Records Suggest Founder Freed, Educated Slaves

Article excerpt

Catherine Collier, founder of the First Methodist Church in St. Charles, "bought many a slave in order to free them," wrote area historian Edna Olson.

Olson added, "At the slave block when she found a family was to be sold separately, she would buy them and then reunite them with their loved ones." Olson, in an undated manuscript in the Collier file at the St. Charles County Historical Society Archives, also maintained that Collier had taught slaves to read and write.

Other stories have it that Collier built a small school for slaves behind the Methodist church at 617 South Main Street. However, existing records neither prove nor disprove the stories. "It's a mystery," says historian Carolyn Whetzel, who lives in St. Charles with her family. Two years ago, to help her daughter, Roslyn, with a high school history paper, Whetzel and her daughter checked through original documents and 19th century books to find out two things: if Collier bought slaves to free them and if she taught people of color to read and write. Collier, a successful businesswoman, could have afforded to buy slaves and set them free. When she settled in Missouri sometime between 1815 and 1818, she reportedly had $40,000 in cash. She died in 1835. When her estate was tallied up 18 years after her death - upon the death of her son George Collier - the holdings were valued at $157,000. George Collier was even more successful. His estate was valued at $1.2 million. Overall, however, the record is sparse, says Whetzel. Few early records of the First Methodist Church have been found. The congregation moved five times in all. After a fourth move, to the northeast corner of North Fifth and Washington streets in 1953, the church burned, probably destroying church records. A fifth church was built the same year at the current location, 810 First Capitol Drive in St. Charles. In 1820, shortly after Catherine Collier moved to Missouri, there were 13 free blacks and 682 slaves listed in St. Charles. Statewide, the total was 376 free blacks and 10,222 slaves, according to Frank C. Tucker, author of "The Methodist Church in Missouri 1798-1939," published in 1966. The state's total population was 66,000. St. Charles County tax records show that in 1823, Collier owned seven slaves. A 19th century source, "The History of St. Charles, Montgomery and Warren Counties," published in 1885, reported that Collier "kept several negro women busy making coarse shirts and various other kinds of garments, which her sons sold in their stores. …