How a mother, sold into slavery, was presented to her son as a Christmas gift

With a slight smile on his face, the soldier asked, “Dowan, do you know this woman?”   Dowan crooked his head to get a better look at the black woman holding the flowers. “It seems like I have seen her somewhere.”

How a mother, sold into slavery, was presented to her son as a Christmas gift

By Diane Euston

  Dowan Young thought it was peculiar when his longtime friend asked if he could stop by on Christmas Day. He watched from his front window as the old soldier emerged from the carriage outside his home in Chicago on LaSalle St. He didn’t think much when barely hidden behind his friend seemed to be another figure- a tall, black woman grasping a small bundle of magnolias- the flower that represented the South.

  Dowan slowly opened the front door of his modest home to greet the old Union officer and his unannounced guest who were bundled up in jackets to block the cold Chicago winds.

  With a slight smile on his face, the soldier asked, “Dowan, do you know this woman?”

  Dowan crooked his head to get a better look at the black woman holding the flowers. “It seems like I have seen her somewhere,” Dowan politely responded.

  The anticipation was too much for the old soldier. He put his hand behind the back of the woman and guided her forward to be directly in front of Dowan. “She’s your mother, Dowan.” Without delay, the two embraced and didn’t want to let go while the man responsible for the reunion stood by and quietly wept.

  Thirty-three long years had separated the two former slaves from one another- a story that began on a large plantation outside of Liberty, Mo.

Liberty house
Michael Arthur’s home on 316 E. Franklin St. in Liberty, Mo. still stands. Image courtesy of Google.

The Arthur Slaves

  To tell this remarkable story, we have to travel back to the harsh realities of slavery in this country and the dealings of one family in the slave trade.

   Michael Arthur (1800-1884) arrived in Clay Co. in 1825 from his home of Lexington, Ky. with little in his pockets and a lot of ambition. He assisted the Mormons during the war, allowing them to work on his plantation three miles southwest of Liberty that was known as Glen Arbor. He opened the first hemp factory in Clay Co., operated the first insurance agency and had a general store in town. He owned 34 slaves in 1850 and 19 in 1860. In the 1850s, he moved into Liberty and settled in a home at 316 Franklin St. that is still standing today.

  Smack in the middle of his seven children was his son, John M. Arthur (1826-1923). After he attended University of Missouri, he set out to study medicine in St. Louis. In 1848, he married his first wife, a native of Kentucky, named Ann. F. Young. As part of her dowry, several slaves were gifted to Dr. Arthur – one of these slaves was a young man named Jesse Young. 

  Dr. Arthur was a well-known physician in the area, even serving as the family doctor for the infamous James family. As he settled on 1800 acres northwest of Liberty, he continued to add to his chattel. In 1854, Dr. Arthur bought a young woman around 18 years old from a neighboring planter named Adam Pence. Her name was Margaret Pence, and she caught the attention of Jesse Young. Soon after, they were married and had three children: Dowan, Walter and Susan.

  Dr. Arthur continued to expand his farm, and by 1859, he had a house, barn, blacksmith shop, mill and two slave cabins to hold his ten slaves. Due to Dr. Arthur’s lack of knowledge about farming, his father had given the farm the nickname of “Arthur’s Folly.” 

John Arthur
Dr. John M. Arthur in the Kansas City Kansan newspaper in 1922

Dividing the Young Family

  As the Civil War began, slave owners along the western Missouri border were extremely nervous about their property. Many of the slaves on the border had already taken matters into their own hands and fled. Slaves such as Margaret Pence Young wouldn’t dare run away because of her three young children. She reasoned she was “doomed to a life of toil in the Southern cotton fields.”

 In 1861, it became apparent to slave owners like Dr. Arthur that, in order to save the value of their slaves, they needed to sell them to the traders that supplied the Southern markets. Dr. Arthur told his side of the story to the newspapers, noting, “In 1861, I sold [Margaret] to Jim Adams of Missouri City. When she was taken away, she did not want her children to go with her. She asked me to keep them.”

