In the two decades since Peter Onuf and Andrew Cayton revived scholarly study of the Ohio Valley, historians have produced an abundance of work that treats the Ohio River and Valley as region, border, and borderland. Matthew Salafia’s Slavery’s Borderland: Freedom and Bondage Along the Ohio River makes a significant contribution to that body of literature.
Historians who study the Ohio River and Valley have tended to fall into two camps. One group treats the Ohio River as a real and substantive border—a bordered land—and focuses on the significant differences that divided the slave societies south of the river from the free societies that emerged north of the river. Another group of historians tends to downplay the significance of the Ohio River border between slavery and freedom, instead focusing on the commonalities that made the Ohio Valley a distinct region and borderland. Slavery’s Borderland bridges this divide, treating the Ohio River as a “solid, albeit unstable, divide” while offering a nuanced focus on the ambiguities and contradictions, conflicts and accommodations, that both made the Ohio Valley a borderland region while still defining the Ohio River as a border between free and slave territory (p.1).
Throughout Slavery’s Borderland, Salafia ranges widely but effectively between social and political history, and between the divisions that have marked scholarship on the Ohio Valley. The introduction offers a smart, sophisticated analysis of the literature on borderlands; the Ohio Valley as borderland region and the Ohio River as border; political and social history; the continuum between slavery, servitude, and free labor; the constructed meanings and practices of race and slavery; and the politics of slavery, sectionalism, and Union. Salafia deftly integrates these various approaches to history throughout the book, and the introduction’s sophisticated historiographical analysis and quarrels carry on through the chapters and endnotes. The eight [End Page 296] chapters at the core of the monograph begin with the colonial history of the Ohio Valley, passage and implementation of the Northwest Ordinance of 1787 and its article six exclusion of slavery, and initial efforts to accommodate the long-standing systems of slavery and servitude that had existed and were growing on both sides of the river in the 1780s. From there, Salafia moves forward in chapters that are organized by both topic and chronology. Early chapters examine how whites and blacks constructed a borderland where systems of free and enslaved labor ranged between slavery, servitude, and free labor. Later chapters examine how whites and blacks shaped and responded to rapid economic changes, free and enslaved blacks’ understanding of the Ohio Valley as a borderland marked by a host of racial barriers, and white efforts to position the region between the growing proslavery and antislavery movements in the late antebellum period. As the politics of slavery and sectionalism racked much of the nation from the 1840s onward, politicians and voters in the border regions of Kentucky, Ohio, and Indiana remained uniquely committed to sectional accommodation and Union, even as disunion and Civil War sharpened regional conflicts over slavery. The concluding chapter analyzes how decades of accommodation between whites on both sides of the river meant that disunion and Civil War would prove unable to “split the Ohio River borderland at the seam” (p. 215).
Importantly, Salafia historicizes the border and borderland, paying careful attention to the changes and continuities that gave meaning and substance to the shifting practices of race, slavery, and freedom; free and unfree labor; slavery and servitude. Equally important, Salafia does not focus merely on what whites thought and did about race and slavery. Instead, due attention is given to the differing systems of slavery and servitude that developed in Kentucky, Ohio, and Indiana, along with the efforts of free and enslaved blacks to define the meanings of slavery and freedom, to gain greater freedoms within slavery, to gain freedom from slavery, and to navigate the thicket of discriminatory laws and customs that stood as a barrier to freedom and equality. [End Page...