After a life of enslavement, on September 24th, 1863, Archer Alexander was free at last! Nine months earlier, the freedom seeker had made a run for freedom that had nearly cost him his life. In January, Archer was visiting his wife Louisa at Naylor’s Store, where she was enslaved, when he overheard his owner and area men talking. James Naylor’s Mercantile was the local Post Office on Boone’s Lick Road near Dardenne Presbyterian Church and was where the Bates, McClure, Naylor, and Alexander families had established a church in 1819. Archer’s enslaver, Richard Hickman Pitman, who lived a few miles down the road, had joined the Campbell, Zumwalt, and Heald families in organizing a Methodist Church. Many of them were slave owners that had been joined by a flood of German emigrants like the Krekel brothers who’d arrived back in the 1830s. Many Germans, like Molitor, Schone and Freymuth were Catholic, but the Germans would also bring their Lutheran and Evangelical faith with them. Germans vehemently opposed slavery and would make up a majority of Missouri’s Union troops hoping to put an end to the practice.
That cold winter night, Archer would overhear James Naylor and area men discussing their plot to overthrow the Union troops stationed at the nearby Peruque Creek Bridge, with rifles they had stored in James Campbell’s icehouse. They had sawn the timbers of the North Missouri Railroad’s wooden trestle, and if left unchecked it would certainly collapse when the next train passed. Hundreds of Union troops and other necessary supplies were being shipped westward to the State’s Capitol via the railroad daily, making it a vital link for the Union Troops. The previous fall, Lt. Col. Arnold Krekel’s troops had built a wooden blockhouse to guard the bridge. Archer would risk his life to make it to the blockhouse and the Union troops stationed there to inform them of what he had overheard. It would not be long though before it was realized that the informant was none other than Richard Pitman’s enslaved man Archer.
Fleeing for his life, Archer would certainly be shot or lynched if it were not for the network to freedom, called the Underground Railroad. People like William Greenleaf Eliot were willing to risk everything to help. The Fugitive Slave Act passed by Congress in September of 1850 required that slaves be returned to their owners. Missouri, organized in 1821 had always been a slave state. In July of 1862, Congress had passed the Second Confiscation Act pertaining to states like Missouri, calling for court proceedings and seizure of land and property from disloyal citizens, as well as the emancipation of their slaves that came under Union protection. This act formed the legal basis for Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation of January 1, 1863, freeing all those enslaved except for border states like Missouri.
Eliot took Archer into his home and sought protection for Archer under the U.S. Confiscation Act, from the Union Army’s Provost Marshall at St. Louis. He asked his friend Judge Barton Bates, son of Lincoln’s Attorney General Edward Bates, a neighbor of Pitman’s for help. Eliot wanted to see Archer manumitted, and the only way he could do that was to first purchase the enslaved man. He had helped emancipate others in the same manner. In reply, Pitman’s message was to send several men to recapture his property! They bludgeoned Archer senseless in front of Eliot’s children and took him to the Confederate Jail at 6th and Chestnut, to be sold south. Fortunately, Eliot was able to save Archer before that happened and Pitman was thrown into the Myrtle Street Prison instead.
Archer’s Order of Protection was not enough apparently. Eliot took Archer upriver to Alton, Illinois, a free state, by steamboat. Back in St. Louis, court hearings would be held and depositions were taken. Bates and his brother-in-law Missouri’s Governor Hamilton Rowan Gamble would both be questioned. The entire Dardenne Township was thrown into turmoil, and Archer’s wife and children were held under strict guard by Naylor. Finally, a St. Louis newspaper announced
“Archer Alexander, a negro, aged 47 years, 5 feet 8 inches high, black color, whose last master was R. Hickman Pittman of the County of St. Charles, State of Missouri, is hereby declared to be an emancipated slave and a free man by virtue of the proclamation of the President of the United States made 1st January 1863 under the provisions of the Act of Congress of July 17, 1862, and for important services to the United States military forces, and disloyalty of master.”
Eliot’s admiration of Archer’s heroism, and the enslaved man’s gratitude, formed a strong bond of friendship. When President Abraham Lincoln was assassinated in April of 1865, a formerly enslaved woman named Charlotte Scott would donate $5 to a fund to build a monument to their fallen hero. Thousands of the formerly enslaved and the U.S. Colored Troops would contribute to the monument’s fund held by the Western Sanitary Commission, which had done so much for the freedmen. When the monument was dedicated on the 11th Anniversary of Lincoln’s death in 1876, it would be due to the efforts of William G. Eliot, that the likeness of Archer would portray the formerly enslaved individuals, who had broken their own chains and were rising to meet their new freedom.
Today, in Lincoln Park in Washington, D.C. the monument still stands. Archer Alexander is the great-great-great-grandfather of Muhammad Ali, who was born Cassius Clay. On September 24, 2022, the descendants of Archer Alexander will celebrate Archer Alexander’s Day of Freedom.