The issue of slavery and its continuance as a policy in the United States was a major issue during the lifetime of Gen. George R. Smith, who responded in contradictory ways to the issue.
Smith had been born in Virginia and raised in Kentucky, both states that advocated slavery. When his father-in-law, David Thomson, moved the extended family to Missouri in the 1830s, he brought his enslaved people with him. Smith and his wife, Melita, also brought their enslaved people with them.
Thomson and Smith both believed they treated the people they enslaved fairly and kindly. For example, when Thomson moved to Missouri he refused to break up families of enslaved people who had married off his plantation, so he sold those enslaved people to other slave owners so the enslaved peoples might remain with their families. He did not free his enslaved people. Smith’s daughter Martha wrote that she hoped the enslaved people would “be good,” so as to avoid being beaten. However, if they were not sufficiently compliant and obedient they were beaten.
The 1882 History of Pettis County claims Smith believed slavery was detrimental to both black and white in that it made whites lazy and blacks resentful. However, the daughters’ history Dear Old Georgetown notes this belief was most firmly held by Smith’s wife, Melita.
Despite Smith’s possible belief that slavery was wrong, Smith did not free his enslaved people and provide them with passage to a free state. In fact, Dear Old Georgetown reports that when one of his slaves ran away, Smith had the man followed, apprehended, brought back to Georgetown, and beaten.
Other of Smith’s actions reveal further contradictions.
During the 1850s when the Kansas territory was seeking admission to the union as a free state, Smith was approached by a group of local men who wished to prevent Kansas from becoming a free state. Missouri was bordered at that time by the free states of Iowa and Illinois on the north and east and by the slave states of Arkansas, Tennessee, and Kentucky on the south and east. Many slave owners believed that if Kansas were a free state, enslaved people in Missouri would find it easier to escape.
The issue of Kansas statehood soon escalated into what were called the Border Wars, a series of violent confrontations between free state and slave state proponents. Men on both sides of the issue went from one state to the other in violation of voting regulations to vote in favor of their positions. Slave owners were killed by anti-slavery men, and anti-slavery people were attacked by pro-slavery forces. The violence was so great that Kansas came to be called “Bleeding Kansas.”
Pettis County, being away from the border area, did not suffer the violence of the border states. It did, however, confront the issue of Kansas coming into the Union as a free state. In 1855, several local slaveowners who believed Missouri should continue to allow slavery and that Kansas should come into the union as a slave state organized a secret society dedicated to the furtherance of their position. They advocated that Pettis County men should colonize Kansas, meaning they should move into Kansas temporarily to establish residency and then vote to make Kansas a slave state.
George R. Smith was asked to join this group. Next week’s column details his response.