By Kevin Waite
I was born and raised in California, but it wasn’t until I moved to Pennsylvania to begin my PhD that I learned about the history of slavery in my native state. The subject never came up when I was a student in California in the 1990s and early 2000s. Not because I didn’t have excellent teachers – I most certainly did – but because the history of slavery in the American West wasn’t really on anyone’s radar at that point. Fortunately, that’s beginning to change. And I hope West of Slavery can contribute to this growing awareness by shaping the way we think about the scope and scale of unfreedom in American history.
The book began as a dissertation at UPenn under Steve Hahn. Much of my early research sprang from a simple question: to what extent did the politics of slavery impact the development of antebellum California? The answer, I soon discovered, was: significantly. But the more I read, the clearer it became that this wasn’t just a California story. American slaveholders built a transcontinental sphere of influence in the 1850s, transforming the entire southwestern quarter of the country – New Mexico, Arizona, and parts of Utah, in addition to California – into a political client of the plantation states.
So how did they do it? And why has this important chapter in the history of American slavery remained obscured for so long?
Slaveholders extended their influence across the Far Southwest through an interlinked series of campaigns. They passed slave codes in New Mexico and Utah, sponsored separatist movements in Southern California and Arizona, orchestrated a territorial purchase from Mexico, built roads to facilitate the westward flow of southern migrants, monopolized patronage networks to empower proslavery allies, and even killed antislavery rivals. This was, wrote an observer in New Mexico, “a grand scheme of intercommunication and territorial expansion more vast and complicated than was ever dreamed of by Napoleon Bonaparte in his palmiestdays of pride and power.”
Some free-soil advocates spoke confidently about the so-called natural limits of slavery. The aridity of the Far Southwest, they argued, would preclude human bondage from ever taking root in the region. But slaveholders field-tested this theory and found it wanting. They imported somewhere between 500-1500 enslaved African Americans to Gold Rush California, about 100 to Utah, and another 100 to New Mexico and Arizona. To be sure, these figures are miniscule compared to the 4 million enslaved people laboring in the plantation South on the eve of the Civil War. But, considering the monetary value residing in each enslaved person and the logistical difficulties of forcing them west, these numbers are significant. Furthermore, enslaved African Americans weren’t the most common forms of human property in the Far West. Tens of thousands of Indigenous people were held in various forms of servitude across the region. Southern slaveholders fought within Congress and within territorial capitals to protect and enshrine systems of Indian slavery. Captives – whether African American, Native American, or mestizos of Spanish ancestry – could be found laboring across the length of the continent. Their road to freedom did not run west.
Despite some excellent new works by scholars like Stacey Smith, the standard narrative of the Civil War era still treats the Far West as a sideshow. California’s 1850 admission to the Union as a free state, some historians suggest, effectively banished proslavery intrigue to the east of the Sierra Nevada or even the Rocky Mountains. Yet American southerners never relinquished their claims on the West. In fact, the political history of the region is a long catalogue of their successes. The history of the Civil War era, therefore, requires reframing. As my book argues, the struggle over slavery was more than a feud between North and South. It was a continental crisis of the Union.
Kevin Waite is assistant professor of history at Durham University. With funding from the National Endowment for the Humanities, he also co-directs a Collaborative Research Grant on the life and times of Biddy Mason, a Georgia slave turned California real estate entrepreneur.
West of Slavery: The Southern Dream of a Continental Empire is available now through UNC Press: https://uncpress.org/book/9781469663197/west-of-slavery/