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

By Matthew Salafia | Go to book overview

CHAPTER FOUR
Steamboats and the Transformation
of the Borderland

After being arrested on the mere suspicion of being a fugitive, Elisha Green, an African American minister from Kentucky, explained, “I was more of a slave after I bought myself than before. Before … I could go many places without interruption, but when I became a freeman I could not cross the Ohio River.” Green’s statement illustrates the contradictions of black freedom in the Ohio Valley by the 1830s. His freedom of mobility declined when he became legally free because he could no longer travel through slaves states; as a slave, in contrast, he could “go many places.” In this brief statement, Green revealed that residents used both social custom and the law to separate slavery and freedom. Thus legal freedom failed to free Green from the regulation of his movement because, when coupled with his movement across the river border, Green’s dark skin color elicited suspicion from white residents. It was not just that he was black but that he was black and crossing the river that gave Green the appearance of a fugitive from labor. In short, this combination constituted a transgression of an unofficial barrier.1

This chapter and the next detail the political, economic, and social changes that forced residents to redefine the Ohio River border by the 1830s. The politics of border making are the subjects of the next chapter, while in this chapter the social and economic shifts underlying political debates are explained. In the 1820s, as politicians fiercely battled over defending the geographical border between free and slave states, locally residents adapted to the rise of a steamboat economy that was transforming the region. The burgeoning river economy spurred a population boom that increased the size, diversity, and mobility of the population along the river.

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