Book Reviews -- Agriculture and Slavery in Missouri's Little Dixie by R. Douglas Hunt

Article excerpt

R. Douglas Hunt. Agriculture and Slavery in Missouri's Little Dixie. Columbia and London: University of Missouri Press, 1992, 334 pp.

This specialized study adds modestly to our understanding of the slavery in the Border States. Hunt chose to focus on slavery in the Little Dixie region of Missouri, which he defines as the seven counties along the Missouri River which had a slave population of at least 24 percent in 1859, because this region served as the core of the slave culture in the state during the antebellum period. To understand slavery here is to understand it in Missouri.

The Boone's Lick country which became Little Dixie was opened for settlement after the War of 1812 and quickly filled by people from Tennessee, Kentucky and Virginia. The major thesis of the work is Hunt's conviction that these people brought with them a commitment to agriculture as a capitalist enterprise, which helps explain the development of slavery in the region. The farmers of Little Dixie were committed to slavery as a way of increasing their agricultural return. They focused on the commercial crops they already knew how to grow and which flourished in the region. Those commercial crops: tobacco, hemp and livestock, were shipped down the Missouri and Mississippi Rivers into the Cotton Kingdom and areas beyond. Little Dixie was a part of a national market from its beginning, tied by commerce and culture to the larger slave region of the nation.

Hunt traces the development of these commercial crops from their introduction to maturity, and even decline, on the eve of the Civil War. His most provocative assertion, although not fully explored, is that these farmers did not farm as well as they knew how. Again and again, he shows, they were told that their market prices could increase by modest improvements in packing and storing. Few of them heeded this advice. While some advanced farmers invested in the new agriculture machinery that come on the market in the antebellum, most ignored those improvements, nor were the efforts to build plank roads a success when that became a national fad. Even the agriculture improvement societies of the time had limited success in Little Dixie. …