Slavery's Borderland: Freedom and Bondage Along the Ohio River (Early American Studies)

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9780812245219: Slavery's Borderland: Freedom and Bondage Along the Ohio River (Early American Studies)

In 1787, the Northwest Ordinance made the Ohio River the dividing line between slavery and freedom in the West, yet in 1861, when the Civil War tore the nation apart, the region failed to split at this seam. In Slavery's Borderland, historian Matthew Salafia shows how the river was both a physical boundary and a unifying economic and cultural force that muddied the distinction between southern and northern forms of labor and politics.

Countering the tendency to emphasize differences between slave and free states, Salafia argues that these systems of labor were not so much separated by a river as much as they evolved along a continuum shaped by life along a river. In this borderland region, where both free and enslaved residents regularly crossed the physical divide between Ohio, Indiana, and Kentucky, slavery and free labor shared as many similarities as differences. As the conflict between North and South intensified, regional commonality transcended political differences. Enslaved and free African Americans came to reject the legitimacy of the river border even as they were unable to escape its influence. In contrast, the majority of white residents on both sides remained firmly committed to maintaining the river border because they believed it best protected their freedom. Thus, when war broke out, Kentucky did not secede with the Confederacy; rather, the river became the seam that held the region together.

By focusing on the Ohio River as an artery of commerce and movement, Salafia draws the northern and southern banks of the river into the same narrative and sheds light on constructions of labor, economy, and race on the eve of the Civil War.

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About the Author:

Matthew Salafia is coordinator of the University Honors Program and teaches at North Dakota State University.

Excerpt. Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:

Introduction
Listening to the River

In Uncle Tom's Cabin, Eliza Harris clasped her child as she darted toward the river's edge. Then "with one wild cry and flying leap, she vaulted sheer over the turbid current by the shore on to the raft of ice beyond . . . she leaped to another and another; stumbling, leaping, slipping, springing upwards again. . . . She saw nothing, felt nothing, till dimly, as in a dream, she saw the Ohio side, and a man helping her up the bank." Eliza risking her life to cross the Ohio River personified the sentiment "liberty or death." On the southern bank slave catchers tried to pull Eliza back to slavery; on the northern bank someone helped her toward freedom. However, without the ice sheets the Ohio River would have been impassable. Eliza leaped across a solid, albeit unstable, divide between slavery and freedom.

Yet Harriet Beecher Stowe's border was fleeting because Eliza leaped across chunks of ice that disappeared from under her feet. Indeed outside of fiction the Ohio River remained an unstable divide between slavery and freedom throughout the antebellum period. In 1787 the Northwest Ordinance made the Ohio River the dividing line between slavery and freedom in the West; yet when the Civil War broke the country in two in 1861, this region failed to split at this seam. This book traces the history of the Ohio River borderland from its natural and human origins, through its political definition in the early republic, to maturation during the antebellum period, and to its surprising resilience during the sectional crisis. As residents on both sides of the river struggled to accommodate it as at once a dividing line and a unifying economic force, they defined this borderland by its inherent contradictions. Rather than marking a line that slavery could not penetrate, the Ohio River muddied distinctions, and residents used that ambiguity to try to hold the region together even against the threat of civil war.

* * *
The Ohio River Valley was a peculiar place in antebellum America. North of the Ohio River, southern migration and economic connections with the southern economy gave the region a southern bent, and cultural historians often put the cultural division between North and South somewhere north of the Ohio River. Historians of slavery have demonstrated that slavery at the top of the South was different from that of the Deep South. As a result white Kentuckians' lukewarm commitment to the institution became a source of conflict with their more southerly neighbors. In 1861 as northerners and southerners alike geared for war, Kentuckians refused to secede and actually declared their neutrality. In this book these stories are brought together to demonstrate that while the lower North was uniquely southern and the upper South was uniquely northern, the result was a region defined by its blend of influences.

So that the peculiarities of this region can be understood, this study historicizes the border itself. Placing the areas north and south along the river at the center of the interpretation contributes to a new history of the Ohio River Valley that looks for regional coherence across state borders. Historians, political scientists, and cultural and literary critics have argued that where geographical borders fail to contain and define human interactions, residents create a unique third country in between called borderlands. Out of their interactions, residents of these borderlands create regions defined by their hybridity. Studies have demonstrated that borderlands are complicated zones of cultural and physical confrontation and accommodation where interactions shape policies. When national leaders made the Ohio River the boundary between slavery and freedom, they reshaped residents' movements and interactions in the region. The movements encouraged by this river border informed local residents' understanding of the region and their place in it. Movement was normative in the Ohio River Valley, and as a result it was a place where dichotomies could not apply; instead residents defined the region as a borderland.

