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Old Man With Cane, Art by Jeff Niffen

A free man of color - While his wife was still a slave, John Dickson died a free man

Hannibal Courier-Post (MO) - Thursday, November 28, 2013

Author: Mary Lou; Montgomery

John Wesley Dickson (Dixon) died in 1850, proud, a free man of color and the owner of 40 acres of Ralls County farm land. His death, which came just a few months after he took possession of the acreage purchased from Judge John D. Biggs for $125, marked the end of his short-lived status as a landowner, but aff orded him a legal status that few of his contemporaries ever knew. He had an estate to be probated in the courts of Ralls County. In his will, which was written shortly before his death in July 1850, John W. Dickson left his estate to his wife, Elizabeth, a slave owned by Eliza Tapley, the widow of John Tapley. It took two years to settle the estate, and in October of 1853, Dickson's 40 acres of land were unceremoniously sold to Mary A. Whitaker for $125, the same price Dickson had paid for the land three years prior. While few records exist to chronicle the life of an individual slave in Missouri pre-1850, hints exist that could validate John W.'s life as a slave prior to the granting of his freedom. By piecing together probate and deed records in Ralls County, Missouri, and information published in "Slavery in Missouri, 1804-1865," a picture of John W. Dickson's life begins to emerge. It is documented that Dickson bought 40 acres of land from Judge John D. Biggs on Feb. 25, 1850. The land is located in Section 5, Township 54, Range 5, southern Ralls County, in Spencer Township. Circumstances point to the possibility that Dickson may have been a slave owned by Biggs, and that Dickson may have purchased or was granted his freedom by Judge Biggs, who subsequently sold him land on which to earn a living. Biggs was the recorded owner of nine slaves in the 1850 U.S. Federal Census Slave Census, conducted in the months after John W. Dickson's death. Eliza Tapley, owner of James' widow, owned six slaves, presumably consisting of Elizabeth and her five children. That slave schedule, conducted between August and October 1850, counted 1,377 slaves in Ralls County. In order to judge the value of a male slave of that era, a deed exists in the Ralls County Courthouse archives that spells out sale terms for another slave, named Jim. Robert Jameson of Ralls County was the slave owner, and sold the slave, age 39, to Judge Biggs in January 1845, not long before Jameson's death. The agreed price was $325. The relationship that existed between Jameson and his slave is exhibited in Jameson's will, written in 1828, referring to the slave at that time known as "little Jim." "It is my desire that he never be sold out of my family, but be well treated during his life. I recommend to some of my children to purchase big Jim if he is to be sold out of my family, be particular not to sell him to a master that you would suppose would treat him ill." A hint of the general relationship between slaves and slave owners in Missouri is offered in this summary from "Slavery in Missouri, 1804-1865": "The old slave masters without exception declare that the (slavery) system was patriarchal in Missouri and that the bond between the owner and the owned was very close. The small number of slaves held by the vast majority of the masters was one reason for this condition. When the young Virginian or Kentuckian and his negroes emigrated to far off Missouri, they suff ered in common the pangs ofparting and together went to develop the virgin soil amid common dangers and common hardships. Thus there undoubtedly grew up an attachment that the older communities had long since outgrown." Buy his own freedom While specific details regarding John W. Dickson's release from the bonds of slavery are unknown, a look at "Slavery in Missouri, 1804-1865" off ers a general overview. "Code of 1804 gave the form of procedure by which a slave could be liberated by will or other instrument in writing. When this was under seal of the district court of the Territory and was attested by two witnesses, the document made the slaves as free 'as if they had been particularly named and freed by this act.' To prevent fraud the freedman could be seized to satisfy his owner's debts contracted before his liberation. To prevent the free negro becoming a burden to society the slave manumitted must be 'sound in mind and body,' not over forty years of age or under twenty one if a male, or eighteen if a female. The late owner's property could be attached if his former slave was incapable of self support. Should an executor neglect to obtain the necessary papers for the one manumitted he was liable to a thirty dollar fine. A negro without the papers proving his freedom was to be held by a justice until they could be obtained." In order to buy freedom, according to this code, slaves could earn their own money. "A slave could not be required to work on Sunday, except household work. On Saturday, the slave could work to earn his own money." Whatever the circumstances, John W. Dickson was "a free man of color " and the owner of 40 acres of Ralls County farm land at the time of his death on in late July or early August, 1850. His will, written on July 12, 1850, was attested by Benedict I. Brashear and Joseph McGrew. At the request of John W. Dickson, Mr. McGrew provided the signature for John Wesley Dickson's will.

Caption: An aged man , walking down a dirt lane, is representative of the life of John W. Dickson, who died a free man and a land owner in 1850. ILLUSTRATION/JEFF NIFFEN Memo: The story of John W. Dickson Courier-Post editor, Mary Lou Montgomery, while conducting research into her own family's history, came upon a published estate notice for "John Wesley Dickson, a free man of color ." The editor followed the leads at the Ralls County courthouse to come up with a story on Dickson, who died in 1850, a free man and the owner of 40 acres of Ralls County land.

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