Slavery and Frontier Mississippi, 1720-1835

Slavery and Frontier Mississippi, 1720-1835

Slavery and Frontier Mississippi, 1720-1835

Slavery and Frontier Mississippi, 1720-1835


In the popular imagination the picture of slavery, frozen in time, is one of huge cotton plantations and opulent mansions. However, in over a hundred years of history detailed in this book, the hard reality of slavery in Mississippi's antebellum world is strikingly different from the one of popular myth. It shows that Mississippi's past was never frozen, but always fluid. It shows too that slavery took a number of shapes before its form in the late antebellum mold became crystalized for popular culture.

The colonial French introduced African slaves into this borderlands region situated on the periphery of French, Spanish, and English empires. In this frontier, planter society made unsuccessful attempts to produce tobacco, lumber, and indigo. Slavery outlasted each failed harvest. Through each era plantation culture rode the back of a system far removed from the romantic stereotype.

Almost simultaneously as Mississippi became a United States territory in the 1790s, cotton became the cash crop. The booming King Cotton economy changed Mississippi and adapted the slave system that was its foundation.

Some Mississippi slaves resisted this grim oppression and rebelled by flight, work slowdowns, arson, and conspiracies. In 1835 a slave conspiracy in Madison County provoked such draconian response among local slave holders that planters throughout the state redoubled the iron locks on the system. Race relations in the state remained radicalized for many generations to follow.

Beginning with the arrival of the first African slaves in the colony and extending over 115 years, this book is the first such history since Charles Sydnor's Slavery in Mississippi (1933).

David J. Libby, an independent scholar, lives in San Antonio, Texas. His work has been published in CrossRoads: A Journal of Southern Culture.


Visitors approaching Natchez, Mississippi, on a paddle-wheeled tourist steamboat today first approach a section of town called [Under-the-Hill.] A gambling boat named Lady Luck is moored there permanently, near establishments providing food and drink. Climbing Silver Street, the visitors would in minutes be on the city bluff, near an urban grid platted in 1790 by Spanish planners. Within a few blocks are the historic Adams County courthouse, antebellum bank buildings, offices, churches, and most memorably, the planter mansions from an age of great affluence.

Many of these buildings stood atop the hill in 1835, when proslavery author Joseph Holt Ingraham first arrived as a [Yankee] transplant. Ingraham saw Natchez as the capital of the southwestern cotton kingdom. Under the hill, he described a scene similar to what it is today. The city looked down, both figuratively and literally, on the gambling halls and saloons of the town under the hill. Majestic two-story planter homes stood atop the bluff as monuments to plantation wealth. Bankers, cotton factors, and slave dealers provided the planters with financing and slaves that allowed them to erect their mansions. Slave traders conducted auctions at offices in town, despite worries that the public traffic in slaves introduced cholera, malaria, and other diseases, not to mention potentially rebellious slaves. Concern over civic health and public order could be seen in a system of public works dating to the first decade of the nineteenth century, and in chain gangs of slaves and convicts who marched through town cleaning and repairing the streets. Concern could also be seen in the gradual movement of the main slave mart to the outside of town in the early 1830s. The desire for public order illustrates the Natchez planters' belief that they were the leaders of a great and refined civilization.

Other visitors and migrants arrived from the east during the nineteenth century. Two roads led to Natchez, the Natchez Trace, which came from Nashville, Tennessee, through Jackson and Washington, Mississippi, and another road (today's highway 61), that led north from New Orleans, through Natchez, to Vicksburg. At the intersection of these roads the new slave market informed visitors that the town was nearby. By 1830, Natchez was 43 percent slave. Outlying areas of Adams County had an 80 percent slave population.

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