This is the journey of Archer, the enslaved property of James Alexander of Lexington, Virginia. Alexander is a member of a caravan of families moving to St. Charles County in Missouri being led by his cousin William Campbell, a young attorney hoping to set up a law practice there. If we listen closely to Campbell’s words, we might hear the voices of the enslaved… after all this is their story too.
Started on Monday Morning. Passed into Shelby Co, tolerably good land. Went through Shelbyville, a handsome town and entered Bowers in Jefferson County. Jefferson County is a level rich county, sickly and cultivated for the supply of the Lewisville [Louisville] market. Large fields were planted in cabbage and other vegetables; the wagons and carts were running by our camp almost the whole night on their way to market.*
In 1829, Kentucky was an agrarian community. These farmers would have large fields, that were tended by their enslaved. Kentucky was formerly part of the Commonwealth of Virginia. On December 18, 1789, Virginia gave its consent to Kentucky statehood. These families, the McCluer, the Campbell and the Alexander families, were farmers. Like the family of Daniel Boone they lived close to the land. Unlike larger plantation owners back in Virginia, they owned a few hundred acres, and thus their community of enslaved, were often smaller as well. Often that meant everyone was more directly involved in the day to day tasks of living. Thus while there was still the social distinction, there was more familiarity, and even kinship. However, that never prevented an owner from doing what was best for his family or his commercial interests, with his enslaved. All of the enslaved people lived with the daily threat, that as they were just property, if they didn’t behave they would be “sold south” and separated from their families forever.
When the McCluer family left Rockbridge County, Virginia they stopped in Lexington Kentucky, to pick up members of their family. According to Campbell’s journal, the Alexanders, James H. and Nancy McCluer, departed Lexington Virginia with five children, but would arrive in Missouri with only four, all under the age of 10. The age of that fifth child, is unknown, however the child may have been a newborn. While it seems that William Campbell never devotes space in his journal for such tedious details as birth and deaths, there is oral history passed down in the family of Archer Alexander that seems to reveal a ‘backstory’ here.
Family historian, Keith Winstead, has researched his great-great grandfather Wesley Alexander for over thirty years. The family’s oral history was that Wesley seemed to have been “dropped off” as a infant in the area of Louisville Kentucky around 1829. Winstead has been unable to determine if Wesley had actually been born in Louisville, or if that is simply where the family history first puts him. Presumably the wet nurse for the McCluer family, was also mother of a newborn child herself. Recent DNA evidence shares descendants of Wesley are directly tied to the McCluer family as well. Descendants of Wesley also have DNA connections to the statesman Henry Clay, who hailed from Kentucky, the abolitionist Cassius Clay, and his namesake Muhammad Ali (1942-2016). Keith Winstead is also a cousin of Muhammad Ali. The Clay family also owned many acres of farmland west of St. Louis as well, where one of his enslaved descendants Squire Clay hails from. Sometimes, the true parenthood of these children blurs the lines even further, making their identities even more hidden and extremely difficult to unravel.
Oral history of enslaved people should never be discredited, because with diligent and exhaustive research, much of it can be still documented. By 1855, Wesley had married the enslaved Patsy Fry, who gives birth presumably to their first of what is said to be 20 children. From this branch of the family, also comes the famous descendant, Muhammad Ali, born Cassius Clay in Louisville Kentucky. For more about that family connection see the Washington Post article of October 2, 2018. https://www.washingtonpost.com/sports/2018/10/02/dna-evidence-links-muhammad-ali-heroic-slave-family-says/ As it explains “The lineage” according to Keith Winstead, “goes like this: Ali’s father, Cassius Clay Sr., was the son of Edith Greathouse, who was Alexander’s great-granddaughter.”
As Muhammad Ali said in 1964 “Why should I keep my white slave master’s name visible and my black ancestors invisible, unknown, unhonored?” At that time, Ali did not even know of his family connection to Archer Alexander. And although Keith Winstead was unaware as well , the family has since said ““He would have loved knowing he was connected to someone like that [Archer].”
In October 2018, Ben Strauss of the Washington Post shared the DNA story [https://www.washingtonpost.com/sports/2018/10/02/dna-evidence-links-muhammad-ali-heroic-slave-family-says/] and I learned how Archer Alexander is the great-great-great grandfather of Muhammad Ali. I was contacted by Keith Winstead and he posed the question “Do you know where Archer Alexander is buried?” This research has led to even further discoveries of more amazing stories of Archer Alexander’s life. When the Unitarian minister William Greenleaf Eliot shared Archer’s story in 1885, America’s great “Reconstruction” was ending and so was what a Boston publisher was able to print, and so it became necessary to fictionalize some of the names in Archer’s history. Eliot explains this in the beginning of his book, From Slavery to Freedom which is a slave narrative of Archer Alexander. In order for Eliot to achieve his dream and see his story of Archer published, he turned to his close friend Jessie Benton Fremont, wife of the great pathfinder James Fremont for help. Jessie is also the daughter of Thomas Hart Benton, one of Missouri’s first State Senators and a granddaughter of James McDowell of near Lexington, Virginia. Extensive research completed in 2019 reveals that there is no Presbyterian Church Elder named Thomas Delaney that owned a plantation called Kalorama in Botetourt County in 1816. We know now, that Archer Alexander was born in Rockbridge County, Virginia in 1806 and came to Missouri in 1829 at age 23. Archer was buried on December 8, 1880 in St. Peters Cemetery (Lucas & Hunt Road) is St. Louis County (now Normandy) and not “Centennary Cemetery near the Clayton Courthouse.” For more about that discovery see Chad Davis’ story A Louihttps://news.stlpublicradio.org/post/louisville-family-learns-about-their-ties-st-louis-slave-who-saved-lives#stream/0
A petition has been started by the Archer Alexander family, asking that the Emancipation Monument remain in Lincoln Park, in Washington DC where the formerly enslaved wanted it. Please join us by signing at https://www.change.org/EmancipationMonumentDC TODAY!
*This is the journal of William Campbell (1805-1849) leading the Alexander, McCluer, Wilson and Icenhower families from Lexington, in Rockbridge County, Virginia to St. Charles County Missouri, written in 1829. This journal is located in the collections of the Leyburn Library, Special Collections and Archives, located at the Washington and Lee University, in Lexington, Virginia, and for which we are deeply indebted to Lisa McCown.
Dorris Keeven-Franke is the biographer of Archer Alexander working on “The Untold Story of an American Hero – Archer Alexander”.
Next entry is 23 September 1829 https://archeralexander.wordpress.com/2020/09/24/23-september-1829/