Jackson County and the Specter of Slave Rebellion


So this morning I went to see The Birth of a Nation, which is about the Nat Turner-led slave rebellion in Virginia in August of 1831. He and a group of other slaves rebelled against their masters, killing about 60 men, women and children over the course of two days, when the rebellion was put down. Nat evaded capture for a couple of months, but eventually was taken and hanged. White mobs killed about 200 blacks in retribution, many of whom had had nothing to do with the rebellion.

Believe it or not, this story actually has some tangential relevance to early Mormon history.

When I was a kid, I always found it odd that the Missourians  would reject the Mormons in 1833 Jackson County so violently. What did they have against the Mormons? Yes, they were a strange new religion, but not anywhere near as strange as they would become after Nauvoo. What was their problem?

It turns out, they actually had a whole host of problems. The Saints didn’t come here a little and there a little, they came en masse, and publicly announced they were taking over the area for religious reasons. Their growing presence threatened local political control. They kept to themselves economically. They (naively) talked about befriending and converting the Indians on the border, whereas the Missourians feared the Indians and didn’t want to have anything to do with them.

But one of the biggest reasons had to do with the topic of slavery. Missourians had a great fear of slave rebellions, and the Mormon problems in western Missouri came but two years after Nat Turner’s rebellion, which was the stuff of slave-owner nightmares.

About a year ago at JWHA Independence, Diane Burke gave a fantastic plenary on Mormons, slaveholders and contested settlement in western Missouri. So for the remainder of this post I’m going to share my notes from her presentation:

Missouri attracted slaveholders of limited means. Slave holdings were usually very limited there; less than 20 per family. But the percentage of slave holding families was much greater than in the deep south, which tended more towards large plantations with limited ownership. In Missouri a much greater effort was towards food production rather than just cash crops. Less heavy labor than in the south, no overseers, owners often worked alongside their slaves. They were more flexible in the use of their slaves (hired them out, used them as craftsmen). These families had all sorts of apprehensions. They were worried about slave rebellions. They worried about the resettlement of Indians right on their border. They worried about abolitionists trying to fracture their way of life. They worried about threats both from outside and from within.

She talked about slave resistance. Running away usually did no good; easily caught. Abolitionists only a help if you managed to make it to a free state. Types of slave resistance: theft, work slowdowns, running away specifically at harvest time, etc. Since slaves there were more intimate with their masters, they knew their personalities and could often leverage that knowledge to improve their situation.

Phenomenon of “abroad marriages” among slaves. Usually too closely related on the same farm to marry, so the men were allowed to marry women from other farms. Typically would travel there Saturday night to stay with their wives and return for work Monday morning. [The movie portrays this phenomenon in Nat’s case.]

Nat Turner’s 1831 rebellion–dozens of white people killed. Just shortly before the Mormons came.

The Mormons unwittingly tapped into their deepest fears. A LOT of them came, buying up large tracts of land–to be worked without slave labor. Assumed to be anti-slavery simply from where they were coming from, whether or not they in fact were. Religious talk about helping the Indians on their borders. The Mormons could not have presented themselves as a bigger boogeyman to the Missourians if they tried.





  1. Interesting observations, Kevin.

    For those who would like a more in-depth understanding of slave rebellions and the fears they provoked among plantation owners (most of which were exaggerated), I highly recommend “The Internal Enemy,” by Alan Taylor. He also provides keen insights into the lives and family relations of the slaves themselves. Some of the stories he recounts will break your heart. (This book, by the way, won the Pulitzer Prize for history in 2014, the second time Professor Taylor has received this award.)

  2. Kevin Barney says:

    Thanks for the suggestion, FarSide.

  3. Clark Goble says:

    Terror in Missouri was there before the Mormons arrived and continued well after the Mormons left.

  4. Kevin, you didn’t say what you thought of the movie, “The Birth of a Nation.” Is it worth seeing?

  5. Kevin Barney says:

    I’m always hesitant to recommend movies, as I don’t consider myself a critic and I generally enjoy most of what I see. The movie is at 79% on Rotten Tomatoes and I was interested to learn more details about the story. I liked it fine. I thought it was perhaps trying a bit too hard to be a great piece of art instead of just focusing on clear storytelling.

  6. Very interesting insights. It reminds me of a book I read a few years ago called ” The All-True Travels and Adventures of Lidie Newton.” It took place in Lawrenceville, Kansas during the Bleeding Kansas period just before the Civil War. It really highlighted the cultural differences between the Missourians across the border, presumably from Jackson County, and the settlers from New England in Lawrenceville. The best thing about this book (which honestly got a bit far fetched in the second half) was it brought to life that cultural tension in a way that helped me see how the Mormons could have easily had issues with the same types of people twenty years earlier.

  7. Kevin Barney says:

    Yeah, Sarah, just in general terms culturally New Englanders and Missourians were cut from very different cloth.

%d bloggers like this: