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Reviewed by:
  • Steamboats and the Rise of the Cotton Kingdom
  • Paul Yandle
Steamboats and the Rise of the Cotton Kingdom. By Robert Gudmestad. (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 2011. pp. xii, 280.)

Robert Gudmestad’s study of the trans-Appalachian South provides strong evidence that the period when steamboats dominated the Ohio and Mississippi Rivers, though brief, was surprisingly crucial to the regional division of the United States in the decades leading up to the Civil War. Gudmestad smoothly combines cultural, environmental and economic history as he ties the growth of the southern interior to the steamboat traffic that came to dominate the region’s waterways in the early nineteenth century. Gudmestad accomplishes a great deal in a relatively small number of pages, providing not only a look at how the accommodation of steamboat traffic affected the interior landscape and economy but also a glimpse at an American subculture as fluid as the waterways upon which it depended.

Contrary to common misconceptions of an easy, languid lifestyle on ante-bellum plantations, Gudmestad reveals a cotton South bustling with economic activity that tied it to other portions of the nation, particularly the Midwest. As Gudmestad reveals early in his work, after the War of 1812 the proliferation of steamboats “put the interior South on the cutting edge of technological advance in America” (23). The growth of steamboat traffic and of river-based trade also revealed “a southern willingness to adopt new technology as a way to modernize slavery” (28).

Partly because of its relationship to slavery, the proliferation of steamboats had a strong effect on the development of regional identity in the interior South. Gudmestad argues that there was a direct correlation between the successes and failures of the river-based economy and the self-perception of southern whites who relied upon it. As steamboats became increasingly important in the interior South, boosters there were willing to welcome federal aid for internal improvements at the same time that many southerners farther east were becoming increasingly distrustful of the federal government and moving toward states rights. The federal government removed snags from rivers and clear-cut [End Page 103] riverbanks to prevent trees from falling into riverbeds, helping the interior South develop a booming cotton market as well as markets for foodstuffs and lumber. Hundreds of thousands of slaves were pushed west to support the economy. Southern whites west of the Appalachians saw themselves as part of the developing West as well as the South because they traded with river towns upstream on the Mississippi and Ohio Rivers.

By the 1840s, however, the nation was turning increasingly to railroads, which carried goods and passengers faster and were not as subject to weather changes as steamboats. Rail networks were slower to catch on in the interior South, as trains were initially used in tandem with existing steamboat routes. Nonetheless, river-based markets began to dwindle, and southerners who previously relied on steamboat traffic became increasingly tied to developing rail networks in slave states farther east. As a consequence, Gudmestad argues, whites in the trans-Appalachian South increasingly identified with white southerners closer to the Atlantic coast as the nation moved toward Civil War.

Topical chapters lend themselves to Gudmestad’s thesis as well as providing valuable insights into the risks and cultural peculiarities of steamboat travel. Gudmestad’s descriptions in one chapter of the hierarchies of workers on the vessels reveal a hodgepodge of Irish and German immigrants, free and enslaved African Americans, as well as American-born whites. For slaves, work on steamboats could be desirable despite backbreaking work in dangerous, sweltering conditions because it allowed them a degree of mobility and access to information—and even escape—that plantation slavery did not. Another chapter on Indian removals reveals the surprisingly integral part that steamboats played in the process, adding to our knowledge of the brutality endured by the Five Civilized Tribes.

Pertinent maps and well-labeled illustrations enhance the work. A series of appendices provide helpful information regarding the calculations of tonnage, fatality rates, and other estimates used throughout the book, along with appropriate caveats about potential problems surrounding the figures. Gudmestad’s book is well researched and fits well...