Excerpt from: Stories of Crimes, Trials and Appeals in
Civil War Era Missouri
Frank O. Bowman, III
James S. Rollins was born in Kentucky in 1812, and educated in
Kentucky, Pennsylvania, and Indiana. He not only “read law” under a
prominent practitioner, but somewhat unusually for the time, also graduated
from a law school.20 He entered practice in Columbia, Missouri, in 1834, was
elected to the state legislature as a representative in 1838 and 1840, and
served as state senator from 1846 to 1850. 21 He was the (unsuccessful) Whig
candidate for governor in 1848, and the leading (though again unsuccessful)
Whig candidate for U.S. Senate in the same period.22 By the time of Hiram’s
arrest in 1853, Rollins had also been a newspaper owner and editor, real estate
speculator, and railroad booster.23 In 1854, Rollins was again elected state
representative, and in 1857 he lost the race for Missouri governor by only 230
votes.24 Although a significant slave owner himself,25 Rollins opposed
extension of slavery to the territories26 (by no means a popular view in antebellum central Missouri), and as the threat of southern secession loomed
in 1860, Rollins placed himself firmly in the unionist camp.27
The tension between Rollins’ economic interests as a wealthy owner of
real and human property and his allegiance to the federal Union was a
microcosm of the stresses tearing at Missouri generally and Boone County in
particular in the late 1850s. Missouri was the only slave state north of the
Mason–Dixon line and west of the Mississippi. Boone County, situated
roughly thirty miles north of the state capital of Jefferson City and in the
agricultural zone created by the flow of the Missouri River across the state
from Kansas City to its junction with the Mississippi at St. Louis, was a part
of “Little Dixie,” so-called because it was settled primarily by immigrants
from the slave south who brought with them their peculiar institution and the
peculiar culture built around it.28 By 1860, Boone County had the third-
largest number of slaves among the state’s 114 counties, with 5,034.29 On the
other hand, Columbia, the Boone County seat, being close to the capital and
home to the state university, was a relatively cosmopolitan place for the time
and its leading citizens were not unaware that the state’s economic future was
tied just as closely to the urbanizing and industrializing northern states as to
the slave south. When the secession crisis broke in 1861, the governor,
Claiborne Fox Jackson, and the state legislature tried to take Missouri into the
Confederacy. After a series of pitched battles between pro-Union and pro-
Confederate citizen armies, the secessionist governor and legislators were run
out of the state and Missouri’s allegiance to the Union was precariously
In 1860, Rollins, a unionist Whig, was elected to the first of two terms in
the U.S. House of Representatives, serving from 1861 to 1864.31 After the
Civil War, he returned to civic activism and state politics, securing election to
the Missouri state senate in 1868.32 While there, he was instrumental in
ensuring that the University of Missouri, which opened in 1841 but had fallen
on hard times during the war,33 would remain in Columbia.34 As a result,
Rollins is known as the “Father of the University of Missouri.”35 Throughout
his long, successful, and lucrative career,36 Rollins continued to practice law
in both criminal and civil matters, though he was known to fret that the
routine of law practice did not give adequate scope to a man with broad
interests and ambitions.37
20. Rollins attended Washington College, Pennsylvania, for three years, transferred to and
graduated from Indiana University in Bloomington, Indiana, in 1830, read law for two years with a
practitioner, and then attended and graduated from Transylvania Law School in Lexington,
Kentucky, in 1834. Id. at 934.
21. GENTRY, supra note 1, at 51, 53.
22. SWITZLER, supra note 1, at 935. At the time, U.S. Senators were selected by the state
legislature and not by popular vote. See Senators—United States, ch. 147, § 1, Mo. Rev. Stat. 1460
(1856), available at http://books.google.com/books?id=MTETltYSr-EC&dq=Revised+Statutes+
of+the+State+of+Missouri+1835&source=gbs_navlinks_s. Rollins’ candidacy for the Senate
occurred within the legislature and indicated his stature in the legislative wing of the Whig party.
