Dubious Dependence and Wavering Words: Native and African American Slavery in the Ohio Valley, 17501820

Saturday, January 5, 2019: 10:30 AM
Boulevard B (Hilton Chicago)
Alexis Guilbault, Indiana University
The Ohio River’s traditional narrative as the border between the “free North” and the “slave South” ignores the region’s complex system of slavery and its Native peoples. Using global slavery scholarship, I connect Native American and African American slavery in an ever-evolving, Native-created system where Native and Euro-American slaveholders captured and traded black, white, and Native slaves across and around the Ohio River. Native peoples used slaves to maintain territorial sovereignty and political autonomy while also using them to prop up their economic enterprises and individual socioeconomic statuses. When faced with a new life in a “new” land, Europeans and Americans alike turned to slaves, and, in the Midwest, when their right to slaves was challenged, they crafted careful legal and terminological solutions to protect their property and disguise their practices.

The shifting loyalties, fluctuating alliances, and changing economies of the eighteenth and early-nineteenth century Ohio Valley prompted the evolution of Native, Euro-American, and African-American slavery practices. Enslavement, a relationship of extreme, asymmetric dependence, confirmed or denied Native, Euro-American, and black individuals’ loyalties to and among each other, particularly concerning who was enslavable and what treatment they deserved. The narratives of explorers, settlers, diplomats, missionaries, and others travelling west illustrate the overt contestation of the Midwest’s supposedly divided geography, the varieties and intersections of enslavement there, and the role of diverse slaves in the rise of the urban, industrial Midwest. By linking various types of unfree labor and expanding the definition of slavery, North American slavery can be better understood as a complicated, variable status with a range of potential attributes and experiences that occurred in colonial, American, and, indigenous societies and the many multiethnic spaces in between.

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