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A Louisville Family Learns About Their Ties To A St. Louis Slave Who Saved Lives

Dorris Keeven-Franke leads several of Archer Alexander's descendants through a tour of Alexander's life. They're standing here at the Pitman family cemetery. The Pitmans were one of Alexander's owners.
Chad Davis | St. Louis Public Radio
Dorris Keeven-Franke leads several of Archer Alexander's descendants through a tour of Alexander's life. They're standing here at the Pitman family cemetery. The Pitman family was one of Alexander's owners.

For the past 30 years, Keith Winstead has been tracing the many generations of his family history.

“When I first started genealogy, I thought I’d be lucky to go and find a third great-grandparent. I got pictures now of 10 generations,” Winstead said.

On a cold and windy day he was at Bellefontaine Cemetery with about 15 other family members who hail from different parts of the U.S., such as Louisville, Atlanta, New York and Cincinnati.

This is the Alexander family, and they're not just any random family; they have significant ties to an American legend: They’re closely related to Muhammad Ali. On a winter day, they gathered with directions in hand to walk the same path as a local legend, a St. Louis resident and civil war hero. His name was Archer Alexander, and he was a slave.

“I wished I knew where he lived, where he grew up, you know, where the bridge was that he protected and where he was buried,” said Winstead, Alexander’s third great-grandson.

The bridge he referred to is what cemented Alexander’s name in U.S. history. More than 160 years and one day from the date the Alexander family went on their tour of Alexander’s life is the day Alexander saved an entire group of Union soldiers.

Saving Lives

Alexander’s masters were Confederate sympathizers. He alerted nearby Union troops of an attack that would have collapsed a railroad bridge over Peruque Creek in St. Charles County. The bridge was utilized by Union soldiers, and Alexander’s decision saved the lives of many.

“If it would have had to collapse with a train on it, the engine would have gone over, and it would have pulled all of the other cars on top of it,” Winstead said. “There’s no telling how many people would have been killed.”  

Keith Winstead, Archer Alexander's third great grandson, stands behind the Campbell House. Alexander helped construct the house in the late 1830s.

Winstead’s curiosity into his family ties only got him so far. He needed someone in the St. Louis area to help finish what he started and to lead the family tour. That’s when he got in contact with Dorris Keeven-Franke, a local historian and the executive director for the Missouri Germans Consortium. 

Keeven-Franke had known about Alexander for years. She read “The Story of Archer Alexander: From Slavery to Freedom,” written by Washington University founder William Greenleaf Eliot. Eliot took Alexander in when he escaped from St. Charles County by using the Underground Railroad. Alexander was eventually freed from slavery and continued to have a close relationship with Eliot. But his book raises questions.

“[Eliot’s] not really clear. He never actually gives dates, and a lot of times he doesn’t give names,” Keeven-Franke said. “A lot of times he doesn’t give names, and a lot of times when he gives the name, the name changes later on.”

More questions than answers?

The name changes in the book is just one of several issues Winstead and Keeven-Franke came across. Once they saw those discrepancies, they wondered what else could be different, including Alexander’s final resting place. Eliot’s book lists Alexander’s burial place in Clayton, but records from Clayton didn’t match the information Keeven-Franke found.

“When we did that and discovered that the book was wrong, that the information shared in the book about where he was buried, this started raising some red flags,” Keeven-Franke said.

She went directly to the St. Louis Genealogical Society and found information contradicting Eliot’s book. And after researching records from cemeteries throughout St. Louis, she finally found the answer.

“The index of the St. Louis Genealogical Society Cemetery Index indicated he was at St. Peter’s Cemetery in Normandy. It was like, what is he doing there?” Keeven-Franke asked. “As we dug into the story more and more, we discovered — as other authors have and other people have — that there were inconsistencies.”


Keeven-Franke’s research also found that Alexander’s second wife is buried at St. Peter’s Cemetery. From there, she confirmed Alexander was buried there, too.

Keeven-Franke doesn't know exactly why the information was changed, but she said it could have been done in order to protect the privacy of those focused on in the book. That includes people associated with Eliot and Alexander.

“He’s writing this, but he has to continue to live in this community,” Keeven-Franke said. “He wants everybody to know what Archer did, so I feel he wrote this book to get the story out, and he took the liberty as an author can and made it what some people might call historical fiction.”

Final Resting Place

Alexander and his second wife Julia were buried in an integrated common lot near the cemetery entrance in 1880 and 1879 respectively. On the day of the tour, the family received unexpected news: the creation of a memorial honoring Alexander’s life.

“The actual area that we would like to have the memorial in is a nice area at the front of the cemetery,” said Bill Baumgartner, the superintendent of St. Peter’s Cemetery.

For Winstead, the mystery surrounding Alexander’s life isn’t done yet; in fact, these revelations are just the beginning for the family.

“I want to find out where his first wife Louisa is buried,” Winstead said. “I want to find out how [Alexander’s son] ended up in Louisville.”

Follow Chad on Twitter @iamcdavis

Send questions and comments about this story to feedback@stlpublicradio.org

Chad is a general assignment reporter at St. Louis Public Radio.