Kristen Epps's Slavery on the Periphery considers the institution of slavery along the Missouri-Kansas border from the creation of Missouri's "Little Dixie" in the 1820s to the end of the Civil War. Epps focuses on what she calls the "social geography of labor" along the Missouri-Kansas border (3), noting that "slave mobility was a key factor in shaping the contours" of the life of the enslaved in the area (2). She not only contends that slavery was a going concern in the Show-Me State, but she also reminds us that slaves were present in Kansas until it entered the Union as a free state in 1861.
Epps breaks new ground by considering the Kansas-Missouri region as a single unit. She shows that there were "overlapping boundaries" of kinship, business, and politics that crossed the Missouri-Kansas border again and again (46). Epps believes that her novel approach "helps us better understand the high stakes of the sectional conflict" (5). It also helps to account for the interconnections of violence during the "Bloody Kansas" struggle in the mid-1850s and the guerrilla warfare of the early 1860s. As census data [End Page 322] indicate that slaves composed only about 16 percent of the population in the Missouri border counties in 1850, and just 2 percent of the population of the Kansas Territory in 1855, the political issue of slavery often loomed larger than did the social or economic impact of the enslaved. While the slave system in the Missouri-Kansas border "remained small in terms of numbers," Epps argues that it had outsized importance locally, regionally, and nationally (7).
Epps takes pains to put enslaved people in the center of her narrative. She does not just want to write about the political issue of slavery (and slavery expansion); she wants to capture the experiences and perspectives of the enslaved themselves. Epps aspires not only to "partially re-create the day-to-day lives of enslaved people," but also, when possible, to bring their "thoughts, feelings, and worldviews" to light (6). Because of the paucity of sources, especially those left by the enslaved, she had to resort to comparative history, reading white-authored documents against the grain to recover African American views, and other microhistory techniques. She has largely succeeded in recovering the experiences of the enslaved. Epps's success is a testimony to her skill as a historian and her doggedness as a researcher.
Epps is less successful in her efforts to locate Missouri-Kansas slavery in the West rather than the Border South. She contends that recent historical work on "borderlands" regions helps to make sense of the struggles of slaves in this harsh region (4). However, most if not all of the evidence Epps adduces for "Western slavery" demonstrates that slavery along the Missouri-Kansas border was unmistakably part of the Upper South variety (8). Her own evidence—including the experiences and origins of slaves and masters there, the crops they cultivated, and the reliance on the family farm rather than the plantation as the "predominant agricultural unit"—shows that slavery along the Missouri-Kansas border was really part of the Upper South (25). Indeed, on at least one occasion, Epps herself classifies Missouri as being part of the Upper South.
While Epps's treatment of the Missouri-Kansas border as one unit pays real dividends in her analysis of the territorial conflict, it falls short on the conflict between the Missouri Bushwhackers and the Kansas Jayhawkers. Epps shows how African Americans did their best to navigate the challenges of daily life in a region where law and order broke down and the promise of freedom was often fleeting. Contrabands exerted enormous pressure not just on Union military commanders to consider emancipatory measures but also on Missouri masters and slaves. In the end, slaves along the Missouri-Kansas border took advantage of the violence and disorder to flee the region and often slavery itself. From 1860 to 1870...