23. SWITZLER, supra note 1, at 934; 2 WALTER B. STEVENS, CENTENNIAL HISTORY OF
MISSOURI (THE CENTER STATE): ONE HUNDRED YEARS IN THE UNION 1820–1921, at 801 (1921).
24. SWITZLER, supra note 1, at 935; WILLIAM BENJAMIN SMITH, JAMES SIDNEY ROLLINS 28
(New York, DeVinne Press 1891). Another source puts the margin of defeat at 334 votes. The Late
Elections in Missouri, N.Y. TIMES, Sept. 10, 1857, at 4.
25. SWITZLER, supra note 1, at 936–37. One source maintains that Rollins held thirty-four
slaves at his home in Columbia in 1860. Missouri’s Little Dixie,
http://littledixie.net/Slave%20Housing.htm (last visited June 7, 2010). Another claims he was one of
the largest slave owners in the entire state. 2 STEVENS, supra note 23, at 704.
26. SWITZLER, supra note 1, at 935. Rollins’ views on slavery were convoluted. He owned
slaves, but seems to have viewed the institution as an evil. He opposed the extension of slavery to the territories as a matter of policy, id., but appears to have supported the “popular sovereignty”
approach of allowing the citizens of each prospective state to choose whether slavery should be
permitted, id. at 381 (recounting the events of an 1855 public meeting in Boone County called to
debate the events in Kansas, in which Rollins supported resolutions endorsing the popular
sovereignty approach of the Kansas–Nebraska Act and opposed resolutions that, in effect, supported
extension of slavery into the territories regardless of the views of the inhabitants). A possible
indicator of Rollins’ personal views on slavery is an 1860 letter to William F. Switzler in Rollins’
papers, and apparently in his hand, noting that the author is “opposed to all kinds of human
merchandise” and observing that the Founders viewed slavery as a “cankerous ulcer, baleful to the
body politic where ever it existed,” but implicitly defending the constitutional right of states to adopt
or reject slavery within their own boundaries. Western Historical Manuscripts Collection, University
of Missouri, Collection No. C1026, file 191 (on file with author).
27. SWITZLER, supra note 1, at 935.
28. T. J. STILES, JESSE JAMES: LAST REBEL OF THE CIVIL WAR 10–11 (2002).
29. Slaves in Missouri in 1860, HOWARD COUNTY ADVERTISER, Jan. 9, 1903, available at
http://www.usgennet.org/usa/mo/topic/afro-amer/slavesinmo.html. Howard County, which adjoins
Boone to the west along the Missouri River, had the second-largest slave population in 1860, with
30. This two-sentence summary of the events in Missouri at the outset of the Civil War is a
tremendous oversimplification of a complex history. For the full story, see 3 WILLIAM E. PARRISH,
A HISTORY OF MISSOURI 1–86 (1973).
31. SWITZLER, supra note 1, at 935, 937.
32. Id. at 937; see also GENTRY, supra note 1, at 53.
33. See JAMES OLSON & VERA OLSON, THE UNIVERSITY OF MISSOURI: AN ILLUSTRATED
HISTORY 6–7 (1988).
34. SWITZLER, supra note 1, at 937.
35. OLSON & OLSON, supra note 33, at 3 (describing Rollins’ contributions to the rescue of the
university and noting that in 1872, the board of curators of the university recognized him formally as
“Pater Universitatis Missouriensis”).
36. In 1858, Rollins had the second highest tax bill in Boone County, second only to Eli Bass.
By 1881, Rollins was the largest taxpayer in the county. SWITZLER, supra note 1, at 392.
37. “Major Rollins, of Boone County, was a member of the bar, but, like [Thomas Hart]
Benton, preferred political to a professional life . . . .” John W. Henry, Personal Recollections, in
THE HISTORY OF THE BENCH AND BAR OF MISSOURI 388 (A.J.D. Stewart ed., St. Louis, The Legal
Publishing Co. 1898) [hereinafter BENCH AND BAR OF MISSOURI].