Sometimes I get so caught up in a story, I just can’t stop myself. Us genealogists have that problem a lot! One thing just seems to lead to another it seems. We just can’t stop ourselves from going down that rabbit hole. And the more that we share the more that we discover! Take for instance, William Greenleaf Eliot’s book The Story of Archer Alexander: from Slavery to Freedom. While the events you are about to read are true, the names have been changed to protect the “innocent”? Why you may ask? How do I know this? I’ll start at the beginning.
Summer of 2018, Joe Meier with the City of O’Fallon’s Media Department asked me for some help on a story on Archer Alexander. I love the work they do, and it was in conjunction with renaming the Tributary to Archer Alexander Creek. How neat is that to have a beautiful little stream named after you?! I had read Eliot’s book, written in 1885 and my first thought was – somethings missing. You know, like its been redacted. The book tells the story of Archer’s life, as heard directly from him, as told to Eliot in the garden in the last days of his life. Then written from memory five years later, I thought. Eliot states that he had written the story down for his grandchildren. He also said that when submitted to a publisher, it was rejected. So he shared it with his close friend Jessie Benton Fremont, and then it was published. If you still don’t understand why a book written just twenty years after the end of the Civil War, about a slave, couldn’t get published… watch Louis Gates Jr in PBS’s new four hour documentary Reconstruction: America after the Civil War and then tell me how you don’t get it.
How do I know that names have been changed? Because one of the most important names, the cemetery that Archer is supposedly buried in, was even changed. Eliot states that after preaching the sermon, Archer was laid to rest in Centenary Cemetery near the Clayton Courthouse. A descendant Keith Winstead came all of the way from Louisville looking for Centennary or what became of it, only to hit one of a genealogist’s biggest brick walls. Which is why, when the Washington Post’s Ben Strauss broke the story about how DNA evidence links Muhammed Ali to heroic slave Archer Alexander [https://www.washingtonpost.com/sports/2018/10/02/dna-evidence-links-muhammad-ali-heroic-slave-family-says/?utm_term=.d7973453b407] and I was sharing the news on Facebook, Winstead contacted me and said “Do you know where Archer Alexander is buried?” I answered “maybe“. Thinking, isn’t that in Eliot’s book?
We take everything at face value anymore. No questions. I had no reason not to take Eliot’s book the same way, not realizing it is historical fiction, based on real events. So the first thing my fellow research friend Jim Gunzel and I did (after all Jim had put me on to the Washington Post story to begin with) was to go back to the drawing board – I mean book. And check the Centenary Cemetery records again. And again. Not there. In fact we were independently searching everything. All the St. Louis African American Cemeteries… and then all of the St. Louis Cemeteries. And then Guenzel got a hit on the St. Louis Genealogical Society’s website’s Cemetery Index. Only thing was… It wasn’t quite right. And what would he be doing in an early German Church cemetery? Guenzel even checked with them. And then, not knowing he had, I did so as well. Well it turns out in the old looping handwriting, Olvchey can be mistaken for Archey by even the best of indexers. It was definitely Archey. In the St. Peters United Church of Christ Cemetery on Lucas & Hunt Road. That discovery gave everyone pause, and reason to delve deep into Eliot’s book and fact check every bit of the story! Its a fantastic story of heroism. And yes, Archey really did
warn the Union Army that his master had undermined the Peruque Creek Bridge by running five miles in the dark in February of 1863. If caught he could have been whipped or even worse – lynched. A real American hero. Rewarded years later, when Eliot would see that Archer would be the face to symbolize a brave strong man breaking his own chains that had bound him in slavery. What Archer desired most was freedom. He has represented that on the Emancipation Memorial in Lincoln Park, in Washington, D.C. til this day.
And so began, the incredible journey to discover the untold story of Archer Alexander. We have made progress, but researching African American roots of an enslaved person in 1806 is hard. Research is needed at where the story begins, and a summer expedition is being planned. Every new DNA relative helps as well, and another family trip to St. Louis is being planned for them later this summer in August. A monument will be placed at St. Peters Cemetery with the help of family and friends. But just think! If Eliot had never written that story, we never would have known Archer Alexander or his heroic deeds. Its amazing the stories we find when we go down those rabbit holes. And sharing, what you put out there will come back to you tenfold. Share the stories!