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

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

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

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


All along the Mississippi--on country plantation landings, urban levees and quays, and the decks of steamboats--nineteenth-century African Americans worked and fought for their liberty amid the slave trade and the growth of the cotton South. Offering a counternarrative to Twain's well-known tale from the perspective of the pilothouse, Thomas C. Buchanan paints a more complete picture of the Mississippi, documenting the rich variety of experiences among slaves and free blacks who lived and worked on the lower decks and along the river during slavery, through the Civil War, and into emancipation.

Buchanan explores the creative efforts of steamboat workers to link riverside African American communities in the North and South. The networks African Americans created allowed them to keep in touch with family members, help slaves escape, transfer stolen goods, and provide forms of income that were important to the survival of their communities. The author also details the struggles that took place within the steamboat work culture. Although the realities of white supremacy were still potent on the river, Buchanan shows how slaves, free blacks, and postemancipation freedpeople fought for better wages and treatment.

By exploring the complex relationship between slavery and freedom, Buchanan sheds new light on the ways African Americans resisted slavery and developed a vibrant culture and economy up and down America's greatest river.


Mark Twain romanticized Mississippi steamboating. He marveled at the Mississippi’s eminent basin, its fifty-four major tributaries, and its 4,000 miles of length, from its mouth in Louisiana to its headwaters up the Missouri. This magical landscape provided the setting for what he considered the most wonderful job in antebellum America. Piloting was “play—delightful play, vigorous play, adventurous play.” in a famous passage in Life on the Mississippi he proclaimed that pilots were the only “unfettered and entirely independent beings on the earth.” He believed that “every man and woman” had a “master” but “pilots had none.” Mark Twain moved through the American West with authority and respect, high atop one of the revolutionary technologies of the era.

William Wells Brown lived and worked in a very different Mississippi world. He told of his experiences on the river in the Narrative of William Wells Brown, a Fugitive Slave, a story that launched his career as an antislavery activist and novelist. Instead of turning the pilothouse wheel with ease, Brown toiled as a waiter serving passengers and officers, including pilots, in the demanding confines of the steamboat cabin. Twain enjoyed respect when working; Brown’s job was to be invisible. a good steamboat servant was supposed to loom, stationary and silent, on the outskirts of the cabin, waiting to descend to his labors whenever passengers had the slightest need. An empty glass? Filled. Mud on the cabin floor? Swept and mopped. While Twain glowingly wrote of his lack of accountability, Brown had masters seemingly everywhere. He had . . .

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