I thought I was familiar with the story of Archer Alexander, the slave that portrays the gratitude the African Americans felt for President Abraham Lincoln. On the Emancipation Memorial in Lincoln Park in Washington, D.C. erected in 1876, Alexander is the image of the enslaved. After writing about the history of St. Charles County in Missouri for well over thirty years, I had encountered him several times, and had included his story in museum exhibits, shared his story on O’Fallon Missouri’s public media channel in a documentary on him, and written several blogs about him. I thought I knew his story.
In 1885, William Greenleaf Eliot, the grandfather of poet T.S. Eliot had published THE STORY OF ARCHER ALEXANDER FROM SLAVERY TO FREEDOM March 30, 1863, which is what Dr. Henry Louis Gates would call a “slave narrative”. Eliot, the founder of Washington University in St. Louis Missouri, and a young minister who had brought the Unitarian Church to St. Louis in 1834, simply refers to himself as “A member of the Western Sanitary Commission in St. Louis, MO”. The small narrative of the life of Archer was published in Boston by Cupples, Upham and Company with the help of his closest friends, James Yeatman and Jesse Benton Fremont. Fremont, who was the daughter of Thomas Hart Benton, a Senator for the State of Missouri for its’ first 30 years. I wondered why the date of March 30, 1863.
It would not be until a year long journey of discovery that I would understand. In October of 2018, fellow Bellefontaine Cemetery researcher Jim Guenzel, shared Charlotte Carroll’s article in Sports Illustrated that revealed the recent DNA discovery that Muhammed Ali was the great-great-great grandson of Alexander. After I shared that exciting news on several social media platforms, I received a cryptic text asking me “do you know where Archer Alexander is buried?” by Ali’s third cousin Keith Winstead. I thought I did. After all, Eliot’s book told us – or so we thought.
Eliot states “His funeral, at which I officiated, took place from the African Methodist Church on Lucas Avenue, and was largely attended. He was decently buried in the Centenary Burial Ground near Clayton Court House, followed to his last resting-place by many friends. A part of the expenses of his long sickness, and all the funeral charges, were defrayed from the funds of the Western Sanitary Commission.” However, Archer, is actually buried with his second wife Julia, in St. Peters Cemetery in Normandy, on Lucas and Hunt Road, listed as Archey Allexander, Age 74 on 12/8/1880 in the Public lot #1. This new evidence would lead us to question why. Why had changes to the story been made?
Archey, was born in 1806, in Lexington, Virginia, and brought to Missouri by James H. Alexander in a caravan led by William Massilon Campbell in 1829. By 1843, he had become the property of a Union man Richard H. Pitman, in Dardenne Township of St. Charles County. Eliot writes “In the month of February 1863, he learned that a party of men had sawed the timbers of a bridge in that neighborhood, over which some companies of Union troops were to pass, with view to their destruction. At night he walked five miles to the house of a well-known Union man, through whom the intelligence and warning were conveyed to the Union troops, who repaired the bridge before crossing it.”
Pitman was apparently aware that it was his slave that had pointed the finger. Archey would flee for his life, to avoid a lynching, leaving his wife Louisa and their youngest children behind. Using the ‘underground railroad’ he made his way to a ‘station’ a German butcher, near Beaumont Street ran. There he would be rescued by the wife of Eliot, Abigail Adams Cranch, a niece of the former President John Adams and namesake of his wife, who Archey deemed an “angel”.
Eliot would immediately seek an order of protection for the slave, and contact Pitman asking him to name a price so that he could purchase Archey. Eliot would use his close family friend Barton Bates, the oldest son of Edward Bates who was Lincoln’s attorney general, also a friend and related by marriage to Pitman as intermediary for the transaction. After Pitman returned an answer to Eliot at his home, by sending slave catchers to attack and kidnap Archey, who nearly succeeded in selling him “south”, Eliot took matters into his own hands. On the date of March 30, 1863 William Greenleaf Eliot would pen his own letter to Pitman, informing him that his efforts were unsuccessful and that he would do everything he could to see Archer Alexander free!
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