The first of two parts
Thompson, Work and Burr are three of the most important abolitionists to have lived in Quincy before the Civil War. Thanks largely to the effort of the late George Irwin, we have preserved the house of Dr. Richard and Jane Eells. We have historical markers about the Mission Institute at Madison Park, but no memorial to these three men, which is surprising. They changed the landscape of anti-slavery activity regionally and nationally, but not as they intended.
If you were an active abolitionist in the two decades before the Civil War, Thompson, Work and Burr were living legends. Long before Frederick Douglass, Sojourner Truth, Harriet Tubman and John Brown, these three men were celebrities. The story of their adventure, “Prison Life and Reflections,” written by Thompson, was a best-seller.
The oldest of the group was Alanson Work, a 40-year-old maintenance man at the Mission Institute with a wife and four children. James Burr and George Thompson were students at the Presbyterian school. The purpose of the Mission Institute was to train home missionaries who would work in the United States. It was part of an enthusiastic socio-religious movement sweeping the United States called the Second Great Awakening. Adherents sought to improve the world through universal public education, prison reform, labor reform, women’s rights, and — largely through the national efforts of Theodore Weld — the abolition of slavery.
David Nelson was one of Weld’s early converts to abolitionism. Nelson in turn converted Elijah Lovejoy, Richard Eells and others in the region to a visceral hatred of slavery as an anti-Christian institution. This was a new idea. Though there had been people who opposed slavery from the earliest days of the United States, the focus of that opposition had been on the harm that slavery did to white people. You read that correctly. Many people opposed slavery because it undermined free labor. It made people lazy. It turned children into martinets. African Americans were viewed as dangerous and undesirable. The American Colonization Society advocated sending emancipated slaves to Africa.
But the new abolitionism of this evangelical protestant movement taught that slaves were humans and entitled to the same rights as everyone under the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution. They perceived the institution of slavery itself as sinful. Slaveholders were viewed as sinners. This was a radically new idea and one that did not sit well with slaveholders in Missouri nor with the conservative population of Illinois.
Before 1841, abolitionist activity in Quincy was largely restricted to speechmaking and meetings. There is little evidence of runaway slaves coming to Quincy before 1841. It is possible that a few slaves might have been assisted. However, they would have been few. The reason for this is simple. Slaves had no idea that abolitionists existed or that there was a place they could go and live free. Slavery had been abolished in Canada in 1833. No one knows when the first U.S. slave fled to our neighbor to the north, but in 1841, what we would come to call the Underground Railroad was still in its infancy.
Thompson, Work and Burr tired of simply talking at meetings and hoping that runaways might show up and ask for help. Abolitionists had agreed among themselves to help runaways and to take them to the next group of abolitionists on the road to Canada beyond the reach of the fugitive slave laws. It was frustrating to wait for people who didn’t know you existed. After copious prayer, these three men decided upon a course of action. They would go into Missouri, locate slaves and invite them to run away with them to freedom.
We do not know what the weather was like in the first part of July 1841 when they made the first voyage into Missouri to try to lure slaves on their first steps toward freedom. It would be eight years before the Smithsonian Institution began supplying weather observation data to telegraph companies and began collecting weather information. We can presume it was hot. We also don’t know the exact date when James Burr and one of the other two, probably Alanson Work, went on the first mission into Missouri. They procured a boat and rowed across the river to Taylor.
It seems surprising today, but in 1841 there was no one in Missouri to stop them. There were no slave patrols in Marion or Lewis County. No one checked the banks of the rivers for unattended boats. Slaves frequently worked unsupervised by whites. The flow of people back and forth across the Mississippi River was unimpeded. The United States was still largely a seamless, united country.
We know about the first trip from testimony in Marion County Court. Burr and his associate pretended to be travelers. They inquired of white people they encountered in the countryside around Taylor as to whether anyone was looking for laborers. They asked for directions. When they encountered slaves, they introduced themselves and invited the slaves to run off with them. Burr was seen by a white man speaking with some slaves on the farm of Mordicai Boulware and also seen coming from Richard Woolfolk’s farm. Woolfolk owned a number of slaves and had leased several to his neighbor, William Brown. At the Woolfork farm, Burr met a slave named Anthony. He told Anthony that if he wished to go to freedom, Burr and his friend would take him. The slave refused. That meeting set Anthony to thinking, but not in the manner intended by the abolitionists.
Burr and his companion returned to Quincy empty-handed. They determined, however, not to give up. They prayed and planned another foray into Missouri. Surely they could persuade slaves to come with them. Little did they know that instead of freeing slaves, they would sacrifice their own freedom.
Terrell Dempsey is a local attorney and historian best known for his book, "Searching for Jim, Slavery in Sam Clemens's World," published by the University of Missouri Press. He and his wife, Vicki, restored the Molly Brown Birthplace and gave it to the city of Hannibal in 2008 and donated the land where then-Col. U.S. Grant camped on the Salt River in July 1861 to the state of Missouri in 2005.
Dempsey, Terrell. “Searching for Jim, Slavery in Sam Clemens’s World.” Columbia, Mo.: University of Missouri Press, 2003.
Palmyra Missouri Whig, July 17, 1841.
Palmyra Missouri Whig, Sept. 25, 1841.
Circuit Court records of Marion County, Mo.
Liberator, Aug. 27, 1841.
Liberator, Oct. 8, 1841.
Liberator, Nov. 5, 1841.
Liberator, Dec. 10, 1841.
Thompson, George. “Prison Life and Reflections.” Hartford, Conn.: A. Work, 1853.