The institution of slavery is a significant part of the history of the United States and the St. Louis community. From the Missouri Compromise to the legal battle of Dred and Harriet Scott to the actions of prominent figures in St. Louis history, including Henry Shaw, slavery left a lasting mark on our state, our city, and the Missouri Botanical Garden.

The Garden is committed to moving forward with diversity and inclusion at the center of all we do in service for our community, our visitors, and our staff. As a testament to our commitment to reexamine our history, members of our staff embarked on a multi-year research and reflection effort to bring balance to the legacy of Henry Shaw, and to share the stories of those he enslaved.

As a world-renowned organization, it is our goal through these efforts to respect this history, educate, commemorate, and move beyond the past to improve the future.

Our Methods

Most of what we know about the people enslaved by Shaw comes from archival records—bills of sale, tax records, census records, newspaper ads, and an early version of Shaw’s will. Our examination of these records and the broader history they represent was carried out in collaboration with organizations and institutions that engage with challenging history.

The Garden has digitized more than three dozen pages of relevant documents from our archives. By providing open access to these source documents, we hope to provide others with the opportunity to carry out their own research about the lives of the people mentioned here.

The Garden continues to develop educational programming and interpretation, exhibits, signage, and meaningful ways to share this history with our community. We invite you to continue on this journey to be a place where everyone is welcome. 

View the documents pertaining to Henry Shaw and slavery 

Slavery in St. Louis

French settlers first brought slavery to what would become the St. Louis area in the early 1700s. This included enslaved Native Americans and enslaved Africans. By the time Henry Shaw arrived here, the institution was an entrenched part of day-to-day life. Enslaved people were being forced to work in river commerce, build homes, farm, and perform housework.

The riverfront district where Shaw opened his St. Louis general store was only a few blocks from the Old St. Louis County Courthouse steps that regularly hosted slave auctions. Many of his associates and friends would have been slave owners.

This in no way excuses Shaw’s actions, but his interactions with slavery did not happen in isolation. The history of Henry Shaw is intertwined with the history of the city of St. Louis, the state of Missouri, and the United States more broadly. In this way, the documentation of Shaw’s personal history provides us with a better understanding of this wider history.

Our first insight into Henry Shaw’s views on slavery comes shortly after he arrived in St. Louis in 1820. Writing home to his mother in England, Shaw references the recently passed and controversial Missouri Compromise saying, “The present session of Congress of the United States have admitted Missouri into the Union as a slave state, whether slavery will be a benefit to the country is doubtful.” 

Henry Shaw letter on Missouri Compromise

Incomplete Records

In many cases, all we may know about an enslaved person is their name, their age, the color of their skin, and the price put on their lives. Those dollar amounts are intentionally omitted here to focus attention on these people as humans despite being enslaved in a system that treated them otherwise.

While this section presents the factual information acquired from Garden records, like many enslaved people in the United States, the unique lived experiences of these individuals were not recorded. The daily lives and experiences of those Henry Shaw enslaved are lost to history. This omission from history deserves a moment of reflection.

Peach

Despite his earlier, and seemingly disapproving, view on slavery, Shaw purchased his first enslaved person in 1828—a man known only in records as Peach. There is nothing in Shaw’s personal effects or the Garden Archives to indicate a reason for this shifting view on slavery.

The lack of more detailed records also leaves unclear what type of work these people did or any other clues to how they lived. Given that many of the enslaved people Shaw would later purchase were women, we know from history that it is likely they were tasked with housework such as cooking and cleaning. They may have also been hired out by Shaw to do similar forced domestic work for others.

Peach is not mentioned in any other documents.

Juliette

In May of 1836, Shaw purchased 21-year-old Juliette from Antoine Chenie, a relative by marriage of the powerful and well-connected Chouteau family who founded St. Louis and who also enslaved people. Juliette was set free, an act called manumission, three years later on April 24, 1839. It is unclear why Shaw freed her. But the record of both her sale to Shaw and her freedom are contained in the Henry Shaw Papers held by the Garden Archives.

Shaw letter on Juliette Juliette bill of sale Shaw letter on Juliette freedom

Bridgette, Coss, and Lewis

Bridgette was an 18-year-old woman enslaved in Cape Girardeau County when Shaw purchased her in April of 1838. One insight into Bridgette’s life comes in the form of a wage receipt. This receipt shows Bridget Shaw was paid one dollar per week in wages for work from September 1840 to September 1842. It was common for enslavers to rent out enslaved persons for their labor, which may be what is accounted for here.

Bridgette is also mentioned in a medical bill from 1842, along with a reference to her young son. The document mentions treatment for worms, measles, dysentery, and other medical issues over the course of several months. In an early version of his will, Shaw mentions Bridgette’s two sons by name, Coss and Lewis.

Bridgette medical bill

In the 1851 version of his will, Shaw made plans to eventually free several enslaved people after his death. In the will, which was later voided, control over these enslaved people was to be transferred to either of Shaw's sisters, Sarah and Caroline, after his death.

The will includes a reference to Sally and her daughter Jenny, who are to be given to Shaw’s sister Sarah. According to the will, after Sarah’s death, they were to be freed and given land and a home near what is today Grand Boulevard and Russell Avenue. This arrangement shows how Shaw planned to further dictate the course of their lives even after his death.

Joseph, Tabitha, and Sarah

In 1848, Shaw purchased three more enslaved people — 41-year-old Tabitha, her 25-year-old son Joseph, and her nine-year-old daughter Sarah. The 1851 will states Sarah, as well as Bridgette’s son Coss, were to be given to Caroline. They would be freed after Caroline’s death or when they reached 30 years of age.

Joseph, Tabitha, and Bridgette were all directed by Shaw’s will to work for his sisters, even after they had been freed. The will included a threat to take away the land and homes promised to them if those orders were not followed.

