Review Of Black Life On The Mississippi

1536 Words7 Pages
Black Life on the Mississippi By Thomas C. Buchanan Black Life on the Mississippi builds on an impressive and imaginative body of primary sources. A number of slave narratives, most prominently the recollections of William Wells Brown, and WPA ex-slave interviews provide an inside view of life on the Mississippi. Buchanan also employs newspapers, drawing especially useful information from runaway slave advertisements. Plantation records explain the role that slave work on steamboats played in the region's economy. Where Buchanan moves beyond the expected range of sources is by using a wealth of court records. When a slave was killed or escaped while leased to a steamboat captain, chances were good that there would be a lawsuit. Free blacks and slaves took advantage of federal admiralty laws that extended into America's waterways and gave them legal standing not enjoyed by most of their contemporaries. And during Reconstruction, newly confident steamboat workers often took their employers to court. With these sources, Buchanan fulfills his goal to illustrate "the way in which slavery in the West was shaped by its link to the western river system and its workers" (p. 16) and to explain "the work experience of African American river workers, their pan-Mississippi world, and the actions they took to better their condition" (p. 17). The book's first chapter gives an overview of this pan-Mississippi world, a place where getting crops to market came to rely on the steamboat system. While we may tend to think about Huck Finn and Sam Clemens going up and down the Mississippi River when we think of steamboats, Buchanan reminds us that steamboats also plied the eastern waters up the Ohio River system all the way to Pittsburgh, followed the Mississippi River as far north as St. Paul, brushed the West on the Missouri River to Kansas City, and brought goods and passengers into deepest east Texas on the Red River. Chapter 2 narrows the scope from the entire pan-Mississippi world to the confines of the steamboat itself. By the 1830s, steamboats had begun to take their classic "wedding cake" form. To navigate the rivers, steamboats had only a shallow hold where cargo was stored.
Open Document