Missouri's Early Slave Laws:
A History in Documents

Lesson Overview

This lesson, developed by the Missouri State Archives for ninth through twelfth grade students, will instill student appreciation for original documents by introducing them to primary sources relevant to slave law legislation and the struggles of an imprisoned abolitionist. This lesson plan, which may be presented in whole or divided into two parts, may also be adapted to suit eighth grade students.

Students are provided images of an 1837 Missouri law related to abolitionist publications, and an 1847 Missouri law concerning the education of “slaves, free negroes, and mulattoes.” Students will also view a set of documents relating to the struggle of George Thompson, an Illinois abolitionist imprisoned in 1841 for violating a Missouri statute against stealing slaves. An accompanying history of slave laws in Missouri will help students in their analysis of the relevant documents.

Instructional Procedures:

Learning Goals:

  • To engage students in an age-appropriate discussion of the slave laws that governed early Missouri, and the effect they might have had on African Americans and other groups.
  • To help students understand why some records are deemed to be of “permanent, historical value” to the state.

Lesson Plan:

  1. Begin the lesson with a discussion of the general purpose of slave laws, and what types of behavior legislators might have hoped to regulate before the Civil War in Missouri. Have the students get into groups and brainstorm a list of their ideas.

  2. Distribute copies of A History of Laws Concerning Slavery in Missouri. Either have the students read these quietly to themselves, or they could take turns reading aloud to their group. (You might also send this history home with them the night before as homework).

  3. Optional Vocabulary Activity: Ask students to mark words that they find hard to understand. Within their groups, students may divide up the problem vocabulary. Distribute copies of dictionaries, or have the students consult the glossary of their textbooks or on-line dictionaries, writing down brief definitions of the vocabulary words. Once they have done that, go around the room and ask each group to report their findings. Lead a discussion of the relevancy of these words to the topic.

  4. Distribute copies of the original documents 1837 Missouri law and 1847 Missouri law, or have students view them on a computer. The documents may be easier to see and navigate on the computer, if one is available for students.

  5. In groups, ask students to complete their “Learning from Primary Sources: Original Document Worksheets,” one for each original document. As this is a standard worksheet that can be adapted for usage with all original documents, some questions may be more relevant to the different sources than others.

  6. Bring all groups together in a discussion of what the documents can tell us about the treatment of slaves and abolitionists in early Missouri, and what can be learned from these historical documents. Why are the documents important? Use the questions from the document worksheets to discuss the specific subject matter of each document. Refer to the “History” and the “Guided Discussion Questions,” to delve into the possible impact of laws like this.

  7. Read the short history of George Thompson to your students.

  8. Distribute copies of the original documents from the George Thompson case (one petition and Thompson's plea for his release from prison), or have students view them on a computer. The documents may be easier to see and navigate on the computer, if one is available for students.

  9. Have students complete their “Learning from Primary Sources” worksheets, one for the Thompson letter and one for the petitions signed by people who wanted Thompson granted his freedom.

  10. Bring all groups together in a discussion of why George Thompson's case is important to be preserved and studied. What can students find out about the outcome of his case by examining these primary sources?