Slavery at White Haven

The interpretation of slavery at White Haven is an important part of the mission of this historic site. Enslaved labor was central to the financial success of the plantation, and each White family that lived at the home prior to the Civil War enslaved Black people. That includes Ulysses S. Grant, who lived at White Haven during the years 1854 to 1859 with his wife Julia, their children, and his in-laws. While Grant struggled to support his family as a farmer at White Haven, the enslaved laborers of White Haven endured their own struggles, including the pain of family separations, harsh work conditions, and legal restrictions that prevented them from enjoying basic human rights to education, movement, and self-ownership. While Julia Dent Grant wrote of how much White Haven felt like home to her, the enslaved did not feel the same way and did not have the chance to voluntarily leave the property.

Early Farm Residents and Slavery

The first owner of White Haven, William Lindsay Long, enslaved several laborers who most likely contributed to the construction of the home. When Theodore and Anne Lucas Hunt purchased White Haven in 1818, “several good log cabins” existed on the property—potential quarters for the five enslaved people purchased earlier by Hunt. These laborers—Wallace, Andrew, Lydia, Loutette, and Adie—played an important part in the Hunts’ farming venture. The value of White Haven increased thanks to these labors and the Hunts sold the Gravois property to “Colonel” Frederick Dent in 1820 for the sum of $6,000. Naming the property “White Haven” after his family home in Maryland, Dent aspired to become a Southern planter and gentleman. He heavily invested in both land and enslaved labor. By 1850 Colonel Dent enslaved upwards of thirty African Americans on two of his St. Louis properties. Seventeen of these laborers lived and worked at White Haven according to the 1850 census, although that number may have increased during peak growing season.

Slavery in Missouri

Most enslavers in Missouri enslaved fewer than ten laborers. Contrary to popular images of large plantations where hundreds of enslaved laborers were supervised by an overseer, most slaveholding farmers in Missouri worked alongside their laborers growing basic cash crops such as corn, wheat, oats, and hay. Throughout most of Missouri cotton could not be grown for profit, with the exception of the southeastern Bootheel area. Along the fertile Missouri River valley known as “little Dixie” there existed single-crop plantations where much the nation’s hemp crops were extracted with enslaved labor. In St. Louis, enslaved laborers worked a range of occupations as blacksmiths, dockworkers, farriers, horse drivers, restaurant and hotel workers, and laborers. Some were “hired out” by their enslavers in return for an agreed upon wage. A portion of the wage was sometimes paid to the enslaved, allowing a measure of self-determination and a potential opportunity to purchase their freedom. By 1860 only 2% of the city’s population was enslaved as more German and Irish immigrants and northerners moved to the city. That did not make slavery in St. Louis less harsh, however. William Wells Brown, a popular abolitionist and writer who grew up enslaved in St. Louis, argued that “no part of our slave-holding country is more noted for the barbarity of its inhabitants than St. Louis.”

Growing Up Enslaved

In 1830, half of the enslaved people owned by Colonel Dent were under the age of ten. Henrietta, Sue, Ann, and Jeff, among others, played with the Dent children in their youth. As they grew older, however, these children transitioned from enslaved playmates into enslaved laborers. Julia Dent Grant enjoyed the benefit of an education while the enslaved children fed farm animals, cleaned the home, and learned the responsibilities of plantation labor. Returning home from boarding school one year, Julia proudly noted that the enslaved girls had “attained the dignity of white aprons,” cementing their status as trusted family servants. In Julia’s recollections of slavery at White Haven, the enslaved people were grateful, contented laborers who were treated like family by the Dents. In reality, the enslaved people at White Haven and elsewhere resented and resisted their legal status as chattel property. Julia's recollections of slavery must be taken with a grain of salt and recognized as her own perspective, not necessarily that of the enslaved at White Haven.

Household Responsibilities

Enslaved adults performed many household duties on the Dent plantation. Julia’s mother Ellen oversaw the domestic laborers until her death in 1857. Kitty and Rose served as nurses to Julia and her sister Emma, while Mary Robinson became the family cook. The wide variety of foods prepared in her kitchen were highly praised by Julia: “Such loaves of beautiful snowy cake, such plates full of delicious Maryland biscuit, such exquisite custards and puddings, such omelets, gumbo soup, and fritters.” One enslaved man named “Old Bob” who had traveled with the Dents from Maryland had the responsibility of keeping the fires going in White Haven’s seven fireplaces. Julia thought Bob was careless to allow the embers to die out, as this forced him “to walk a mile to some neighbors and bring home a brand of fire from their backlog.” Yet this “carelessness” provided Bob an opportunity to escape his enslaver’s watchful eyes.