  Dr. Arthur’s interpretation of the events is quite different than other accounts. What is clear is that her husband, Jesse Young, hanged himself on the Arthur farm for reasons unknown. In turn, Dowan, Walter and Susan were young children left on their own.

  Margaret was forced into Arkansas and then to New Orleans to the most profitable slave market in the South. Advertised in the papers as “Margaret, prime Christian, 26,” she was sold for $1800 to a man named Dr. Walter Mathews and was later moved to Mobile, Ala. She thought of her children every day and wished to know of their fate. The Inter Ocean newspaper in Chicago reported, “She could not read or write, for it had been a crime to teach a slave to read even the Bible.”

  It would be over three decades before she would know the fate of her children.



Families who were enslaved during the Civil War were often ripped apart. Credit Anti-Slavery Almanac, 1840

Jennison’s Jayhawkers

  As soon as the children were old enough, they were put to work in the hemp and corn fields. In the summer of 1864 when Dowan was around ten years old, Jennison’s Jayhawkers were continuing their storming into Missouri. Jennison’s “periodical forays” into Clay Co. included freeing slaves, stealing livestock and burning down homes. 

  On one summer day, Dr. Arthur’s farm was stormed by the Jayhawkers where they “stole six fine horses and five negro boys.” Included in those slaves stolen were Dowan and his brother Walter, leaving their sister Susan behind. The boys were carried to a nearby steamboat landing, and Dr. Arthur and his wife followed quickly behind to try to get their property back. 

  After begging for his property, Dr. Arthur was only able to recover the horses and watched as his valuable slaves were “hustled on a steamboat and taken up to Leavenworth.” Some accounts state the boys saw this as their chance for freedom and didn’t want to return with Dr. Arthur.

  At Fort Leavenworth, the Illinois 138th Infantry was present in order to assist the troubles on the border. Dowan met nineteen-year-old Sergeant Major James E. Strawn and “soon became very useful” to this Illinois regiment. Both Dowan and his brother Walter worked in the homes of these officers and attached to their unit. Confederate Gen. Sterling Price was planning a raid into Missouri, and Sergeant Major Strawn and his unit were sent to assist in St. Louis. The young slaves went with him, and when the unit was mustered out in Springfield, Illinois in Oct. 1864, both were present. 

  Walter went to Oquawka, Illinois with Capt. John M. Wilson. What happened to him afterward is a mystery.

Ottawa Illinois house
The John Manley house in Ottawa, Illinois where Dowan went to work after slavery as a teenager. Image courtesy of Zillow

Dowan and Susan After the War

  Sergeant Major James E. Strawn was from Ottawa, Illinois and returned with Dowan to his hometown after the war ended. He had made a promise to young Dowan to help him one day find his family, but finding the former slave employment was paramount. Dowan was sent to live with the family of prominent hardware dealer John H. Manley (1812-1889) to work as a servant. In 1868, Dowan headed to Chicago where “he always had employment, being a quiet, sober, industrious man.”

  Taught to read and write, Dowan kept in close contact with James Strawn and considered him one of his close friends. He worked for 12 years at a well-known oyster bar inside Burke’s European Hotel and crossed racial barriers in 1883 when he married a 20 year-old white woman from England named Ellen. They had one son, purchased a home in Chicago and lived a quiet life. He worked as a janitor and frequently wrote to James Strawn in hopes one day he could help him find his long-lost family.

  James Strawn kept to his word, and in 1897, he contacted the Kansas City police department in hopes someone would have word about Dowan’s mother and sister. With the help of publication in the Enterprise newspaper, James received word that someone knew the whereabouts of Dowan’s sister, Susan.

  That person was none other than Dr. John M. Arthur who at the time was living in Kansas City, Ks. As he told it, Susan stayed on his farm and moved with him to Kansas City, Ks. for a time and was now living in Kansas City, Mo. He even knew the street where she lived.

