Law and Freedom: The Crucible of Legal Change on the American Slave Frontier

Saturday, January 5, 2013: 2:30 PM
Chamber Ballroom I (Roosevelt New Orleans)
Christian Pinnen, Mississippi College
Law and Freedom: The Crucible of Legal Change on the American Slave Frontier

            The southern borderlands that would be part of the1803 Louisiana Purchase had already undergone several changes in European imperial governance prior to American possession. As inhabitants of the changing empires, slaves in the region had to adapt to a flurry of evolving legal systems that occasionally promised a chance for freedom, but predominantly failed to deliver liberty. Natchez, a struggling outpost on the Mississippi River, experienced three different legal systems between 1767 and 1798. Over thirty years, black people in Natchez lived first under suffocating British laws, than experienced a less oppressive Spanish regime, and finally felt the advent of king cotton in the United States as Natchez matured into a fully stratified slave society that successfully reduced black people to eternally bound laborers.

            This paper will analyze the influence of changing laws in the Natchez District on people of color. Natchez court records hold many of their previously untold stories from both the Spanish and American periods. Though successful avenues for slaves seeking to achieve freedom under the Spanish system were limited, there was a greater chance for success than in the preceding British or following American eras. The snapshots offered by these court cases into the lives of people of color in Natchez under both Spanish and American purview highlight the importance of the southern borderlands in the history of slavery; they speak to the inherent change of slave societies throughout the period proceeding antebellum America. The voices of the black people in Natchez add a significant story to the history of the United States.

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