Slaves and Livestock Economies: Regional and Atlantic Perspectives

AHA Session 190
Sunday, January 5, 2020: 10:30 AM-12:00 PM
Empire Ballroom West (Sheraton New York, Second Floor)
Douglas B. Chambers, University of Southern Mississippi
Slaves on Horseback in Texas’s Planter-Herder Economy, 1835–65
Kyle Ainsworth, East Texas Research Center, Ralph W. Steen Library, Stephen F. Austin State University
Microcosm in Slavery: The Northwestern Texas Frontier, 1845–65
Deborah Liles, Tarleton State University
Black Ranching Frontiers in Atlantic History, 1493–1900
Andrew Sluyter, Louisiana State University
Douglas B. Chambers, University of Southern Mississippi

Session Abstract

This session examines the historical relationship of slaves, masters and livestock in the Atlantic world. The existence of these connections should not be a revelation—it is logical that slaves in agricultural and ranching settings worked with livestock. What is surprising is how often the existing historiography obfuscates the agency of slaves and their relationship with these animals. Much of the historiography is predicated on the master-slave relationship in plantation agriculture to the minimization of livestock. As George Ellenberg writes about the American mule, “the animal's very ubiquity camouflaged its importance to the South. It was so much a part of the fabric, sights, smells, and sounds of southern life…that its presence dulled observers to its significance.”[1] When livestock is mentioned, it is often only considered as part of a statistical analysis (see William N. Parker and Robert E. Gallman).

There is a historiography on slaves and livestock which this session addresses. Three of the panelists will present regional studies. Deborah Liles’s research on North Texas adds nuance to Terry G. Jordan’s Trails to Texas: Southern Roots of Western Cattle Ranching (1981), especially with her investigation of the integral role of slave cowboys in cattle ranching. Kyle Ainsworth builds on the scholarship of Sylviane Diouf (maroons in the U. S. South), Wilma Dunaway (herders and wagoners in the U. S. Mountain South) and Katherine C. Mooney (slave jockeys). He will speak about mounted runaway slaves in Texas and look at the economic and social reasons that enabled them to acquire the special knowledge, skills and abilities to ride. Reinaldo Funes-Monzote will focus on the long process of transformations that occurred in Cuba’s open ranch system over the first two centuries of colonization, leading to the more intensive 19th-century pens or “potrero” system to breed cattle and other animals. His research adds to the growing body of work on slaves and livestock in the Caribbean, which includes David Lambert (British West Indies), Philip D. Morgan (Jamaica) and Verene Shepherd (Jamaica).

Each of the first three panelists’ work fits within a wider Atlantic mosaic of slaves and livestock. Bringing this to the fore will be the fourth panelist, Andrew Sluyter, whose presentation looks at the creative participation of slaves in cattle ranching from West Africa to the Caribbean Basin and from there to the pampas of Argentina and Uruguay. In doing so, Sluyter incorporates the West African historiography of Robin Law (horses) and John K. Thornton (cavalry) while challenging Terry Jordan’s conclusion that there is “no compelling evidence of meaningful African influence in the cultures and adaptive systems of the various American cattle frontiers.”[2] Douglas B. Chambers, an authority on African Diaspora history, will chair the session and give commentary, tying the focus on slaves and livestock into larger historiographical themes.

[1] George B. Ellenberg, Mule South to Tractor South: Mules, Machines, Agriculture and the Transformation of the Cotton South (Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press, 2007), 2.

[2] Terry G. Jordan, North American Cattle-Ranching Frontiers (Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 1993), 311-312.

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