In most historical treatments, the rise of the new American nation was the beginning of the end for the Ohio River Valley borderland. But historians base this argument on a historically specific definition that ties the borderland to the colonial period. By this definition, borderlands were "the contested boundaries between colonial domains," and the creation of nationally recognized state borders turned borderlands into "bordered lands." In the case of the Ohio River Valley, however, this definition overstates the ability of borders to divide. Americans on both sides of the Ohio River shared common social and cultural backgrounds, and yet a border divided them. Residents and settlers had to accommodate that division, and in so doing they created social and cultural differences between free and slave states. But the reality was that the interaction between the flow of the river and residents' attempts to define it as a border made the geographical divide between slavery and freedom an abstraction that was both decisive and elusive.

I have tried to follow the contours of residents' mental mapping of the region. I have not made the history of this region fit my model of a borderland; quite to the contrary, this region was a borderland because residents defined it that way. When first created in 1787, the northern and southern limits of this borderland extended into the interiors of the states. Over the course of the antebellum period, economic and social changes shrank the borderland to the counties that bordered the Ohio River, because those who lived along the river continued to define themselves by their relationship to this border. While they may not have seen themselves as very different in 1800, by 1861 Ohioans and Indianans believed that they were quite different from their slaveholding neighbors in Kentucky. If they imagined themselves as different from one another, borderlanders also defined their region as unique from the rest of the country. By the 1850s sectional conflict pushed northerners and southerners apart, but residents of the Ohio River borderland denounced sectionalism on both sides and emphasized their own ability to coexist across a divisive border. This was not a region without conflict, but residents never gave up on the idea of living half slave and half free. It was a place where confrontation coexisted with accommodation, and where disunity highlighted similarities. This simultaneous existence of contradictory impulses characterized the Ohio River borderland.

In this study I have limited my definition of the Ohio River borderland to areas of Kentucky, Indiana, and Ohio. While there are comparisons to the border between Pennsylvania and Maryland where appropriate, this is not a study of the entire border between slave and free states in America. The Mason-Dixon Line surely shared some characteristics with the Ohio River border, but just as certainly they were not identical. Perhaps most important, Ohio, Indiana, and Kentucky were divided by a river rather than a line of latitude. The fact that these states shared access to the Ohio River and with it a lane of commerce that connected the region with markets as far south as New Orleans made residents more likely, and perhaps more willing, to foster harmonious relations with their neighbors across the slave/free border. Illinois is also absent from this study, but not because Illinois did not share similar characteristics with its free-state neighbors. Much excellent work has been done on Illinois's history with slavery, while less has been done linking the stories of Ohio and Indiana with those of its slaveholding neighbor.

Interpreting this region as a borderland helps explain peculiarities about the lower North and the upper South by drawing them into the same narrative. First, this book explains why and how the Ohio River, an artery of trade, became the dividing line between slavery and freedom in the early American West. The natural history of the Ohio River made it a meeting place for the people who settled the Ohio Valley. The river defined hunting grounds for Ohio Indians, marked one edge of the French and English empires, and became the border between the American backcountry and Indian territory, all before it became the legal boundary between slavery and freedom in the United States. When members of Congress approved article 6 of the Northwest Ordinance, which banned slavery north of the Ohio River, they wrote a new definition onto an old border and left it up to local residents to interpret the meaning of that border.

As white Americans moved into the region, slaveholding Kentucky became a place where emancipation seemed possible, and the Northwest Territory, the first region with free-soil origins, had a disguised form of slavery. The role of the Ohio River border in the settlement process sheds light on this apparent contradiction as well. Some settlers heading west hoped to make Kentucky a model of America's antislavery future. But Virginia's land claims extended north to the Ohio River, and so Kentucky was under the jurisdiction of Virginia. Settlers capitalized on enslaved labor to break the land and set up their homesteads. The enslaved population grew so rapidly that gradual compensated emancipation became impossible and immediate emancipation threatened social disruption. In addition the Ohio River border was a safety valve, because those who were disappointed with their opportunities in Kentucky moved across the river. The migration of white settlers across the river, in turn, both gave them access to bound labor and led them to reject chattel slavery. By making careful distinctions between servitude and slavery northern residents defined the Ohio River as the northern limit of the chattel principle, but they retained a system of bound labor.

In the antebellum period, slavery expanded in Kentucky while the bound labor system in Ohio and Indiana rapidly disintegrated, but the region's peculiarity remained. The perceived "mildness" of slavery in Kentucky and the virulence of racism in Ohio and Indiana set these states apart from their respective regions. However, these peculiarities were closely related to the Ohio River border. The relatively small number of slaves in Kentucky led to assumptions that slavery there was weaker and milder than plantation slavery farther south. The ostensible "mildness" of Kentucky slavery carried over into historical perspectives. The turn in the historiography of slavery, beginning with Kenneth Stampp's Peculiar Institution in 1956, destroyed the image of slavery as a benevolent institution. Yet in their effort to capture the brutal essence of slavery, historians focused primarily on Deep South plantations, while the issue of "mildness" continued to plague historians of Kentucky. Marion B. Lucas uncovered the unique social configuration of slavery in Kentucky, including small slaveholdings and the prevalence of slave-hiring. The very uniqueness of slavery in Kentucky led Lucas to conclude that slavery in Kentucky was not mild. Lucas argued, "Slavery in Kentucky may not have been, typically, as harsh as in the Deep South states. Yet the examples of abuse in the Commonwealth doom the system to condemnation, demonstrating what an awful thing slavery was."

