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

By Matthew Salafia | Go to book overview

CHAPTER ONE
Origins of the Border between
Slavery and Freedom

The Ohio River has two intertwined histories: one that follows the twists and turns of the river’s natural course and one that crosses the river’s flow. The Ohio River is a conduit of energy, propelling life downstream as the flowing water seeks the most efficient and uniform expenditure of energy. This river constantly adjusts, compensating for events that affect it. In this sense, the Ohio is a product of its own past history. Humans have given another set of meanings to the river in their effort to utilize and ultimately master it. Mastery of the river involved the ability to harness the river’s energy as a means of transportation and to remake the river into border. As Euro-Americans moved in they transformed the Ohio River’s current into a barrier to settlement and expressed their control over the river’s history with maps and labels that appeared to hold the moving water in place. If nature defined the river by movement, humans defined it by stasis even as they used it to move through the valley. In effect, the impossibility of making the Ohio River stand still locked these two histories in conflict.1

The Ohio River is the confluence of two rivers, the Allegheny and the Monongahela in western Pennsylvania, which flow in opposite directions. Along its thousand-mile course to the Mississippi River eighteen major tributaries, among them the Muskingum, the Scioto, the Miami, the Kentucky, the Wabash, and the Cumberland, empty into the Ohio from both northern and southern sources. The Ohio Valley borders the main stream of the river in the states of Pennsylvania, West Virginia, Ohio, Kentucky, Indiana, and Illinois. However, the drainage basin of the Ohio River covers over two hundred thousand square miles and reaches fourteen states,

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