A little bit of local history received some recognition on a hot afternoon when Missouri Secretary of State Jay Ashcroft presented a proclamation to St. Charles County officials designating a small creek in O’Fallon in honor for a former slave.
Ashcroft issued the proclamation designating the small stream as Archer Alexander Creek. The creek flows into Dardenne Creek.
Archer Alexander was a slave who lived in St. Charles County during the Civil War, during which he warned Union soldiers about a sabotaged bridge and told authorities about ammunition hidden on a farm along the creek. After the war, Alexander’s likeness was used in creating the Emancipation Memorial, which has stood in Lincoln Park in Washington, D.C. since 1876.
The secretary of state’s office played a role in naming the creek, located between Hwy. K and Route 364, because the office has jurisdiction over the Missouri Board of Geographic Names, of which Ashcroft is chair. The state board gave its approval to the name change in May, followed by the U.S. Board of Geographic Names’ final approval for the designation on June 21.
Ashcroft, St. Charles County Executive Steve Ehlmann, O’Fallon Mayor Bill Hennessy and Cottleville Mayor Jim Hennessey along with other dignitaries gathered at a bridge crossing the creek just east of Hwy. K for a brief ceremony.
During the ceremony, Ashcroft read and presented the proclamation, saying that Alexander was a “man of uncommon valor and character and courage” who risked not only his life but his wife’s and family’s lives. “I think you cannot understand what it took for him to do that because we don’t fully understand what it was like for an individual who was treated that way back then,” Ashcroft said.
St. Charles County Executive Steve Ehlmann said in a press statement that “naming this creek after Mr. Alexander reminds us of the rich, diverse history of our county and of the brave men and women who fought on many levels during the Civil War to reunite our nation and make all men free.” Ehlmann played a major role in obtaining the designation.
In February, the St. Charles County Council voted 6-0 to approve a resolution calling on the United States Department of the Interior and state to officially rename the creek, then designated “Tributary B” to “Archer Alexander Creek.” The cities of Cottleville and O’Fallon passed similar resolutions.
Those acts were inspired from a blog Ehlmann published on the county government website last October. He noted that the dismantling of a statue in St. Louis honoring the Confederacy and another in Charlottesville, Virginia, to honor one of its general has stimulated discussion about the future of the Civil War era.
“A former resident of St. Charles County played a role in the sculpting of a Civil War statute in St. Louis, and when you read his story I think you will agree with me that no one will be protesting it,” stated Ehlmann, who has a keen interest in local history, as the author of the 2004 book “Crossroads: A History of St. Charles County, Missouri.”
Ehlmann’s blog recounts much the same history as the resolution saying that Alexander was a slave from Virginia who was brought to St. Charles County in 1830 and eventually married another slave named Louisa. He died in 1879.
In 1863, during the Civil War, Alexander learned that men had sabotaged a railroad bridge by sawing its timber. He informed a Union man and Union authorities before any train crossed. He also told Union officials that arms were hidden in an ice box on the Campbell farm near the Pitman Farm in St. Charles County.
Rebel sympathizers suspected Alexander was the informant and he fled from the county to the city of St. Louis, where he was given refuge by William Eliot, a prominent Unionist, abolitionist and founder of Washington University. Alexander argued that he should be freed from his master, Richard Pitman.
Slave catchers apprehended Alexander; however, federal officials recovered Alexander upon Eliot’s request and allowed him to remain in Eliot’s service. Pitman tried, through the circuit courts, to establish his right to Alexander bu Eliot sent Alexander to safety in Alton, Illinois, where he worked as a farm hand.
Alexander’s son, Tom, was among the first recruits when the provost marshal began enlisting black troops in St. Charles County in 1864. He was killed in action during the Civil War.In 1869, pictures of Alexander were used by sculptor Thomas Ball in creating a monument to Abraham Lincoln. Ball reportedly said that Alexander’s likeness “both face and figure, is as correct as that of Mr. Lincoln himself.” It was decided that a representative form of an African-American male should be included in the statue, titled Emancipation, helping to break the chain that had bound him.
Ehlmann said Eliot served on a committee involved with memorial after the war and met Ball in Italy. Contracted to create the memorial, Ball said he had likenesses of Lincoln but he had never seen an African-American. Eliot gave Ball a photograph of Alexander, which he used in working on the statue.