Black Life on the Mississippi: Slaves, Free Blacks, and the Western Steamboat World

By Ownby, Ted | The Journal of Transport History, March 2006 | Go to article overview

Black Life on the Mississippi: Slaves, Free Blacks, and the Western Steamboat World


Ownby, Ted, The Journal of Transport History


Thomas C. Buchanan, Black Life on the Mississippi: Slaves, Free Blacks, and the Western Steamboat World, University of North Carolina Press, Chapel Hill NC (2004), 272 pp., US$32.50.

This attractive social history tells the stories of slaves and free blacks who worked and travelled along the Mississippi river. The title deliberately complicates Mark Twain's memoir Life on the Mississippi, and part of the goal of the book is to get beyond romantic conceptions of the freedom of early river life. The relatively brief volume uses travel literature, abolitionist literature, some legal sources, newspapers, and some steamboat records to move through chapters on city life, work, family, escape, forms of resistance, and emancipation.

The work's greatest contributions to the history of transport likely lie in two areas. One is Buchanan's careful description of the various jobs free and enslaved African-American men and women worked on the Mississippi river. Cooks and waiters, chambermaids, porters and stewards, firemen, deckhands, and roustabouts worked in what the author calls 'one of the most unique environments in antebellum America' (p. 79).

Second, the book's argument addresses the tensions and possible contradictions that travel and transport offered. Could one start over in a new place? Maybe, if one moved from slavery to freedom, and maybe, if the local economy and society provided a reasonable place for African-Americans to work and live. But transport sometimes dramatised differences between slave and free, black and white, even while river travel held potential for work, pay, and enjoyment, and even escape to freedom.

Buchanan consistently emphasises that travel and connection to cities challenged boundaries and complicated identities. Both slaves and free blacks could negotiate for improved wages, both went from slave territory to free territory and back, both could spend money and enjoy themselves in the relative anonymity of urban life, and both met more people and encountered a wider range of opportunities and strategies for individual and group resistance than most slaves. …

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