CST

This map shows Missouri slave populations as gathered from the Slave Schedule of the 1860 U.S. Census. The darker the county (red or orange), the higher the slave population in that county. Three counties (Douglas, Worth and the city of St. Louis) are blank because there was no data for these in the slave schedule. Click on a county to see the slave population and the number of slave owners for that area.

Slave cabins

Missouri’s foremost expert on slave housing gave me a tip: There might be a slave cabin behind the Guitar mansion on the northern edge of town. The Italianate-style manor built in 1862 is a testament to the wealth of David Guitar, a Union captain during the Civil War and a prominent businessman. He eventually owned more than 800 acres of land, various livestock and at least six human beings.

The cabin is in shambles as two walls lean precipitously to the right and the ivory paint peels away. Broken concrete litters the dirt floor, and the fireplace, once a place of warmth and conversation, is now blackened and dusty.

The current owners of the Guitar house knew there was a possibility that the cabin out back was once a home to slaves, but they never had it confirmed. The dilapidated cabin doesn’t look like an important historical artifact. It’s just an old building. The memories of it and the people who once lived there are fading.

There’s a strip of counties across the center of Missouri that historians refer to as Little Dixie due to its resemblance in both attitudes and beliefs to the antebellum Deep South. This is where the majority of slave owners in Missouri lived. Little Dixie comprises anywhere from six to 17 counties, depending on whom you talk to, but in any description of the area, Boone County falls right in the middle.

Today, only 1 percent of the slave cabins that once dotted the Missouri countryside are still standing. Without records of most of the slaves who once lived in Little Dixie, these cabins are all that is left.

Angela da Silva, an adjunct professor at Lindenwood University in St. Charles, understands the importance of protecting these cabins. Both sides of her family descended from Missouri slaves. As a historical re-enactor, she portrays a slave named Lila who represents the slaves who have been forgotten.

“I was blessed that my family talked about it,” da Silva says. “My grandmother had a particular point of view. Her position was this: Nobody asked to be a slave. For over 250 years, we were enslaved. We made it, though. We were strong enough to make it. And she said, ‘Take pride in that.’”

Many slaves survived to see freedom and opportunity after the Civil War. Others were lost to history, and the cabins where these slaves lived are the only records that exist.

This mansion, built in 1862, was the home of David Guitar, a captain in the Union Army during the Civil War and a slave owner. The original slave cabin, pictured on the following page, still stands behind the house and is made out of materials similar to the mansion.

Little Dixie life

Gary Fuenfhausen (fehnf’-how-zihn) doesn’t look the part of a crusader for slave history. He’s a fit, 50-something white man who seems out of place in old buildings, thanks to his dark wash jeans and smooth black leather boots. He attended a master’s program at Southeast Missouri State, but he gives off a New York vibe.

Having grown up in Liberty, where people still flew Confederate flags, glorified the outlaw Jesse James and opposed desegregation in schools, Fuenfhausen developed a curiosity in pockets of Southern culture in Missouri. This interest led to a near obsession with finding and researching Southern architecture and culture in Little Dixie. He has worked in the field of historic preservation for almost 20 years and is president of Missouri’s Little Dixie Heritage Foundation.

Fuenfhausen estimates that at one point there were as many as 13,300 slave cabins in Little Dixie. Some have been torn down, and some have been lost to the elements. Now only 130 of those cabins remain. Fuenfhausen’s goal is to preserve the last physical remnants of slavery in the northern fringe of the Confederacy.

The earliest slave cabins were constructed at the beginning of the 19th century after Lewis and Clark reported that the land along the Missouri River between St. Louis and Kansas City was a veritable Eden. Immigrants came to that area of Missouri, the Little Dixie region, from the South and East primarily for the fertile land. When Southern families hoping to become legitimate players in the hemp and tobacco industries moved to the area, they brought their valuable slaves with them to tend to the land. By 1830, Boone County was home to 6,935 whites and 1,923 slaves.

Thirty years later in 1860, there were 25,000 slaves in Boone County and the seven surrounding counties, which was more than 20 percent of the Missouri slave population. These counties are usually considered the center of Little Dixie culture.

Unlike the Deep South, there were few plantations in Little Dixie, so most slaves worked on small farms and helped take care of children and household chores. Outside of Little Dixie in Missouri, the slave population was much less. In 1850, about 12 percent of Missouri families owned slaves while 35 percent of families in Boone County were slaveholders.

