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Slavery's Borderland

Freedom and Bondage Along the Ohio River

By Matthew Salafia

Publication Year: 2013

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.

Published by: University of Pennsylvania Press

Series: Early American Studies


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Introduction: Listening to the River

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pp. 1-14

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." ...

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Chapter 1 Origins of the Border between Slavery and Freedom

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pp. 15-42

The Ohio River has two intertwined histories: one that follows the twists and turns of the river’s natural course and one that crosses the river’s flow. The Ohio River is a conduit of energy, propelling life downstream as the flowing water seeks the most efficient and uniform expenditure of energy. This river constantly adjusts, compensating for events that affect it. In this...

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Chapter 2 Crossing the Line

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pp. 43-69

In 1787 the Ohio River Valley was a region contained by fluid borders. The Mississippi River marked the border between the United States and the Spanish Territory, and within the United States the Ohio River divided slaveholding Virginia from the nominally free Northwest Territory. By 1818 the Louisiana Purchase had erased the Mississippi River border, but along...

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Chapter 3 Slaveholding Liberators

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pp. 70-107

In 1801 Thomas Worthington traveled to the national capital, accompanied by his lawyer and his black servant, to press for the removal of territorial governor Arthur St. Clair. Worthington was a prominent leader in Ohioans’ push for statehood, and he hoped his connections with national political leaders from Kentucky and Virginia would help further his cause. ...

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Chapter 4 Steamboats and the Transformation of the Borderland

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pp. 108-136

After being arrested on the mere suspicion of being a fugitive, Elisha Green,an African American minister from Kentucky, explained, ‘‘I was more of a slave after I bought myself than before. Before . . . I could go many places without interruption, but when I became a freeman I could not cross the Ohio River.’’ Green’s statement illustrates the contradictions of black free-...

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Chapter 5 Politics of Unity and Difference

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pp. 137-164

After Indianans banned slavery from their state in 1816 (and Illinoisans did in 1819), the Ohio River, which had been a border in principle under the Northwest Ordinance, became the legislated border between slave and free territory in the Ohio River Valley for the rest of the antebellum period. The politics of statehood created this border, but politicians on both sides of...

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Chapter 6 Fugitive Slaves and the Borderland

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pp. 165-184

In the 1850s Richard Daly enjoyed considerable freedom for a man in bondage. Daly lived in Trimble County, Kentucky, on a plantation along the Ohio River owned by two brothers, Samuel and George Ferrin. He worked on the farm and regularly attended the market in Madison, across the river in the nominally free state of Indiana. He married Kitty, a house...

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Chapter 7 The Nature of Antislavery in the Borderland

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pp. 185-214

In 1851 Harriet Beecher Stowe used the borderland, a region that white Americans built through compromise, to inflame the conflict between the North and the South, with her book Uncle Tom’s Cabin. Stowe’s story began in Kentucky and was set in motion by the movement of one enslaved African American toward freedom and another toward slavery. The threat of...

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Chapter 8 The Borderland and the Civil War

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pp. 215-250

At midcentury borderlanders debated the meaning and the future of the Ohio River border. These local debates reflected the growing national crisis over slavery. The years 1848–1852 were a period of intense political debate in Congress as representatives faced the deepening sectional rift. The debates over what to do with the territory acquired from the Mexican War...


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pp. 251-313


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pp. 315-318

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pp. 319-320

This book is the product of many years of reflection and guidance, making it impossible to truly list everyone who contributed to the final project. These acknowledgments, then, much like the book itself, cannot be truly comprehensive. I have been the beneficiary of supportive scholars, col-leagues, friends, and family, and for that I consider myself lucky. ...

E-ISBN-13: 9780812208665
Print-ISBN-13: 9780812245219

Page Count: 336
Illustrations: 12 illus
Publication Year: 2013

Series Title: Early American Studies