Rather than letting the mildness debate frame the argument, this study places the lived experience of slavery in a borderland context, demonstrating the role of location, power, and politics in the institution of slavery. In this case the peripheral location of slavery and its close ties with free labor in the region gave the institution vitality and strength despite the modest numbers of enslaved African Americans. Following Ira Berlin's lead, historians have demonstrated that the conditions of slavery in the upper South differed from those in the cotton plantations of the Deep South. More recently historians have pointed to the ways in which the proximity of slavery influenced the laboring lives of free African Americans, particularly in Maryland. Following in this tradition but extending it across state lines, this project demonstrates that the borderland context created a unique labor system for both free and enslaved African Americans on both sides of the Ohio River.

Slavery along the Ohio River was unique, not only because it was at the top of the South but also because the Ohio River economy linked borderland slavery with borderland free labor. African Americans' ability to cross the border as runaways and travel along the river as workers highlighted the similarity between bound labor and wage labor along the river. In fact, one of the stunning anomalies of the Ohio River Valley was the similarity between the work regime of racial slavery and that of wage labor on the borderland. In reality, in antebellum America, African Americans could be capital, labor power, and laborers, and the Ohio River brought them all into juxtaposition. Enslaved and free African Americans experienced characteristics representative of both slavery and freedom, as along the Ohio River wage labor and chattel slavery became points on a capitalist continuum rather than mutually exclusive categories for African Americans.

The mobility inherent in this borderland labor system contributed to the persistence of virulent racism in Indiana and Ohio. Historians have argued that white racism in the old Northwest was a legacy of migration by upland southerners. But while origin can explain the initial racism of white settlers, it fails to account for the persistence of white racism throughout the antebellum period. White Indianans and Ohioans put their racism on display because it served a specific social and political function along the border. White residents of the borderland learned that the border between slavery and freedom was nearly impossible to police, whereas racial boundaries were easier to enforce. Thus politicians legislated, and residents enforced, racial boundaries to mask the similarities between free and slave states.

This obfuscation of the geographical division between free and slave states for African Americans lent stability to the region because the link between race and status followed African Americans across the Ohio River border. For example, enslaved blacks viewed the region as a borderland where racial barriers to freedom and the similarity between work regimes on both sides of the river served as reasons not to risk an escape attempt. Beyond simple opportunity, fugitive slaves from Kentucky recalled that they determined the desirability of escape through a reasoned evaluation of how a potential change affected their lives. The very factors that prompted former slaves to escape also allowed them to endure their bondage. In this way white Americans' subversion of the freedoms of African Americans limited the conflict between white neighbors across the border.

The link between race and the division between slavery and freedom helps explain the final, and perhaps most vexing, peculiarity of the borderland: Kentucky's failure to join the Confederacy. Despite the fact that the Ohio River divided slave and free territories, when hostilities erupted in 1861, the region failed to split at its seam. The nature of antis...

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Book Description University of Pennsylvania Press, United States, 2013. Hardback. Book Condition: New. Language: English . Brand New Book. In 1787, the Northwest Ordinance made the Ohio River the dividing line between slavery and freedom in the West, yet in 1861, when the Civil War tore the nation apart, the region failed to split at this seam. In Slavery s Borderland, historian Matthew Salafia shows how the river was both a physical boundary and a unifying economic and cultural force that muddied the distinction between southern and northern forms of labor and politics. Countering the tendency to emphasize differences between slave and free states, Salafia argues that these systems of labor were not so much separated by a river as much as they evolved along a continuum shaped by life along a river. In this borderland region, where both free and enslaved residents regularly crossed the physical divide between Ohio, Indiana, and Kentucky, slavery and free labor shared as many similarities as differences. As the conflict between North and South intensified, regional commonality transcended political differences. Enslaved and free African Americans came to reject the legitimacy of the river border even as they were unable to escape its influence. In contrast, the majority of white residents on both sides remained firmly committed to maintaining the river border because they believed it best protected their freedom. Thus, when war broke out, Kentucky did not secede with the Confederacy; rather, the river became the seam that held the region together. By focusing on the Ohio River as an artery of commerce and movement, Salafia draws the northern and southern banks of the river into the same narrative and sheds light on constructions of labor, economy, and race on the eve of the Civil War. Bookseller Inventory # AAJ9780812245219

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