Cabin fever

Fuenfhausen believes there are two more slave houses still standing in Boone County, although the Boone County Historical Society does not identify one of these as a slave cabin.

The two cabins are located on the grounds of the Historical Society in Nifong Park. The groundskeeper let me into one now known as the Gordon-Collins cabin. The plaque on the wall by the door calls it a genuine log cabin built by David Gordon around 1818. There is no mention of the slaves who lived there, but the Boone County Historical Society’s website acknowledges that the Gordon-Collins building “served later as slave quarters and the home of hired day laborers.”

When slave-owning families like the Gordons, who built this cabin, migrated to Missouri, most grew tobacco, hemp and cotton — crops that required a lot of hands-on attention. Many Missouri farmers switched to less arduous crops such as corn when slavery ended.

The Gordon-Collins cabin was the homestead of the Gordon family, who moved from Kentucky in the early 1800s. Gordon Manor was completed in 1826 on the grounds of present-day Stephens Lake Park. The family moved into the palatial new house, built with bricks made by their 26 slaves, and left the cabin for the laborers.

Stephens College purchased the Gordon homestead in 1926. Enoch “Pop” Collins, a college administrator, had the cabin restored in 1935 with logs from other Kentucky cabins. Gordon Manor burned down in 1998, but the cabin was acquired by the Boone County Historical Society and transferred to its current location.

A 1935 article from the Columbia Missourian recounts the story of “Uncle” Jim Williams who had been born a slave in the Gordon household.

“Why, I learned to walk and talk in that cabin,” Williams said in the article. He was emancipated at age 6, but his family continued to live in the cabin as servants for the Gordons until 1871. He said his memories of growing up in the cabin were happy ones, and he got along with the Gordons’ young children as if they were his own siblings. Williams described Gordon as a caring master who never sent his slaves to the “slave breaker,” a man hired out to beat troublemakers.

The Sept. 26, 1935, issue of the Columbia Missourian reported that former slave Jim Williams, pictured above at the Gordon cabin, owned one of the most popular barbershops in Columbia.

While visiting the cabin, I asked the groundskeeper about slaves living there. No slaves here. “That’s story,” he says. What about the other cabin, the red one to the north of here? No slaves there either; the people who lived there were servants, not slaves. He smoked his cigar, his silver rings glinting in the sunlight.

The other cabin on the property is behind Maplewood House, a red brick mansion built by Slater Ensor Lenoir in 1877. It’s a wooden, two-room cabin painted barn-red to match most of the other buildings in Nifong Park.

Jenifer Flink of the Boone County Historical Society maintains that the Maplewood cabin was built after emancipation, so it cannot be a slave cabin. She’s heard the argument before that the cabin housed slaves, but she believes there is not enough evidence to support that claim. It’s time to “put it to rest,” she says of the issue.

Fuenfhausen is certain the Maplewood cabin once held slaves, in spite of the fact that there is no documentation.

Part of the Maplewood estate, this cabin was built by Slater Lenoir. Lenoir’s family came from North Carolina in 1834 with 23 slaves and built the nearby Greenwood manor.

“I know that it’s a slave cabin by the architecture,” he says. “The dimensions, the way it’s built, the way it’s sitting on the piers, the construction and the framing date it to before the Civil War instead of after.”

Fuenfhausen has been underneath the cabin to see the cut stone piers on which the building rests. He believes it was constructed around 1850 then moved from a nearby plantation when the Lenoirs built Maplewood. He says it made sense back then to move a small cabin rather than go to the trouble of building a new one, and Americans had the technology to move buildings since the early 18th century. Cabins would originally be built on a solid foundation; the piers, Fuenfhausen says, are unusual unless a structure has been moved.

Settlers in Missouri built slave cabins based on Southern slave-housing architectural forms. Fuenfhausen describes four types of slave cabins that are found in Little Dixie: rooms attached to the big house, one-room slave cabins, two-room slave cabins and barracks. Most rooms are 15 to 20 square feet with an average of five or six slaves living in each room in Boone County.

Slave cabins were often signs of a master’s wealth. They were sometimes built out of the same fine materials as the masters’ houses and placed where people passing by the mansion could easily see them.
The architecture, building materials and placement, along with historical documentation, allow Fuenfhausen to identify slave cabins in Little Dixie. From there, he tries to make sure that they are not destroyed or forgotten.

