- Slavery on the Periphery: The Kansas Missouri Border in the Antebellum and Civil War Eras by Kristen Epps
In Slavery on the Periphery, Kristen Epps examines the institution of slavery in a place where it has often been overlooked—the western frontier between Kansas and [End Page 98] Missouri. Slavery as an abstract idea was obviously very important to the region—as the struggle over whether Kansas would be a slave state made abundantly clear—but few studies have examined the experiences of the enslaved people who actually lived in this region. While their number was not large, Epps makes the case that enslaved people played a significant role in the settlement of the region.
In her effort to recapture the day-to-day lives of enslaved people in the Kansas–Missouri border region, Epps turns to the techniques of microhistory. This is a difficult task, given that the region's enslaved population was not large and left few records behind. Epps has engaged in substantial detective work, uncovering sources that let her reconstruct the world these enslaved people inhabited. This includes discussion of the kinds of work enslaved people did, their family relationships, their resistance to slavery, and their efforts to build community. She uses a wide variety of sources, including not only letters, diaries, and other reminiscences of settlers in the region but probate records, freedom suits, military records, tax lists, wills, newspaper advertisements, and Civil War pension files.
From this investigation, Epps constructs an image of a thriving slave system on the western frontier. The lives enslaved people lived in the Kansas–Missouri borderland were in many ways similar to those in other parts of the Upper South but were also shaped by the presence of the frontier. In particular, slaves on the frontier had an unusually high rate of mobility. Slavery in the Kansas–Missouri borderland area was a very small-scale system, with the result that slave hiring, diverse employment, and abroad marriages were common. The higher mobility that resulted from this situation became part of the power struggle between master and slave: slaveholders benefited from their slaves' mobility when hiring them out or sending them to perform tasks but also had to limit and control that mobility to sustain the institution of slavery. Similarly, enslaved people could benefit from increased mobility and use it to claim some independence for themselves or even escape, but they also suffered because of it when their families were torn apart by sale or hiring out.
Epps thus argues that slavery cannot be seen as just a theoretical concept in the settlement of Kansas. Slavery had been an actual presence in that territory since the 1820s—through Native American slaveholdings and at trading posts and military bases—and there was no reason to think it would not continue to grow. As a result, the conflicts of Bleeding Kansas were fought over the actual introduction of slavery into the West, not just its theoretical presence. Epps argues that the significance of the Missouri–Kansas border for the enslaved changed dramatically over time. From the 1820s through the 1850s, it was a largely theoretical border, with slavery existing on both sides of it in a very similar form. The 1850s' sectional crisis changed this dramatically; Kansas slaves were presented with an unusual situation in that antislavery and proslavery settlements were scattered throughout the territory, with the [End Page 99] result that slaves could very easily wind up living near an antislavery community. Epps examines the demise of slavery on the Kansas side of the line, and then in Missouri during the Civil War. In both cases, she examines how enslaved people seized their freedom, often at great risk. In particular, living in the border region presented opportunities for Missouri slaves to escape once Kansas became a free state, and Epps examines the Underground Railroad routes that led many Missouri slaves to freedom. She also discusses the other ways Missouri slaves gained their freedom...