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Review Of Black Life On The Mississippi

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Black Life on the Mississippi


Thomas C. Buchanan

Reviewed By Andy Evans

Black Life on the Mississippi builds on an impressive and imaginative body of primary sources. A number of slave narratives, most prominently the recollections of William Wells Brown, and WPA ex-slave interviews provide an inside view of life on the Mississippi. Buchanan also employs newspapers, drawing especially useful information from runaway slave advertisements. Plantation records explain the role that slave work on steamboats played in the region's economy. Where Buchanan moves beyond the expected range of sources is by using a wealth of court records. When a slave was killed or escaped while leased to a steamboat captain, chances were good that there would be a lawsuit. Free blacks and slaves took advantage of federal admiralty laws that extended into America's waterways and gave them legal standing not enjoyed by most of their contemporaries. And during Reconstruction, newly confident steamboat workers often took their employers to court.

With these sources, Buchanan fulfills his goal to illustrate "the way in which slavery in the West was shaped by its link to the western river system and its workers" (p. 16) and to explain "the work experience of African American river workers, their pan-Mississippi world, and the actions they took to better their condition" (p. 17). The book's first chapter gives an overview of this pan-Mississippi world, a place where getting crops to market came to rely on the steamboat system. While we may tend to think about Huck Finn and Sam Clemens going up and down the Mississippi River when we think of steamboats, Buchanan reminds us that steamboats also plied the eastern waters up the Ohio River system all the way to Pittsburgh, followed the Mississippi River as far north as St. Paul, brushed the West on the Missouri River to Kansas City, and brought goods and passengers into deepest east Texas on the Red River.

Chapter 2 narrows the scope from the entire pan-Mississippi world to the confines of the steamboat itself. By the 1830s, steamboats had begun to take their classic "wedding cake" form. To navigate the rivers, steamboats had only a shallow hold where cargo was stored. The deck was used to stack more cargo, primarily cotton bales, and as the accommodation for the poorest passengers and the crew. Above this was the boiler deck, combining the main cabin and staterooms, and next was the "hurricane deck" to house officers, with the pilothouse topping it off. The challenges and rewards of steamboat work varied by how far from water-level one was. While all African-American workers were susceptible to disease and violence, deckhands and roustabouts were also likely to be crushed by cargo, knocked overboard into the swirling river, or frostbitten. For such dangers, they received slightly higher pay than some of the cabin workers. Cabin workers were less likely to have a cotton bale fall on them while eating their lunch, but they did have to deal with white passengers on a constant basis, providing plenty of opportunities for casual violence. Balancing out the abuse from passengers were the tips cabin workers received, which could often amount to several dollars per voyage, the difference between the workers' wages and a living wage. Since the steamboat strove to provide luxurious travel accommodations to its passengers, it created niches for some highly skilled and well-paid black workers, such as barbers and chefs. Barbers were in a particularly advantageous position since they were not actually part of the steamboat crew but rather rented out space and worked for themselves. Many barbers seem to have combined steamboat and land-based businesses, earning quite a handsome income.

Buchanan's third chapter studies the relationships between steamboats and African-American families. As with so much of this book, this topic is full of contradictions. Many of the slaves who were "sold down the river" made that terrible journey in chains on the deck of a steamboat. Buchanan demonstrates that not only were slaves from Kentucky transported this way, but quite a number from Virginia were moved overland to Wheeling and then loaded onto steamboats bound for New Orleans or the Red River. At the same time that steamboats were ripping apart some slave families, they allowed others to keep in touch and find long-lost relatives as steamboat workers carried messages and news over long distances. In chapter 4, Buchanan examines the role steamboats played in helping slaves to escape. While it is no surprise that steamboats were active in the Underground Railroad (mixed metaphors notwithstanding), what stands out in this chapter as much as the temptation to escape slave steamboat workers faced, is the temptation their owners faced in deciding whether to lease them to steamboat captains. Slave owners knew that their slaves would have opportunities to disembark in free states or jump ship in some other way, but the profit they could realize in leasing slaves to steamboat captains was often great enough to overcome their reservations.

Chapter 5 amplifies the concerns whites had about how the river's relative freedom could affect slaves by studying the Madison Henderson Gang. Henderson, a slave originally from Virginia, and his three free black colleagues used steamboat careers as a platform for robbing and murdering up and down the Mississippi River



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