- Slavery’s Borderland: Freedom and Bondage along the Ohio River by Matthew Salafia
Slavery, Ohio River Valley, Border states, Labor systems, Servitude
Matthew Salafia steps into his well-layered study, Slavery’s Borderland, with a scene familiar to readers of Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin. Early in the novel, Eliza, a slave and maid, flees Kentucky with her child by running across a frozen Ohio River in a desperate dash north toward freedom. Dogged by slave hunters that shout at her from the frozen shore, she steps barefoot from one cragged ice block to the next. Will they catch her and return her south to slavery? Frequently drawn or etched in subsequent years by various artists, including a lithograph produced by Currier and Ives, the moment produces the same kind of horror Stowe sought while stoking antislavery furor in 1852. But Salafia argues that viewing the river as simply a historical demarcation between slavery and freedom only underscores a fiction. Rather than a dividing line between northern and southern interests, the Ohio River Valley of the nineteenth century—specifically the borderlands of Kentucky, Indiana, and Ohio—is best understood as a complicated region of contested meaning and, at times, compromised intent.
Starting with an account of eighteenth-century European settlement and political development of the Ohio Valley, Salafia arranges his chapters in chronological order, slowly building to the Civil War era. Along the way, he deftly employs an organizational technique that revisits overlapping periods from multiple points of view. This allows the author to explore how whites within the region’s cross-river economy resisted the sectional schism over slavery by taking steps to control African Americans’ northward migration while also developing different labor systems in different states. At times, for example, the southern slave who looked northward likely saw only a slightly different version of the life he or she knew. The urge to run to freedom waxed and waned as a result. For whites, however, “accommodation” became a watchword. Regionally, states in opposition over the use of slave labor, and wary of agreement— for different reasons—about the necessity of limiting African Americans’ mobility, pushed for social stability as a shared cause. Profit came first. The result, according to Salafia, was a borderland better understood as “a reasonable and rational alternative to the growing sectional conflict” [End Page 309] of Civil War (14). With this “many borders” thematic approach, the work provides a comparative stance akin to the “many souths” and “many emancipations” conceptual considerations now employed by historians of American and global slavery.
To support his study, Salafia re-examines slavery from a variety of sources. First, he turns to the narratives and advertisements regarding fugitive slaves. These individuals experienced a shift in their identities and status as they passed across the borderlands. Their numbers, too, often rattled northern whites, who were forced to rethink how an influx of freedom-searching African Americans might impact a region where slavery was not the predominant labor system. For additional evidence, Salafia looks at narratives left by members of Kentucky’s slave population. These individuals, wrestling with their unending status as bound laborers in an area so close to free soil, provided nuanced understandings of what the author refers to as a slave/free dichotomy. Finally, he looks at how the region’s African American population, both slave and free, shifted over time and sparked concerns among whites about the loss of laborers on both sides of the river. The evidence points to three factors: northern whites’ racist views of African Americans regardless of their working status, similarities and fluidity between bound and free laborers on both sides of the river, and the high risk attached to running away from a southern master resident within the borderlands. These factors, Salafia argues, limited a slave’s desire and ability to become a free laborer on the northern side of the Ohio River.
Two of Salafia’s insightful observations are particularly valuable for historians working on other borderlands between...