The past erased

Not only are the cabins themselves disappearing but so also are the memories of the people who lived in them. In an effort to track down ancestors of Jim Williams, who had once lived in the Gordon-Collins cabin, I discovered that there were two men named “Uncle” Jim Williams. Both were born around 1860, both lived in Missouri, and both died around 1950. One was white, and one was black. The white Williams can be found in printed obituaries, family records and pages on The black Williams died and left no trace.

Through her re-enactments, da Silva tries to tell the stories of people like Williams, black men and women who are not often remembered. “Most of the time when people are talking about slavery, it’s this knotted mass of black people,” da Silva says. “They are not seen as individuals. My goal is to rescue them from obscurity.”

Historical re-enactor Angela da Silva as the slave she calls Lila. The picture was taken with a Civil War-era camera.

Fuenfhausen says it can be difficult for many homeowners with slave cabins on their property to embrace the history. Rather than learning from the past, some Missourians are destroying it by razing former slave dwellings due to either lack of knowledge or a desire to eradicate the reminders.

Douglas Hunt, professor emeritus in MU’s Department of English, is familiar with the repercussions of that shame. Hunt has studied the controversial lynching of James T. Scott, a black man accused of raping a 14-year-old white girl in Columbia in 1923. Even 60 years after emancipation, racism was a life-or-death issue in Little Dixie, and the memory of it continues to make some Missouri residents uncomfortable.

“Many of us would prefer to think that we live in a post-racial society and that all that old awful stuff can now be forgotten about — erased from memory,” Hunt wrote in an email. “We don’t relish hearing that blacks and whites experience Columbia or America in significantly different ways. History helps explain the differences.”

Little Dixie’s slave cabins are a big part of the history of race relations here. Da Silva understands why slavery might make some Missourians uneasy, but she says they don’t have to be. When she teaches about slavery, she removes the emotion from the history.

“It’s just a time period,” she says. “I don’t care what your relatives did, and I can’t separate your relatives from that time. They were acting apropos to their time. But you do have to be empathetic and knowledgeable about what went on.”

Grasping at ghosts

On a sunny evening in September, several people stood outside the cabin behind the David Guitar house and admired the peeling paint and slanted frame. Fuenfhausen came to offer his take on the cabin, and the homeowner joined us to find out what an expert could discover about the unused shack in the backyard.

Fuenfhausen spent some time taking in the building from the outside, but when he stepped through the door and into the darkness, his face lit up. He took it all in for a moment, then his gaze halted on the fireplace and wooden mantle. Fuenfhausen produced a picture of a traditional slave cabin fireplace for comparison.

“It’s almost like they took this fireplace and made the picture,” he says, gesturing to the stone hearth. “It’s amazing; it makes the hair stand up on my back. It’s just amazing that it’s all still original like this.”
A wooden beam had fallen from the ceiling, but by the way it has worn, Fuenfhausen can tell it was a part of the original architecture. He pointed out the square nails in the mantle, then moved across the room to admire the hand-cut strips of wood that still make up the cabin walls.

Gary Fuenfhausen, at the Guitar cabin, says the cook slave would spend her days at this hearth as she made elaborate meals for the master and his family.

“It’s really neat how these buildings speak,” Fuenfhausen says solemnly. “For years we’ve looked at them as just buildings, but there’s so much more to it. There really is.”

Just by looking around the cabin, he can envision the slaves who worked, cooked and ate there. He can picture the way they sang songs and told stories around the hearth as a way to hold on to their African roots.
Now he is determined to make sure their stories are not forgotten. “The way I look at it, this is our past,” Fuenfhausen explains. “Regardless of whether it’s good or it’s bad, this is our past, and to cleanse it is wrong.”

Da Silva agrees that the slave cabins should be restored and used as teaching tools. “There’s no way to whitewash it; this was horrible,” she says. “But there’s no blame to it because it was so much embedded in the fabric of this country that you cannot separate it out. Those historians who have haven’t told the true story of America.”

The Guitar cabin is one of the few that survived the past 150 years of war, weather and ill will. With Fuenfhausen’s guidance, the new owners intend to preserve it for future generations. They understand the importance of the cabin’s history and its past inhabitants. The people who lived there have been forgotten because they weren’t considered to be worth remembering. Now they have only wooden beams and stone hearths left to tell their stories.

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