Diane Mutti Burke, Assistant Professor of History at the University of Missouri-Kansas City, has a confession to make. Her eyes dart from interviewer to videographer as she decides to let them in on the secret: “Oh, I've been a—should I say it?—a history nerd since I was a little kid!”
Self-assigned though the label may be, “history nerd” doesn’t do Mutti Burke justice. For nearly twenty years, she has been researching and teaching American history, especially that of her home state. “Of course, Native Americans were here first,” she explains. “Missouri was a crossroads,” she adds. “It was initially settled by the French, and then mostly settled by Southerners, in the first part of the history.” Since then, people from all over the nation and the world have moved here. “It's right in the middle of regions,” Mutti Burke notes, and so “it's sort of a fusion of different cultures, and different peoples, and that's what makes it really, really interesting.”
Mutti Burke is especially curious about the unique experiences of slaves in the state. A large amount of the current research on slavery in America has focused on the plantation system in Southern states, while Missouri has been “virtually neglected,” due in part to the lower percentage of slaves in the population: 10% in 1860, as opposed to 25% in Tennessee or 57% in South Carolina. Compared with other states, slavery seems to have been “a marginal institution” in Missouri. “But indeed,” Mutti Burke counters, “it wasn't marginal in 1860 in large parts of Missouri.”
Missouri slaveholding took a different shape from that typical in the plantation-heavy South. It functioned on a smaller scale, a situation that influenced the choices slaveholders made. Most opted to diversify their farm economies, for example by growing cash crops as well as subsistence crops. Additionally, many Missouri slaveholders chose to hire out slave laborers. The small scale of their operations also influenced economic strategies for their own families. Many Missouri landowners “didn't have enough wealth to pass on slaveholding to their children, so they did things like encourage them to get educations, very sort of middle-class values, so that maybe their son could have a profession, be a doctor or an attorney,” she explains.
Ultimately, small-scale slavery influenced the quality of life for Missouri slaves. Smaller farms meant smaller households. Large plantations might develop communities within slave quarters, whereas enslaved people in smaller operations were forced to reach across farm lines to forge relationships with others in their general neighborhoods. Mutti Burke’s latest project, On Slavery’s Borders: Small Slaveholding in Antebellum Missouri (forthcoming), examines the relationships that formed between these Missouri farms, where friendship and kinship crossed property lines, often in the form of an abroad marriage.
She notes that “in a place like Missouri, it was very likely—as much as 60% of the time—that a slave man or woman’s spouse lived on another farm or plantation. After their work was completed, slave husbands and fathers would leave, oftentimes on Saturday night for the weekend. They would stay with their families over Sunday and come back in the wee hours of the morning on Monday to be back ready to work for the next week.” As a result, many slaves spent the majority of time with one parent—usually the mother. “I think that it was extremely difficult for women especially to try to manage everything,” Mutti Burke observes. “Cooking the meals, caring for the children, and facing all of this without the constant help of a male partner.”
While daily life continued regardless of the political climate, massive change came to Missouri when the Civil War began in 1861: “It was this crossroads place, [with] all these divergent groups of people that had different ideas for what the state and the nation should be.” Even slaveholding Missourians were at odds with one another. Though some owners sided with the Confederacy, many believed that the Union would protect slavery. The white Unionists, along with slaves, were targets of violence by secessionist guerillas during the war, as were southern supporters by Union troops. Thousands of Missouri slaves left the state to join the Union army, and this mass flight continued the disintegration of slavery in the state.
In another recently completed manuscript, A House of Her Own: The Diary of a Small-Slaveholding Woman (forthcoming), Mutti Burke delves into the other side of daily life in slavery-era Missouri. Editing and annotating Paulina Donald Stratton’s diary was a daunting prospect. Beginning in Virginia, the chronicle spans 25 years and several states before ending in Missouri. Identifying the 1,500 individual people and locations in the diary presented a special challenge, but “it's such a fascinating document that I really feel it should be out there for people to use,” Mutti Burke maintains. “It's been sitting in the archive down in Ellis Library, in the Western Historical Manuscripts Collection, because not many historians of the South come to Missouri to research. It's rare, in that it is a small slaveholding woman who wrote this diary, because most of the paper trail has been left by wealthy men [and] planter women. It’s the most elite of elite white southerners who have left the record.”
Stratton’s experience adds depth to contemporary understandings of slavery both inside and outside Missouri. Though the images of southern plantation life are closely tied to concepts of slavery in America, they do not tell the whole story. “In the South, as a whole, the vast majority of slaveholders owned 20 or fewer slaves,” Mutti Burke adds. “In fact, just under half of slaves lived on these slaveholding farms [as they did in Missouri] instead of plantations.” On Slavery’s Borders and A House of Her Own do not deal with uniquely Missouri phenomena, but rather with widespread American experiences of the Civil War era.
Mutti Burke found support for these important studies in the University of Missouri Research Board. “I just needed time,” she says. “Teaching and mentoring students takes a tremendous amount of energy, and it's hard to dedicate periods of time to work on a manuscript. The UMRB allowed me to do that.” The semester's research leave allowed her to work toward finishing both On Slavery’s Borders and A House of Her Own. After writing for a semester, she continued her research while holding a fellowship at the Gilder Lehrman Center for the Study of Slavery Resistance and Abolition at Yale University.
Even as On Slavery’s Borders and A House of Her Own await publication, Mutti Burke has several visions of where to go next. As public outreach, she helped to organize K-12 summer teacher workshops in 2008 as part of the National Endowment for the Humanities’ Landmarks of American History and Culture Program. “We brought 100 teachers from throughout the nation to attend a week-long workshop on Missouri and Kansas during the Border Wars,” she notes. Another workshop will occur during the summer of 2010.
In terms of her personal research, the historian has already begun planning her next initiative. “I'm thinking that my next project will be something about refugees during the Civil War,” she says, recalling the departure of African-Americans and whites fleeing the era’s bloodshed. “We know a lot about soldiers and battles, and we know a lot about the home front, but what about the people who were thrown out of their homes?” Mutti Burke asks. For example, “there's the infamous Order Number 11,” issued by Union General Thomas Ewing on December 17, 1862, which depopulated the Missouri border. “All those people were displaced. I'd like to find out what happened to those people,” she explains, “and what their experience was like during the Civil War.”
Considering Diane Mutti Burke’s knack for uncovering history, and for exploring new thoughts on old questions, we will know much more about the experience of these displaced people very soon.