  When reporters showed up to talk to Susan, she was elated to find out her brother had sought to find her but told a very different story of her fate than Dr. Arthur’s. Left with no family at eight years-old, Susan said she was kept as a slave near the levee. Pointing to her head, the 41-year-old woman showed several marks that she claimed were made from “sticks of wood and an iron poker.” She continued, “Dey beat me and cuffed me aroun’ and ah got no schoolin.’” 

  After a woman nearby took her in, Susan was somewhat free from Dr. Arthur since he didn’t seek to find her. She later worked in the Quality Hill neighborhood for several families, married, and had two daughters.


Finding Their Long-Lost Mother

  Margaret Young had little hope in finding her children, although she always prayed for them and hoped for a happy ending. After she was sold, she remained in New Orleans for two years and eventually settled in Mobile, Ala. after the Civil War. She remarried and had more children. 

  Working as a washwoman, she toiled just like so many colored women of time in the South to make her own way. A family who occasionally employed her saw an advertisement in the newspaper in Mobile and thought the woman met Margaret’s description.

  The newspaper advertisement had been placed by Sergeant Major James E. Strawn on behalf of his old friend, Dowan. He had promised to find his mother, and the roads in Kansas City lead to Mobile due to the testimony of Dr. Arthur’s knowledge of what happened to his former slaves.

  It’s hard to believe that these slave owners kept abreast of their former slaves, but part of the reason may be due to the fact they were the key to the knowledge that freedmen needed to connect their families. Staying connected to their former masters could lead to an eventual reunion.

  After Margaret Young was alerted that her son was looking for her, she worked to get as quickly as possible to see him in person. 

  Financed by the old soldier who met Dowan in Leavenworth, she boarded a train in Mobile to finally see her son Christmas Day in 1897.

Inter Ocean newspaper
Newspaper headline in the Inter Ocean newspaper from 1897

Reunification Thirty-Three Years Later

 She carried with her a small bundle of magnolias- a symbol of the South- a symbol also of the area where she had suffered so much but still felt love.

  After the mother and son met on that remarkable Christmas Day, they couldn’t stop holding hands and tried with all their might to make up for lost time. Thirty-three years had passed, but the love between mother and son was clear. Dowan hadn’t seen his mother since he was around eight years old, yet he needed her then just as much as he needed her as a child. 

  Between tears, Dowan told Margaret, “And how we cried, Mother, when they took you away.”

  Mother and son were reunited under the most unbelievable circumstances, and their story exposed the triumphs conquered after the Civil War. A story that started in Clay Co. was on the national stage, but the reunion was truly a remarkable one. Most weren’t as lucky as this family to have many answers after separation pushed them across many states.

The Lesson Learned 

 The story of Dowan, his mother and his sister does breathe the cruelties of slavery. A soldier who helped carry a young slave away on his saddle later showed humility when he worked to reunite one small family back together across three states. 

  Dr. John M. Arthur was a physician, farmer, banker and later a minister who rectified owning slaves due to his background yet the accounts of Susan Young suggest that the way in which he treated his chattel was cruel and indecent. He chased after his property when the Jayhawkers stole it from him, and he settled by taking away his horses and leaving the humans behind.

  The institution of slavery is more than complicated to research and is even harder to understand today. Believe it or not, most slaves never got the opportunity to have this chance of reunification. Dowan was simply a slave on a plantation in Clay Co. who lost his father and mother; he was carried away by the enemy of the South and made the best of his life in the North. With the support of a young soldier, Dowan Young was able to be placed in a situation that gave him education unlike his sister and build roads of opportunity that weren’t available to most.

  In Clay Co. near Liberty, Mo., a family was torn apart by the depredations of slavery. These people in this story aren’t national heroes or written in history books, but their story is imperative to understanding that the institution of slavery divided a nation. It is an example of one of the happier outcomes of a period of time which separated human beings from family, friends and the comforts of what they knew. It tells us that the way that history is told is not always pleasant.

  People always make up our history, and the rare accounts of former slaves humanize an institution that put our country at war within its own boundaries.

Diane writes a blog about the history of the area. To read more of the stories, go to


Leave a Reply