- The Underground Railroad and the Geography of Violence in Ante-bellum America by Robert H. Churchill
Underground Railroad, Slavery, Violence, Fugitive slaves, Free Soil
It is 1847 and we’re in Young’s Prairie, a settlement in southwestern Michigan known as a refuge for fugitive slaves. A large posse of slave catchers and enslavers has crept into the town under cover of night, and its members are raiding cabins, looking for runaways and other free blacks they can drag southward into slavery. But the families they find inside refuse to go quietly. One father fights tenaciously, suffering a severe beating while trying to protect his free-born infant from abduction. In the chaos, his wife escapes and raises the alarm. Quickly, an armed interracial mob, several hundred strong, assembles. Its constituents surround these raiders and march them toward the nearest courthouse to face kidnapping charges, doing their best to humiliate and degrade them as they go.
These events took place in what Robert H. Churchill refers to as the Free Soil Region, a broad swathe of territory that encompassed Wisconsin, Chicago and its environs, Michigan, northern Ohio, northern New York, and all of New England. Churchill argues that communities in this section of the country offered reliable assistance to runaway slaves in the two decades after the Supreme Court handed down its decision in Prigg v. Pennsylvania (1842). In proud defiance of enslavers’ claims to the right of rendition, antislavery activists in this Free Soil Region organized openly, forming racially integrated vigilance committees in several urban areas and boasting of the number of fugitives they helped each year.
The Free Soil Region is one of three political landscapes under the microscope in The Underground Railroad and the Geography of Violence in Antebellum America. Just to the south of the Free Soil Region lay the Contested Region, a middle ground of sorts comprised of the upper latitudes of Iowa, Illinois, Indiana, and Pennsylvania, as well as central Ohio, southern New York, and all of New Jersey. As such nomenclature [End Page 758] suggests, Churchill sees this region as “a cultural battleground” (89) in which local commitment to emerging free soil principles was much less robust and where rendition attempts by slave catchers and kidnappers often succeeded. Indeed, communities in this Contested Region were likely to intercede in only the most blatant and brutal incursions by enslavers. They were generally unwilling and unable to provide fugitives from slavery with a permanent refuge and preferred instead to provide these self-emancipators with directions and supplies to allow them to continue their onward journeys.
Below the Contested Region lay a third political landscape, the Borderland, a long strip of territory just across the line from the slave states that stretched from southeastern Pennsylvania to western Iowa. Communities there witnessed a near constant stream of sorties by enslavers seeking to retrieve fugitives or abduct or terrorize legally free black people. Residents of this Borderland, Churchill contends, found precious little to object to in such violent proslavery rampages, which they understood as an expression of slaveholders’ legitimate property claims. Unlike their counterparts in other regions, they rarely staged interventions to protect fugitives from capture and rendition. In this inhospitable climate, it was all the Borderland’s disparate antislavery activists could do to transport fugitives to points north as swiftly and stealthily as possible.
The Underground Railroad and the Geography of Violence in Ante-bellum America is a finely crafted study of how these three distinct regional cultures responded to (and were transformed by) the violent encroachments of southern enslavers into their territories. It is, on the whole, a rich and textured piece of scholarship that derives much of its impact from its creative application of insights gleaned from the work of a range of other scholars, notably Stuart Carroll, Joanne Freeman, and Edward Ayers. Significantly, it probes a notably broader geography than Stanley Harrold’s Border War: Fighting Over Slavery Before the Civil War (Chapel Hill, NC, 2010) and a longer...