Kelly Schmidt leads a tour about the lives of enslaved people who belong to Jesuits in Missouri

Kelly Schmidt points to a memorial marker dedicated to slaves of Missouri Jesuits on Aug. 6 in Calvary Cemetery in St. Louis. They are not buried there, but the marker reads, “In memory of the three slave couples, Tom and Polly, Moses and Nancy, Isaac and Succy, who accompanied the pioneer founders, and whose labor, not freely given, helped to establish Jesuit presence in the Midwest.” Schmidt was awarded one of two Center for Missouri Studies fellowships through the State Historical Society of Missouri.

The State Historical Society of Missouri will give out two Center for Missouri Studies fellowships in 2020 to scholars who are studying Missouri’s early statehood.

The fellowships were awarded to Greg Olson and Kelly Schmidt. Both scholars will be focusing on different aspects of Missouri’s early history, the Historical Society said in a news release.

The Historical Society began its fellowship program in 2015, and it receives about one dozen to more than three dozen applications a year, John Brenner, managing editor at the Historical Society, said in an email.

Recipients are chosen by a panel of judges who are professional historians with expertise in Missouri history. After being awarded the fellowship, both Olson and Schmidt will have their studies published in the Missouri Historical Review, the Historical Society’s journal.

Olson, who lives in Columbia, was given the fellowship for his research proposal, “White Man’s Paper Trail: Extinguishing Indigenous Land Claims in Missouri.” He will study the treaties the United States made with Native Americans and how the U.S. sought legal claim to the land within Missouri.

Olson was the curator of exhibits and special projects at the Missouri State Archives for 19 years before retiring last year. He has written two books, both focusing on the Iowa tribe.

Through looking back at the treaties made with Native Americans, Olson hopes to shed some light on the complicated process of how Missouri became a state.

“To my knowledge, nobody has ever really done a study of all the treaties that had to be signed with Native Americans to get clear title to all the land in Missouri,” Olson said.

When Missouri applied for statehood in 1817, only three tribes had given over the rights to their fraction of land. It took until 1837, with 20 treaties with 13 nations, to have legal right to all the land in Missouri, according to the release.

In fact, when the U.S. bought Missouri through the Louisiana Purchase, the government didn’t actually buy the land. They bought the exclusive rights to buy the land from the Native Americans, Olson said.

“Nobody really thinks about it that way,” he said. “And then there’s a really complicated legal history of how we viewed Native land as Americans because we kind of saw ourselves as conquerors and we saw the Natives as being non-Christian savages.”

Starting in the mid-19th century, Missouri began to pass laws that tried to keep Native Americans out of the state. At the 13th General Missouri Assembly in 1845, a law was passed that banned Native Americans from the state unless they had written permission from a U.S. government agent.

“Part of my overall goal over the years is just to try and present Native history as Missouri history and to not overlook it,” Olson said.

Schmidt, the other fellow, is a doctoral student at Loyola University in Chicago. Her research is focused on enslaved communities near St. Louis and St. Charles and how their labor helped expand the Catholic church in that area.

Schmidt will be researching the Jesuit missionaries who helped bring Catholicism to this region but were among the colonizers who introduced slavery within the territory that became Missouri, according to the release.

Schmidt works in St. Louis, where she has access to the Jesuit archives.

“I’m based in St. Louis so that I can do that research and also support an effort that the Jesuits have undertaken to examine their own history and express remorse for that history to descendants of the enslaved and to work with descendants in figuring out how to move forward and address legacies of racism that has stemmed from the slave-holding history,” Schmidt said.

Schmidt said she is thankful to have gotten the fellowship. It helps her better understand the lives of the enslaved people who worked for the Jesuits in Missouri and how they helped contribute to the growth of Catholicism in the state.

The Jesuits ran a farm and plantation where they kept detailed financial records. They also ran several churches, where they took equally extensive records of the sacraments the enslaved people received.

“We have been able to find sacramental record showing people who were enslaved, married, baptizing their children,” Schmidt said. “Without those, we’re not able to reconstruct who they are and what their lives were like and who their families were. And so from there, I can map out what the enslaved community’s kinship network was.”

Schmidt estimates that at any given time in Missouri, the Jesuits had around 30 to 40 enslaved people but that over the course of the century, that number is closer to 100.

Through her research, Schmidt is hoping to shed light on the lives of enslaved people owned by Catholics, especially Catholic religious orders. She also hopes that this work is helpful for descendants of the enslaved.

“I think a lot of descendants have expressed having greater knowledge of their ancestors’ past helps give a sense of identity that’s been lost through the violence of the diaspora caused by slavery,” she said. “And also, in the case of these kinds of conversations with Jesuits and Jesuit universities, it gives them a voice at the table in deciding how these institutions move forward.”

Both articles will be published in the Missouri Historical Review in 2021 as part of the celebration of Missouri’s bicentennial.

Supervising editor is Kaleigh Feldkamp.

  • Public Safety and Health reporter, Fall 2019. Studying magazine editing. Reach me at, or in the newsroom at 573-882-5700.

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