Summer Research: Rashad Timmons on Slave Labor in Railway Construction

19 Sep, 2021

Summer Research: Rashad Timmons on Slave Labor in Railway Construction

Rashad Timmons received a Summer 2021 BCNM Research Grant. Read about his important archival work investigating the role slave labor had in building mid to late 19th century railways.

The BCNM Summer Research Grant was a timely and beneficial source of support this summer. The award enabled me to secure some structured writing resources and conduct preliminary historical research that will be prominent in my dissertation project.

In my initial proposal, I outlined a plan to use the award to travel to St. Louis County, Missouri, to investigate slave labor in railway construction during the mid-to-late-19th century. Specifically, I sought to uncover primary source documents on the labor/contractual, developmental, and land/deed histories of the North Missouri Railroad. This railroad brought the city of Ferguson into existence its directors established a depot on the territory. In this line of inquiry, a key figure of interest was Thomas T. January, the director and key member of the Location and Construction Committee of this railroad company in 1855. He was a prominent, slaveholding landowner in the region that would become Ferguson and a primary contributor in the decisions about the route of the North Missouri Railroad. The interplay between infrastructural (railway) development, slavery, and land ownership in the early history and geography of Ferguson remains a critical field of investigation.

The resurgence of COVID-19 prohibited me from traveling, and many of the archives and libraries I planned to visit limited opportunities for in-person research per their local public health guidelines. Still, I was pleased to contact reference and research specialists at the State Historical Society of Missouri and the Missouri Historical Society. Individuals at both institutions assisted me in identifying, locating, and accessing vital archival artifacts pertinent to some of my research questions.

During the summer, I worked through two archival collections and used monetary support from the award to cover costs associated with sharing, retrieving, and digitizing historical documents. At the Missouri Historical Society, I worked with records in the Isaac H. Sturgeon Papers. Isaac H. Sturgeon was a prominent lawyer, businessman, and political figure in nineteenth century St. Louis. He also served as the United States Assistant Treasurer under Presidents Franklin Pierce and James Buchanan. Importantly, he served as president and general superintendent of the North Missouri Railroad for a decade in the early years of its operation. In this collection, I found correspondences between Sturgeon and other Missouri politicians and businessmen regarding the financial struggles of the North Missouri Railroad, especially in the context of the impending Civil War.

At the State Historical Society of Missouri, I examined documents in the James S. Rollins Papers. James S. Rollins was also a prominent lawyer, businessman, and politician in Missouri, specifically Boone County. He unsuccessfully campaigned for the governorship in Missouri twice and served as a United States congressman for the state during the Civil War. Notably, Rollins was a significant stockholder and a central figure in the North Missouri Railroad Company. In this collection, I was pleased to find correspondences between Rollins and Thomas T. January discussing proposed routes for the North Missouri Railroad, conversations between Rollins and Sturgeon about the technical specifications of the railroad, discussions between Rollins and Sturgeon on the railroad industry and the question of slavery.

Despite the plans for the summer shifting due to COVID-19, I am delighted that I was able to locate archival documents that will anchor my historical analysis. The BCNM Summer Research Grant was indispensable in helping me facilitate access to these materials and providing valuable research support. I am grateful to the committee for seeing merit in my academic work and supporting me so generously.