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5 “Odious” Abolitionists and “Insolent” Runaways Natives, Slaves, and Settlers in the Missouri Valley Borderland rebeKah M. K. MerGenthal When Stephen, a slave who lived at the western edge of the slaveholding state of Missouri, ran away from his master in 1848, he could have fled in several directions. Poised on the western border of the United States, the Missouri River would have delivered him south and east to the free state of Illinois, while crossing the river to the west would have brought him into Indian Country. Staying with the Shawnee or another tribe in the area might have offered the kind of freedom Stephen sought. However, his owner,Joseph Parks,was Shawnee.Thus,despite Stephen’s familiarity with the tribe and their language, he chose another destination, one that took him far away from the uncertainties of the Missouri Valley borderland.1 What did it mean to live in the borderland of an expanding American nation in the two decades before the Civil War? Stephen had his answer to that question, one that convinced him to leave the area. But other inhabitants made different calculations about the opportunities and limitations of their borderland existence. The stories of Stephen and his Shawnee owner, together with those of other Missouri Valley inhabitants, reveal a border shaped by movement across it from both sides. In the 1840s and 1850s,local slaveholders,runaway slaves,and Shawnees and their missionaries attached different meanings to the border between + Natives, Slaves, and Settlers in the Missouri Valley Borderland · 123 the territory of the Shawnee and the state of Missouri, between Indian Country and the United States. The inhabitants’ complicated and contradictory understandings of this borderland helped construct their identities, and the meanings they ascribed to the border resonated beyond their specific locality. A study of the Missouri Valley helps answer Samuel Truett and Elliott Young’s call for“more open-ended tales” that show the“overlapping and competing histories” of borderland areas.2 A closer focus on this thirty-mile-long border exposes its meaning for people on each side and for those who crossed it. The line also had broader significance because national politicians intended it to differentiate U.S. and Indian territories. The border separated the Shawnee and Missouri settlers, and politicians believed it would prevent interactions in the area. However, other border residents had their own ideas and did what they could to make the boundary more permeable. The line mattered, but it resonated in unexpected and telling ways because of what people tried to do with and along it. Historians Jeremy Adelman and Stephen Aron have described how North American borderlands shifted from meeting grounds to bounded nations during the nineteenth century.But scholars need to investigate how effectively“border fixing”3 shaped identity.What lines on the ground meant to those who lived on both sides and how local residents constructed that meaning remains unclear.4 Although federal treaties defined a clear line between the Shawnee and the Missourians, the people on either side remained mobile and unpredictable. When and why border residents found it possible to cross the border, and the nature of federal and local authorities ’attempts to prevent these crossings, reveal the implications of mobility for the region’s inhabitants, whether they moved or not, and for the border itself. As Benjamin H. Johnson and Andrew R. Graybill urge,“accounts of border areas can . . . illuminate the contingency of national histories” and also enable us to create“stories about the past that transcend both the geographic and conceptual limits imposed by national boundaries.”5 The borderland residents who shared the contested space on the Missouri border struggled to assert their own visions of interactions and exclusions,and the choices they made helped shape both the local society and the expansion of the nation. In July 1844, Nathaniel H. Scruggs, a Virginia-born resident of Westport , in western Missouri, applied for a position as an assistant blacksmith 124 · Rebekah M. K. Mergenthal to the Shawnee Indians; however, he did not intend to carry out the work. As his application made clear, Scruggs would accept the appointment only if his slave, Robert, could fill the position. Scruggs, like many of his slaveholding neighbors, sought to profit from hiring out some of his slaves. He wanted to send his slave to work across the state line, beyond the official boundary of the United States, into the section of Indian Country occupied by the Shawnee Indians. Scruggs likely appreciated that his slave...


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