Tending the Farm

Enslaved labor was used extensively in the farming and maintenance of the 850-acre plantation. Enslaved men at White Haven such as Dan, Bob, and Jefferson plowed, sowed, and reaped the wheat, oats, Irish potatoes, and Indian corn grown on the estate. They also cared for the orchards and gardens, harvesting the fruits and vegetables for consumption by all who lived on the property. More than 75 horses, cattle, and pigs required daily attention. Numerous remodeling projects on the main house such as an added sitting room in the 1830s and the construction of several outbuildings also utilized the skills of those in servitude.

Personal Lives

The enslaved people claimed time for socializing among family and friends amid their time-consuming labors. Corn shuckings provided one opportunity to come together as a community to eat, drink, sing, and visit. These gatherings often included enslaved laborers from nearby plantations. Participation in religious activities, individually or as a group, also provided a sense of integrity. Julia remembered “Old Bob” going into the meadow to pray and sing. According to historian Lorenzo J. Greene, “St. Louis…was the only place in the state where the organized black church achieved any measure of success.” Whether or not the Dent slaves were allowed to attend services is unknown.

Grant and Slavery

When Ulysses S. Grant first moved to White Haven in 1854, he benefitted from the labors of a number of Colonel Dent’s enslaved men who helped him fell trees, plant crops, and construct his “Hardscrabble” log cabin. In an 1858 letter to his sister Grant stated that “I have now three negro men, two hired by the year and one of Mr. Dents, which, with my own help, I think, will enable me to do my farming pretty well.” At some point during Grant’s time at White Haven he also acquired ownership of an enslaved man named William Jones from his father-in-law. Later, in the spring of 1859, the Grant family moved to downtown St. Louis. While there, four enslaved workers that had been loaned to Julia by her father tended to the family’s needs until the Grants decided to move to Galena, Illinois, in early 1860.


On March 29, 1859, Grant went to the St. Louis Courthouse and signed a manumission paper emancipating William Jones “for [diverse] good and valuable considerations,” thus freeing the only person he is known to have enslaved. Grant and his family benefitted from the labors of more than William Jones, however, including numerous enslaved people owned by Colonel Dent and others hired from local slaveholders. At some point during the Civil War, the remaining enslaved laborers at White Haven simply walked off, as they did on many plantations in both Union and Confederate states. President Abraham Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation did not apply to Missouri since the state remained in the Union during the Civil War, but a state constitutional convention abolished slavery in Missouri on January 11, 1865. Little is known about the whereabouts of White Haven’s enslaved laborers after the Civil War, although two formerly enslaved women owned by Colonel Dent, Mary Robinson and Mary Henry, remained in St. Louis and were interviewed by local newspapers after Grant’s death in 1885.

Further Reading

Federal Writers Project, Missouri Slave Narratives: Slave Narratives from the Frederal Writers' Project, 1936-1938. New York: Applewood Books, 2006.

Lorenzo J. Greene, Gary R. Kremer, and Antonio F. Holland, Missouri's Black Heritage. Columbia. University of Missouri Press, 1993.

R. Douglas Hurt, Agriculture and Slavery in Missouri's Little Dixie. Columbia. University of Missouri Press, 1992.

Kelly Kennington, In the Shadows of Dred Scott: St. Louis Freedom Suits and the Legal Culture of Slavery in Antebellum America. Athens. University of Georgia Press, 2017.

Diane Mutti Burke, On Slavery's Border: Missouri's Small Slaveholding Households, 1815-1865. Athens. University of Georgia Press, 2010.

Nicholas W. Sacco, "I Never was an Abolitionist: Ulysses S. Grant and Slavery, 1854-1863." The Journal of the Civil War Era Vol. 9, no 3 (September 2019), 410-437.

Dale Edwyna Smith, African American Lives in St. Louis, 1763-1865: Slavery Freedom, and the West. New York. MacFarland, 2017.

Ulysses S Grant National Historic Site

Last updated: May 5, 2022