Sailing Ships, Silver Buckles, and Solemn Bonds: Powerful Threads of Community Webs

AHA Session 211
Sunday, January 8, 2012: 8:30 AM-10:30 AM
Huron Room (Sheraton Chicago Hotel & Towers)
Dylan Penningroth, Northwestern University and American Bar Foundation
Shirley E. Thompson, University of Texas at Austin

Session Abstract

Slavery in the United States was an intricate dance between forced labor and the forces of modernity.  The weak ties of networks and the strong ties of communities overlapped and mapped on to each other in surprising ways. Histories of slavery and slave trading in the United States increasingly center upon networks of individuals—white and black—who organized themselves in the late-eighteenth and nineteenth centuries to manage, facilitate, or resist enslavement or being consumed by an ever-growing slave market.  Examples range from W. J. Megginson’s African American Life in South Carolina’s Upper Piedmont and several other regional studies of communities in the Upper and Lower South to examinations of the complex workings of the domestic slave trade, including Robert H. Gudmested’s A Troublesome Commerce and Steven Deyle’s Carry Me Back.  Scholars such as Melvin Patrick Ely have shown that within Southern localities, social and economic networks could forge durable bonds that joined individuals into an intricate tapestry of common custom, culture, and interests, rarely noted by contemporaries or historians.

 The members of this panel open new windows into previously unexplored aspects of eighteenth- and/or nineteenth-century life involving slavery and/or slave trading in the U.S. South.  Calvin Schermerhorn examines the transformation of nineteenth-century commercial shipping and its near-seamless integration into the coastwise slave trade by bringing to light networks of financiers, mariners, slavers, and Atlantic merchants, who were all but invisible in the contemporary discourse on slavery and yet propelled the Second Middle Passage.  Bonnie Martin explores the evolving nature of community networks of exchange and credit in Virginia. Virginians shifted from securing loans with personal promises to a preference for property, including slaves.  Ted Maris-Wolf investigates changes in the meanings of liberty to free blacks in Virginia after the passage of the 1806 expulsion law and the individuals who quietly employed family, community, and—in some cases—commercial connections to renounce their legal freedom and to avoid forced removal from the state.

The panelists use previously known but underutilized sources in creative ways.  Each gleans new details regarding the activities of individuals who shaped networks and communities within systems of slavery or slave trading and does so by offering a new research approach that demonstrates how such work might be expanded by others in the future.  Schermerhorn’s paper uses the Inward Slave Manifests to the Port of New Orleans (National Archives and Record Administration Record Group 36) and also recently digitized daily newspapers held by the American Antiquarian Society.  Martin uses data extracted from eighteenth- and nineteenth-century equity mortgages recorded in Virginia county records.  Maris-Wolf examines Virginia county court ended law causes, circuit court order books, and petitions filed to the state legislature, as well as local newspapers, county records, and federal census data.

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