From Preservation Issues, Volume 7, Number 1

Slave Memories Inspire Project

by Karen Grace
Every weekend this winter, while the snakes that normally inhabit the area are hibernating, an unusual archaeological survey is occurring at the site of the old Miller Plantation. The pre-Civil War hemp farm is located in southern Platte County on land owned by the Kansas City International Airport, which is cooperating in the survey effort.

The project has been funded by a grant of more than $6,000 from the Missouri Department of Natural Resources' Historic Preservation Program to the Heart of America Council of the Boy Scouts of America. Five inner-city scouts will be conducting the survey under the direction of archaeologist James Johnson, the principal investigator for the project.

"George Washington, as was usual for Missouri slaves, was not permitted to learn to read, but was influenced by rumors that President Lincoln was about to free the slaves... "
Photo by Sandra Swofford.
Archaeologist James Johnson is supervising a survey of the pre-Civil War Miller Plantation in Platte County. Johnson's great-grandfather, George Washington, was once held in slavery at the site.

Johnson, who also wrote the grant application for the project, has an intimate relationship with the site. His great-grandfather, George Washington, was a slave on the Miller Plantation from the 1840s 60s. According to his family's oral tradition, Johnson said, "George Washington, as was usual for Missouri slaves, was not permitted to learn to read, but was influenced by rumors that President Lincoln was about to free the slaves and that escape to Kansas meant early emancipation. So, early in 1862, Washington escaped by way of Parkville, across the Missouri River and to the strongly abolitionist town of Quindaro, Kan. where he found sanctuary from slave bounty hunters.

"Eventually, great-grandfather made his way to Leavenworth where the controversial, abolitionist Senator James Lane was recruiting black troops from among the swelling numbers of fugitive slaves who had fled their masters in Missouri and Arkansas. George Washington enlisted in the 1st Kansas Colored Volunteer Infantry Regiment in August, 1862."

Although he didn't realize it, Washington was about to make history. In early October of 1862, he was part of a detachment of 225 men from the 1st Kansas Colored who were ordered "to proceed to a point on the Osage, Bates County, Missouri, and there break up a gang of bushwackers." The 1st Kansans reached the area called Island Mound, near Butler, on the 27th, and on the 28th they were attacked by a large group of Confederate irregulars. The ensuing skirmish was the first time during the Civil War that black troops had been in combat. (See Preservation Issues Vol. 4, No. 1.)

Photo by Sandra Swofford.
The Ruins of the "big house," the centerpiece of the Miller Plantation.

Washington lived out the rest of his life in Kansas and, although he never learned to read and write, he told the stories of his exploits as an escaped slave and of his adventures as a Union soldier to his family. Today, generations after his death in 1931, his story is still being told.

Johnson hopes that by studying the Miller Plantation site he will learn more about his own family history and also make a contribution to the historical record of the lives of slaves in an area of Missouri called "Little Dixie." The concept of Little Dixie as a place was developed by geographer Robert M. Chrisler in the Missouri Historical Review, January 1948. Little Dixie has no definite geographic or political boundaries, but generally refers to a band two or three counties deep, north of the Missouri River and stretching across the state from the Illinois to the Kansas border. This area of Missouri was predominantly settled by "old stock" Americans from the southern states. These settlers brought the accoutrements of their southern culture with them to Missouri--including a strong loyalty to Democratic Party politics, building types and styles, food preferences and slavery and created a life on the frontier that was similar to the one they left behind.

Photo by Sandra Swofford.
Johnson gives instructions on procedures for site measurement to Kansas City Boy Scouts Monte Camp (left) and Jalaal Green (right). Green is using the Miller Plantation Project to complete his Eagle Scout training.
The Miller Plantation is thought to be typical of Little Dixie. Johnson said, George Washington, born in "Old" Virginia in 1840, was given as a wedding gift by his slave master, Daniel Jones, to his daughter, Margaret Jones, who with her husband Lewis Waller migrated to Platte County to farm hemp, corn and other cash crops. Lewis Waller died shortly after arriving in Missouri and in 1848 Margaret married Jesse Miller, who inherited the property after her death. In addition to the remains of the stately two-story "big house," there is evidence of slave quarters a few yards to the west, barns and other outbuildings. A family cemetery contains the marked graves of Jesse Miller, his wife Margaret and other family members. There are also a number of unmarked graves in the Miller cemetery. These "will be tested," said Johnson, but he believes "they are the graves of the Miller slaves. It was very emotional to look at those graves for the first time," he said. "I made a vow that day to preserve the memories of those buried there for posterity."
Photo by Sandra Swofford.
Lewis O 'Neil (standing), project director for the Heart of America Boy Scout Council in Kansas City, talks with survey team members Antwan Powell (center) and Jeremy Parker (right) as they warm themselves by a gas stove.
Photos courtesy the Platte County Citizen.
All text and photos are taken from Preservation Issues
Missouri Department of Natural Resources
Historic Preservation Program, P.O. Box 176, Jefferson City, MO 65102
Editor: Karen Grace
Return to the Preservation Issues home page.