By 1850, census records indicate Shaw owned nine enslaved people. Their names are, unfortunately, not listed in these records. But we do know they ranged in age from a 50-year-old woman to a one-year-old boy. Four were men between the ages of 18 and 30.

At the time of the 1850 census, construction was underway on Shaw’s country estate, which would come to be known as Tower Grove House. With one exception, records do not indicate whether those enslaved by Shaw at or after this time were based at his city townhome or at the country residence.

Inhabitants list

Jim

In 1852, Shaw purchased 30-year-old Jim. Tax records indicate that by 1853 Shaw owned as many as 11 enslaved people. However, this number does not account for the totality of lives Shaw affected during more than 30 years of his participation in slavery. The absence of details in our records make it hard to know exactly how many enslaved people were owned by Shaw in those three decades. The information we do know accounts for at least a dozen individuals by name, in addition to several children whose names were not recorded.

Freedom Seekers and Bounty Hunters

Sarah and her son

In October of 1850, Shaw purchased Sarah and her infant child on the Old Courthouse steps. In May of 1854, they escaped. Shaw took out an ad in a local paper offering a reward. In the ad, he describes Sarah as about twenty years of age and her four-year-old son as a “strong, hearty-looking child with curly hair.”

Shaw contracted with bounty hunter Bernard Lynch to try and track down Sarah and her child. Lynch owned the largest slave market in St. Louis, located at what is now the site of Busch Stadium. Receipts show a cash advance for information, and later a bill for boarding Sarah in one of Lynch's holding facilities. 

Sarah bill of boarding

While we cannot speak to the specific details, historical context is important here. Our records only indicate bounty hunters were hired by Shaw, but the reality of these interactions, despite a lack of specific details, was likely much more brutal than simply being captured and returned.

Esther, Her Children, and the Mary Meachum Freedom Crossing

Another escape occurred on May 20, 1855, involving Esther, two children, and a man named Jim Kennerly. These four ran away from Tower Grove House and joined several others to try and escape.

The group crossed the Mississippi River into Illinois on the Underground Railroad, at what is today known as the Mary Meachum Freedom Crossing.

Jim managed to evade capture, prompting Shaw to take out an ad in the local paper offering a bounty for his return. In the ad, Jim is described as mild-spoken and intelligent. The ad lists Jim as being about 20 years old, a discrepancy from the purchase documents three years earlier listing him as about 30 years old. This example shows how even the information we have can be, at times, unreliable. 

Reward notice

Esther and her children were captured on the Illinois side of the river after shots were fired by bounty hunters. As with Sarah’s escape, Shaw again hired Lynch to hunt down and return them.

After the escape attempt, receipts show Esther was sold to John Fondren of Hinds County, Mississippi. It is unclear what happened to the children, who were not listed in the sale, but it was not uncommon for enslaved family members to be separated through these sales.

Esther receipt

Mary Meachum, a former slave who worked to educate and free enslaved people, was jailed for her role in the escape attempt. Today, a marker along the Riverfront Trail denotes the Mary Meachum Freedom Crossing, and in 2001 it was added to the National Park Service’s “National Underground Railroad Network to Freedom.” The Henry Shaw Papers were utilized to assist with the establishment of the Freedom Crossing site.  

Mary Meachum portrait by Dail Chambers
Drawing of Mary Meachum by Dail Chambers. Courtesy of the Missouri Historical Society, St. Louis.

Slavery and the Garden

Tax records held in our Archives indicate Shaw last held enslaved people in 1855, as they do not appear in subsequent personal documents. However, United States census records list eight people enslaved by Shaw in 1860 — seven women and girls ranging in age from four to 50 years old, and one 12-year-old boy. As with the 1850 census, their names were not listed. 

1860 inhabitants record

Shaw opened the Missouri Botanical Garden in 1859, and spent much of his time at Tower Grove House while still maintaining his city townhome. Once again, the lack of records provides little insight into where these enslaved people were working, or what kind of work they were doing.

We cannot say definitively, based on the information available to us, whether enslaved people were tasked with building the Garden itself. Based on the ages and genders listed in the 1860 census, it is likely those enslaved by Shaw at this time were performing forced domestic work at Tower Grove House, such as cooking and cleaning.

Details of the construction of his homes and the stone wall that reside on Garden grounds today are itemized in Shaw’s papers as being constructed by paid immigrant laborers.

Heading Toward Civil War

Congress repealed the Missouri Compromise in 1854, and it was ruled unconstitutional by the U.S. Supreme Court in 1857 as part of Dred Scott v. Sanford—a legal battle carried out at the same St. Louis courthouse where enslaved people were being sold. The Old Courthouse, now part of Gateway Arch National Park, shares the history of slavery in St. Louis and the case of Dred and Harriet Scott.

Divisions over slavery, including the Missouri Compromise and Dred Scott decision, would draw the country into civil war in 1861, with St. Louis itself very much divided on the issue. With the future of slavery uncertain, many businessmen sold their slaves and instead began to exploit the influx of cheap immigrant labor arriving in major cities.

We know from the census that Shaw owned enslaved people at least as late as ten months before the Civil War began. What is less clear is when or whether he sold or freed any remaining enslaved people and whether that occurred before or after the fighting began. The Henry Shaw Papers also do not include any of his personal thoughts or reflections on the Civil War.

The Garden Today

The Garden is committed to building on our efforts to tell the stories of those enslaved by Shaw and to highlight other people and marginalized groups who helped the Garden become what it is today. Understanding and acknowledging this history informs our actions and our obligation to the community we serve. In this spirit, the Garden is actively reassessing signage and exhibit space on this topic with the goal of making these stories a more prominent part of the visitor experience.