The First Exodusters

The term exoduster generally refers to the thousands of African Americans that left the South for Kansas after the end of Reconstruction in 1877, rather than live under repressive white supremacist state governments. Yet theirs was not the first noteworthy black exodus into the state. Having entered the Union as a free state in January 1861 after years of bloody conflict between pro-slavery and anti-slavery forces, Kansas became a natural refuge for Missouri slaves early in the Civil War. With the collapse of order in Missouri during the late summer and early fall of 1861, a number of the state’s slaves had a chance to escape to freedom in Kansas. This phenomenon was noted in the November 8, 1861 issue of the New York Times, reprinting an October 3o article from the Leavenworth Conservative. It read in part:

Slaves began coming into camp as soon as LANE [referring to Gen. James Henry Lane] left Westport. Not a day passes without a practical exemplification of the lie that “the slaves are contented.” A Black Brigade consisting of over 150 recent chattels came out of Missouri on Friday last — they are well-mounted and have a good supply train. Their untimely departure has created no little excitement in the districts they are engaged in bleaching out. LANE continues to give “vouchers” to such owners as are proved to be Union men, stating that such a slave, valued at so much, was “lost by the march of my Brigade.”

A few days ago the General called claimant and claimed before him, and asked the latter, “GEORGE, do you want to go back with your master?” To which he replied, “No, Gen’l, I never goes back;” and darkey was sent to camp, while disgusted “Secesh” went to his farm a madder and cheaper (by $1,000) man.

The flight of Missouri slaves to Kansas proves yet again a great truth of emancipation in the Civil War. When the opportunity arose for slaves to free themselves by fleeing many did so. Certainly favorable circumstances needed to arise such as the arrival of the Union army in the vicinity, or in the case of Missouri slaves, civil disorder and free territory emerging nearby. So while the slaves did not free themselves, they often were active players in achieving their freedom, and one common action they took in that regard was flight. Fortunate slaves, such as those at Port Royal, South Carolina, in November 1861 effectively had freedom handed to them by the Union army when it arrived. Other slaves took a more active role in their own liberation by fleeing, often at considerable risk, to where they might be free. Such was the case with hundreds of Missouri slaves in Fall 1861.


About Donald R. Shaffer

Donald R. Shaffer is the author of _After the Glory: The Struggles of Black Civil War Veterans_ (Kansas, 2004), which won the Peter Seaborg Award for Civil War Scholarship in 2005. More recently he published (with Elizabeth Regosin), _Voices of Emancipation: Understanding Slavery, the Civil War, and Reconstruction through the U.S. Pension Bureau Files_ (2008). Dr. Shaffer teaches online exclusively (i.e., a virtual professor). He lives in Arizona and can be contacted at
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