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  • Slavery’s Borderland: Freedom and Bondage along the Ohio River by Matthew Salafia
  • David G. Smith (bio)
Slavery’s Borderland: Freedom and Bondage along the Ohio River. By Matthew Salafia. (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2013. Pp. 328. Cloth, $55.00.)

This is an important, impressive work. From first settlement to the Civil War, Matthew Salafia chronicles the interconnection of Kentucky, Ohio, and Indiana by the commerce of the Ohio River and conflict over and cooperation on issues of race and slavery. To tell this complex story, Salafia uses almost every possible source: newspapers, census records, runaway [End Page 453] ads, slave passes, court records, tax records—and even (through another source) billiard hall records. The result is a rich, complicated social history that, while not easy reading, yields a deeply rewarding portrait of slavery and freedom in the vital first territories settled from the thirteen original colonies.

For a hundred years after the Civil War, historians focused on the Slave South. The North received less attention and was often seen as undifferentiated. The border states, especially the northern border states, were neglected. Wonderful recent books such as Barbara Fields’s Slavery and Freedom on the Middle Ground (1984), Michael Fellman’s Inside War (1989), and Mark Geiger’s recent Financial Fraud and Guerrilla Violence in Missouri’s Civil War, 1861–1865 (2010) focus on the slaveholding border states. Explicit examination of race, slavery, and freedom in northern border regions has lagged, except for Stanley Harrold’s fine Border War (2010). Harrold is a trailblazer who emphasizes the violence of disputes between Kentucky, Ohio, and Indiana over antislavery. Salafia discusses these events but sees the Ohio River promoting economic integration between its opposite banks. He places this region in the context of “borderlands” historiography. For him, along the river “enslaved and free labor met and became enmeshed in one system” (118).

This system began with first settlement. In his early chapters, Salafia shows that slave labor was seen as a necessity on the Kentucky, Ohio, and Indiana frontiers, when widely available land thwarted other forms of labor control. Widespread slave hiring soon broadened slavery’s support base in Kentucky. Meanwhile, the Northwest Ordinance (1787) did not ban slavery in Ohio and Indiana; it only banned the importation of slaves. When powerful landowners fought to keep their slaves or enslave new ones, the federal government was reluctant to stop them.

Others tried, however. In a fascinating chapter, Salafia shows that many early opponents of slavery in Ohio and Indiana owned slaves themselves. Their opposition to slavery was often as much political as moral, and in Indiana many sought to ban African American immigration as well. Salafia concludes that “greed, ambition, and fear” motivated early antislavery positions in the Ohio River valley as much as aspirations for universal liberty (107). In addition, later periods of antislavery agitation were also connected to politics. Even the Garrisonian ferment of the 1830s occurred in the turbulent Jacksonian period. Abolitionism was sometimes used by politicians even as abolitionists sought to transcend politics.1 A moralistic historiography has sometimes obscured this reality.

Salafia next explores the tenuous status of the region’s African Americans, especially fugitive slaves. While not doing so uncritically, he [End Page 454] tells their stories in their voice, using fugitive slave narratives. For example, while the white majority might have seen the Ohio as a river of commerce, fugitive Henry Bibb characterized it as an “impassable gulf” (187). It could, however, be crossed by fugitives with access to a boat, a ferry, or to the frozen river in winter. White pursuers could also cross, so border African Americans felt insecure. Many fled to Canada. Those who stayed in Ohio or Indiana risked recapture and possible shipment to New Orleans. So did slaves who stayed in Kentucky. Even indentured servitude, which was supposed to train former slave children for trades, often merely benefited those who held the indenture (and all of the leverage). Kudos to Salafia for exploring this little-known system; a similar practice was established in Pennsylvania.

This saga of race, slavery, and antislavery in a riverine economic context culminates in the Civil War. Despite expectations, Kentucky did not secede...


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