Slavery's Borderland: Freedom and Bondage along the Ohio River

By Matthew Salafia | Go to book overview

INTRODUCTION
Listening to the River

In Uncle Tom’s Cabin, Eliza Harris clasped her child as she darted toward the river’s edge. Then “with one wild cry and flying leap, she vaulted sheer over the turbid current by the shore on to the raft of ice beyond … she leaped to another and another; stumbling, leaping, slipping, springing upwards again…. She saw nothing, felt nothing, till dimly, as in a dream, she saw the Ohio side, and a man helping her up the bank.” Eliza risking her life to cross the Ohio River personified the sentiment “liberty or death.” On the southern bank slave catchers tried to pull Eliza back to slavery; on the northern bank someone helped her toward freedom. However, without the ice sheets the Ohio River would have been impassable. Eliza leaped across a solid, albeit unstable, divide between slavery and freedom.1

Yet Harriet Beecher Stowe’s border was fleeting because Eliza leaped across chunks of ice that disappeared from under her feet. Indeed outside of fiction the Ohio River remained an unstable divide between slavery and freedom throughout the antebellum period. In 1787 the Northwest Ordinance made the Ohio River the dividing line between slavery and freedom in the West; yet when the Civil War broke the country in two in 1861, this region failed to split at this seam. This book traces the history of the Ohio River borderland from its natural and human origins, through its political definition in the early republic, to maturation during the antebellum period, and to its surprising resilience during the sectional crisis. As residents on both sides of the river struggled to accommodate it as at once a dividing line and a unifying economic force, they defined this borderland by its inherent contradictions. Rather than marking a line that slavery could not penetrate, the Ohio River muddied distinctions, and residents used that ambiguity to try to hold the region together even against the threat of civil war.

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