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Review: '57 Years' gets going when it relates struggles for freedom

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, March 27, 2012 - Americans recognize that many of the nation’s founders owned slaves, but author Anthony Sestric shows that this area's first families sometimes enslaved free people.

Sestric’s new book, “57 Years,” celebrates Missouri lawsuits that set people free — or at least tried to — in the period between the Louisiana Purchase and the Emancipation Proclamation.

The biggest batches of suits involved families of St. Louis pioneer Pierre Chouteau and the first lieutenant governor of Illinois, Pierre Menard of Kaskaskia.

Sestric found records of more than 400 freedom suits in state archives. And in the 168 cases where he found verdicts, judges freed 85 plaintiffs.

What might be of particular local interest, Bishop Joseph Rosati successfully defended two freedom suits.

The book begins with profiles of the top lawyers involved in these cases. Many could actually be found on both sides of the issue, because state law allowed judges to appoint counsel in freedom suits.

Sestric, who is also a top lawyer, hampered himself, however, by writing too much about lawyers. His first 76 pages tell next to nothing about the suits, concentrating instead on the lives of the lawyers who contested them and the judges who presided over them.

The story of struggles for liberation, which is where the book picked up drama and interest, begins at last in the middle of the book.

“The simplest way for slave owners to thwart a freedom suit was to ship the slave out of the jurisdiction of the court, selling the slave ‘down the river,’” Sestric writes.

“Eventually the courts and the slaves’ lawyers got smart enough to get the court to order that the owner not remove the slave from the jurisdiction of the court,” he writes.

“The owners got around this by selling or transferring the slave to someone else, who would then move the slave down the river,” he writes.

Most plaintiffs claimed they gained freedom by living long enough in free states.

Other claims involved wills, oral agreements and family feuds.

The Missouri Supreme Court upheld a freedom verdict in 1836, ruling that a slaveholder forfeited rights to a slave by taking one into free territory.

In that case, a woman named Rachel, who is described as a mulatto, sued to avoid going to New Orleans. After gaining freedom, she sued for her son and set him free.

Another successful plaintiff, Polly Berry, inspired her daughter Nancy to make a daring dash for freedom. Nancy, accompanying her owners on a honeymoon to Niagara Falls, slipped away and boarded a ferry that carried her to Canada. Nancy married and had a family in Toronto, where her mother often visited.

Next, Sestric drops the drama and builds a 90-page table summarizing every suit. Plaintiffs won 21 of the first 26 verdicts in the table, through 1825, but defendants won more often than not after that.

Litigation peaked from 1831 to 1837, with about nine verdicts a year. In nine verdicts after 1848, no plaintiff won freedom.

Steve Korris is a freelance writer.