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  • On Slavery’s Border: Missouri’s Small-Slaveholding Households, 1815–1865
  • Adam Arenson (bio)
On Slavery’s Border: Missouri’s Small-Slaveholding Households, 1815–1865. By Diane Mutti Burke. (Athens: University of Georgia Press, 2010. Pp. 368. Cloth, $69.95; paper, $24.95.)

Missouri is simultaneously a western, southern, and northern state. This fact came to the fore during the Missouri statehood controversy of [End Page 607] 1819–21 and again during the Civil War, but the character of rural Missouri developed in the intervening years, as a slave society dominated by small-scale holdings, near the borders of slavery and freedom. The economic, social, and emotional landscape of small-scale slaveholding there is thoroughly examined in Diane Mutti Burke’s very important book, On Slavery’s Border.

A Kansas City native, Burke has been thinking about Missouri’s small-scale slaveholders for a long time. She is out to recover the true history of slavery in Missouri, neglected in many recent reconsiderations of the institution and often dismissed, without reflection, as more mild than in the Deep South. “The experience of slavery and slaveholding was influenced both by the size of slaveholding and by geography,” she argues, tracing the ramifications of these circumstances in economic choices; in opportunities for socializing; in race, class, and gender prerogatives; and in empathy across those lines (5). The book is organized into seven chapters, which address the development of small-scale slaveholding in Missouri, and then the ways in which white and black living arrangements, labor, marriages, household relations, and neighborhoods were all structured by small-scale slaveholding, before concluding with a section on how the Civil War in Missouri brought “the passing of border slavery” (268).

Burke concentrates on five diverse counties (Chariton, Clay, Cooper, Marion, and Ste. Genevieve) and utilizes diaries, letters, church and government records, slave-rental agreements, former-slave autobiographies, Works Progress Administration narratives, and the dependent-pension records from the Sixty-fifth United States Colored Infantry, a regiment raised in Missouri. The deep and wide archival research provides a wealth of data, grounding the study and making it feel quite comprehensive.

The greatest strength of Burke’s book is her unified analysis of slave-holders and enslaved men, women, and children, in the same chapters, overcoming the tendency to splice and dice demographic groups and enhancing her portrait of the small-scale slaveholding society’s distinctive elements. As Burke explains, the experience of slavery on small-scale slave-holdings in Missouri will surprise readers whose vision of the institution comes only from the history of plantations or the South’s cities. On small farms whites and blacks knew each other well, as black and white men often worked fields together, while the women joined forces in the house. “I was at home with the Negroes at work,” noted Stephen Hempstead nonchalantly in his diary in 1829, describing a routine day spent maintaining the farm, side by side with his slaves (93).

If Missouri slaveholding families somehow found themselves with not enough work to do, they hired out slaves in the neighborhood rather than [End Page 608] sell them away. Farmers would gather slaves from multiple farms to do big tasks, sometimes providing alcohol and a dinner-dance as encouragement to finish the work and begin socializing. Unlike in many other slave societies, small-scale slaveholders encouraged slave marriages, often officiating at ceremonies and providing permission for regular visits off the farm to consummate “abroad marriages.” Burke cites occasions when, desperate for another healthy slave in the household and with no black wet nurses available, white women breast-fed slave children themselves. At manumission or after the general emancipation, some of these slaveholders gave esteemed former slaves tracts of land.

Building on Stephen Aron’s American Confluence: The Missouri Frontier from Borderland to Border State (2006), Burke contextualizes her important new data on the Near West with frequent reference to authoritative studies of free and slave communities written by Thavolia Glymph, Carolyn Billingsley, Stephanie McCurry, and John Mack Faragher. Burke benefits too from the insights of her adviser, Elizabeth Fox-Genovese. On Slavery’s Border will likely replace any reference to Harrison Trexler’s 1914 work Slavery...


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pp. 607-610
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