Kevin Waite. West of Slavery: The Southern Dream of a Transcontinental Empire. The David J. Weber Series in the New Borderlands History. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2021. Illustrations. xv + 372 pp. $29.95 (paper), ISBN 978-1-4696-6319-7; $95.00 (cloth), ISBN 978-1-4696-6318-0.
Reviewed by María Vallejo (Kansas State University)
Published on H-Borderlands (April, 2022)
Commissioned by Hayden L. Nelson (University of Kansas)
Kevin Waite in West of Slavery: The Southern Dream of a Transcontinental Empire offers a fascinating and intriguing study of slaveholders and pro-slavery sentiments in the American West. Southern slavery and the American West are often examined as two separate spheres of historical development. However, Waite argues that these histories are interconnected, influence one another, and need to be analyzed jointly. Slavery, “in [its] various shades and forms, was transcontinental,” considering the role it took in the West (p. 148). As a result, using a broad lens and perspective, West of Slavery is a solid contribution to both southern and western historiography.
West of Slavery dissects the goals and agendas of slaveholders in creating a “continental south,” defined as a sphere of influence and policies to transport slavery to the Far West to make this region an “appendage of the slave states” (p. 2). However, this work is much more than studying slaveholders’ dreams and schemes. It evaluates the effects of pro-slavery policies on the enslaved, free African Americans, Hispanos, Chinese, and the “many shades of brown” who lived in the West (p. 218). Examining newspapers, territorial documents, federal government sources, and a vast number of archives, Waite gives the audience an understanding of how federal, state, and local histories interacted and connected. Specifically, the use of newspapers offers the audience a view into the beliefs and perspectives of some pro-slavery politicians, abolitionists, Hispanos, and many others in this transcontinental story of the West.
The book, comprising eight chapters, an introduction, and an epilogue, is divided into three parts. Each component concentrates on a specific theme through a broadly chronological narrative. Part 1, “From Memphis to Canton,” investigates the diplomatic, migration, and political strategies used by southerners to grow their pro-slavery agenda while also seeking to establish a transcontinental railroad route. Chapter 1, “The Southern Dreams of a Pacific Empire,” delves into slaveholders’ fascination with the West and accessing Pacific markets through the context of westward conquest. Slavery was, as slaveholders perceived, a vital component of their ambitious objectives, and they sought to replicate it in the West. However, slaveholders’ expansion into free territories, such as California during the gold rush in 1849, often shifted the power dynamics that allowed enslaved peoples greater leverage even though they were highly controlled for fear of rebellion. Chapter 2, “The Great Slavery Road,” and chapter 3, “The Lesser Slavery Road,” focus on the debates and clashes, especially among northern and southern states, in creating a western transportation route. Southern slaveholders wanted to control the prospective passageway to build a “southern-oriented ‘commercial empire’” (p. 61). The Butterfield Overland Mail Road, established in 1858, was a step toward the transcontinental route.
Part 2, “Making the South Continental,” studies the Far West’s view of the South and its pro-slavery sympathies. Chapter 4, “The Southernization of Antebellum California,” details the rise of political control of pro-slavery politicians in California who sought to legalize slavery in a free territory. This chapter also studies the nuances of race and whiteness, arguing that racism was a practice of both southerners and northerners in the West, who often used violence to maintain the racial hierarchy with whiteness on top. Hence, the passing of discriminatory and racist laws indicated their belief, as Waite argues, that “a frontier [was] for white supremacy” (p. 94). Chapter 5, “Slavery in the Desert South,” analyzes the political growth of the pro-slavery sentiment in what Waite describes as the “Desert South,” which includes New Mexico and Utah. Slavery was not uniform or the same in the Desert South. This region had a long history of Indigenous slavery and debt peonage, which slaveholders sought to maintain (p. 141). Chapter 6, “The Continental Crisis of the Union,” traces the breakdown of the United States in the lead-up to the Civil War from western regional political turmoil and conflict.
In the last section, part 3, “War and Union,” Waite shifts the focus of the Civil War to the Far West. Chapter 7, “West of the Confederacy,” elaborates how pro-slavery sympathizers and slaveholders joined in the war effort: from leaving the Union states, such as California and New Mexico, to fighting with the Confederacy or leading military campaigns in the Far West. Such policies led to their decline and the rise of Republicans', now the modern-day Democratic Party, control in the West. Chapter 8, “Reconstruction and the Afterlife of the Continental South,” states how Democrats, modern-day Republicans, reclaimed some of their political control in the West tied to solidarity among the white voting groups. Waite points out clearly that the “black-white, North-South binary ... underscores the breadth and durability of white supremacy in the age of emancipation” (p. 211). Racial violence was a means of maintaining people of color in an inferior status that showed the influence of pro-slavery and white supremacist notions embedded in the West.
West of Slavery is well organized, allowing the reader to follow the narrative and argument that surveys a vast geographic area. One of its major strengths is that it does not fit into one single category but assesses an array of themes and topics that work together to show the development of pro-slavery sentiments in the West. This work touches on borderlands, western, and southern history and examines notions of race and racism, whiteness, slavery, power, and political dynamics, among others. Such topics are often fluid and complex within this work. For example, whereas the title might convey that this work focuses on white male enslavers, Waite masterfully integrates the voices of many others, including abolitionists and Hispanos. Nonetheless, people of color’s agency and struggles against the development of pro-slavery political control of the West are not as visible in this story. Defining the major terms, such as "transcontinental," "Republican," and "Democrats," in this book would have allowed for greater clarity of his argument and a greater understanding of the work by general audiences.
While many of the projects and objectives of southern slaveholders failed to consolidate, their pro-slavery sentiment affected race and political relations in the Far West. This work offers an innovative way to understand the development of slaveholders and the persistence of pro-slavery beliefs in the West. Moreover, this work is an excellent source for historians and those interested in viewing the West through a different lens and perspective. The memory of pro-slavery sentiments, as Waite states, continue to reverberate today, and it is essential to examine a broad view of the West that incorporates the history of slavery.
If there is additional discussion of this review, you may access it through the network, at: https://networks.h-net.org/h-borderlands.
María Vallejo. Review of Waite, Kevin, West of Slavery: The Southern Dream of a Transcontinental Empire.
H-Borderlands, H-Net Reviews.
|This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0 United States License.|