Iowa Roots, Global Impact: The Life and Legacy of George Washington Carver

Beginnings

“As nearly as I can trace my history…
…I was about two weeks old when the war closed…”
-George Washington Carver

Foundation marking original site of Mary Carver's cabin...

The image shows the foundation of the slave cabin George’s family lived in until they were accepted into the main house. Photo courtesy of George Washington Carver National Monument.

Even with Carver’s own words; no one knows exactly what year Carver was born. The quote suggests he was born in 1865, though according to census information from 1870 he was born in 1860. Even other stories Carver told placed his birthdate in a different year. Unfortunetly with the choas typical to post war Missouri there are no records to confirm one date as accurate.

What is known about Carver, is that he was born to a slave girl named Mary. Her owners were farmers in southwest Missouri; Moses and Susan Carver. This is where the story of George Washington Carver begins. His early years brought him from slavery, to be raised as a son by his former owners and pursue his education through numerous travels.

Childhood

Moses Carver, circa 1895

Moses Carver 1895 Owner of Mary. Photo Courtesy of George Washington Carver National Monument.

Carver’s mother was named Mary; a slave girl bought by the Carvers at age 13 in 1855. Though Moses Carver was said to be against slavery, he bought Mary in order to help his wife Susan with the housework. A copy of her official bill of sale can be found here. This type of arrangement was typical of the time period in Missouri. Farmers would generally own one or two slaves and their children. There is a dispute over who Carver’s father actually was. The two most common theories are that his father was an African American man who was killed shortly after his birth. Another common theory is that his father was actually his mother’s owner, Moses Carver.

Mary had two sons; Jim and George. She may have also had two or three daughters but they died young. The story that Carver was told, and he repeated throughout his life, was when he was six weeks old, his mother Mary and young George were kidnapped by a guerilla group and brought to Arkansas. Moses Carver sent a Union soldier after them, but he was only able to return George. No one knows for sure what happened to Mary. Kidnappings of enslaved individuals were common during the civil war and the years that followed.

For more information about Post War Missouri Click Here

Fact: George Washington Carver was not freed by the emancipation proclamation, but by the Missouri state constitution.

George Carver, on left, with his brother, Jim, circa 1870's

George and Older Brother Jun 1870s. Photo courtesy of George Washington National Monument.

However, it was also common practice for slaves to run away. Late and post-war Missouri was chaotic. Many slaves decided to use this chaos as a distraction to run. It is possible that this is what happened to Mary. There is no way to know which story, if either, are correct.

After Mary was gone, Jim and George moved into the main house. Slavery was outlawed in 1865 by the Missouri constitution, but they continued to live with their former masters anyway. They were raised as Moses’ and Susan’s sons which was not an uncommon practice in Southwest Missouri. As a freed man his name changed from “Carver’s George” to “George Carver.” Jim was older and healthy whereas George was a sickly child. He was expected to help, but was kept from heavier work. Therefore he had more free time in his youth than others of his age and time, which allowed him more time for education.

Education

Carver, circa 1870's

Carver, circa 1870’s. Photo courtesy of George Washington Carver National Monument.

Carver’s interest and love of plants started young. As he was a sickly child he was not able to help farm as much as other children were expected to and was therefore allowed more free time. He used this time to explore and draw the plants around him. He became known as the “plant doctor” among his neighbors. He would often be asked for help in nursing a plant back to health because of his skill.

Fact: As an adult Carver’s always wore a flower in his lapel because of his love of plants.

Mariah Watkins, circa 1870's

Most of Carver’s early education started within the Carver’s household. Since he could not help on the farm he helped Susan. Here he learned to sew, cook and knit. He was unable to attend the local school because of his race, but the Carver’s hired a private tutor to teach him at home.

However, it soon became apparent that he had surpased the tutor in knowledge. With no school for him to attend nearby he left the Carver’s home in 1877 for the nearest black school in Neosho. He was taken in by Andrew and Mariah Watkins, and lived with them while attending the school. He stayed at the grade school for only one year before continuing his travels.

Travels

Fort Scott, Kansas, 1886

Picture of Fort Scott Kansas 1886. Photo courtesy of Fort Scott National Historic Site.

Reconstruction in Missouri ended in 1877. At this time it was common for African Americans to move to Kansas due to increased conflict in Missouri.

He left for Fort Scot Kansas in 1878. While there he attended the local school and worked for a blacksmith to supprt himself. He left a year later after witnessing a lynching. No one knows exactly what happened to him during the lynching, but he spent the next decade wandering through Kansas and Missouri. It wasn’t until 1888 that he stayed in one place for a prolonged period of time.

Minneapolis, Kansas, circa 1900

Minneapolis, Kansas 1900. Photo courtesy of George Washington Carver National Monument.

Carver arrived in Minneapolis, Kansas in 1880 where he attended a mostly white high school. He later told people that it was here that he completed his schooling, though there is no proof that he actually graduated. He returned to Missouri in 1885, but shortly left again for Beelerville, Kansas.

Beelerville, Kansas, circa 1885

Beelerville, Kansas, circa 1885. Photo courtesy of Ness County Historical Society.

Carver arrived in Beelerville in 1886. He set up his first homestead in this town. It was from here that he applied to his first college, but was declined based on his race.

Arcade Hotel in Winterset, Iowa, circa 1900

Arcade Hotel in Winterset, Iowa, circa 1900. Photo Courtesy of Madison County Historical Society.

Carver arrived in Winterset, Iowa in 1888/89. Winterset was the first place he spent a great deal of time since he had seen the lynch mob. He opened a laundry business to support himself. It worked well since the materials to start a business like that could be obtained cheaply and quickly earned their worth. It was here that he met Helen Millholland who convinced him to again apply to college in Indianola. He was accepted and so started his college career.