Category Archives: the South

164: Louis Hunter’s Steamboats on the Western Rivers

In Steamboats on the Western Rivers: An Economic and Technological History, Louis Hunter situates a detailed history of the development of steamboat technology in the social, technological, and economic context in which it developed; he argues that “the growth of the West and the rise of steamboat transportation were inseparable; they were geared together and each was dependent upon the other.”

Using contemporary newspapers, census documents, traveller accounts, and other primary sources form about the 1780s to the end of the 19th century, Hunter shows that steam transportation technology was the result of many people’s contributions (both English and American), not just those of a few great men.  He also shows that in America, steam navigation started on the Atlantic seaboard but quickly moved inland to the Western rivers, where steamboats dominated inland transportation and commerce for a generation; and he argues that from 1925 to 1850 the steamboat was the main technological agent in developing the Mississippi basin from a “raw frontier society” to “economic and social maturity.”  Finally, he claims that the Western steamboat was known worldwide as the “typical” American steamboat partly because it was so important to the economy of the region and partly because it was unique in its design, construction, and operation.  Published in 1949, this book was the scholarly survey of the development of steam navigation on the Western rivers that pulled together technology, operations, and governmental intervention into a consistent whole.

Americans were having a hard time with transportation in the early 19th century, so that’s where American steam innovation tended.  Hunter begins with early development in steam propulsion and the business of carrying – John Fulton patented his version of the steamboat and secured a monopoly with New Orleans, only to have it overturned in 1817 when Henry Shreve built his own boats and started running them on the Mississippi without permission.  In 1918, a steamboat boom started after Shreve reported 30-50% returns after only a year in operation.  Competition, economic depression, and improvements in steamboat technology reduced rates considerably through 1825, but boats were able to run faster and thus still turn profits.  By 1820, steamboats were well-established on the “trunk lines” of the river system (Mississippi and Ohio); by 1830 they had expanded into major tributaries and taken on most passenger and freight trade.  Keelboats remained the main transportation in smaller, shallower tributaries, and flatboats continued to be the main shipping method for bulky, low-value products until the Civil War.  By the 1840s, writers were saying that steam had “colonized the West” because it economically connected Westerners to the east and politically, via faster communication, to each other.

By the 1850s, steam had reached its golden age.  They had cast iron hulls instead of wooden ones and new high pressure boilers that led to fantastic accidents, and their opulent rooms were readily accessible to anyone who could pay the (widely fluctuating) fare, so travellers’ accounts are full of stories of the wide variety of class and race and occupation they met in steamboats.  The business of steamboating had also evolved from individual owners to small corporations that ran packet lines up and down the rivers.  However, Hunter points out that steamboats were also complicit in the growing industrialization of the West, especially in their division between cabin fare and deck passage – deck fare was 1/4 of the price of cabin fare, but deck passengers were usually the first to die in accidents, and they also had to help the crew.  And other transportation modes were beginning to have a substantial impact on the Western river trade: beginning in the late 1830s, canals diverted northern East-West freight, and railroad lines began connecting to steamboat towns in the 1840s, so that by 1860 Pittsburgh, Cincinnati, Louisville, St. Louis, Memphis, Vicksburg and New Orleans were all connected by rail.

While steamboats were profitable during the Civil War, railroads all but destroyed them afterwards: steam fare was cheap, and getting into the steam business required a low capital investment, which meant high competition and low profits in an industry already tainted by boiler explosions in the early 1850s.  Further, rails could promise what steamboats couldn’t: speed, regularity, frequency, reliability, year-round service, through-booking, direct service that could expand anywhere, not just on natural waterways, and such massive networks that they could run part of their systems at a loss just to kill local competition.  They’re also not above building extremely low bridges over waterways.  While barges are still used in the 20th century, steamboats were over before the end of the 19th century.

Although Hunter’s account is remarkably uncomplicated with respect to race and gender, and a discussion of slavery is conspicuously absent, his book otherwise shows how a transportation technology uniquely suited to the American West contributed both to the physical construction of American empire and to the construction of an American ideology based around individualism, technology, and capitalism on the landscape.


113: Steve Hoelscher’s Making Place, Making Race

In “Making Place, Making Race: Performances of Whiteness in the Jim Crow South,” Steve Hoelscher uses the landscapes and performances of white Southern memory in Natchez, Mississippi to show how a dominant group created a culture of segregation that far exceeded its legal boundaries, and how racialization of “everyday geographies” is constantly being both upheld and reworked.  Hoelscher argues that modern American race relations have roots in the Southern past and especially in the Jim Crow past, so understanding the processes of Natchez’ production of race in the landscape can help us understand racialization of American landscapes more generally.

Hoelscher relies on a wide variety of sources, including ethnographic research and interviews in Natchez, archival sources, including pamphlets, letters, ads, and photos, and secondary and archival sources on lynching, residential segregation, and other evidence of racialization on the landscape.  While he does investigate the broader context of Jim Crow racism, the heart of the article is the Natchez Pilgrimage, an annual event in Natchez that includes old home tours, antebellum-style parties, and a (now-renamed) Confederate Pageant featuring tableaus of life in the Old South.  Hoelscher traces the history of the Pilgrimage to its roots in the 1930s, when enterprising social climber Katherine Miller devised it as a way to generate tourist revenue for Natchez by capitalizing on the town’s Southern heritage.  But the Pilgrimage was also a spatialization and performance of white Southern memory, a way of bringing the Old South to life that replaced the racism and exploitation of slavery with a narrative of harmonious race relations and ladylike Southern belles, all presented in a romantic nostalgia for the good old days.  Until the 1960s, the Pilgrimage achieved this by reproducing the race relations of the Old South, so that black Natchez residents performed roles as butlers and mammies during house tours or singing cotton pickers during the Pageant, and they also worked behind the scenes as cooks, caterers, and cleanup crews for Pilgrimage events.  In the 1930s, this re-enactment of Old South race relations did double duty as a reminder to African Americans of their “proper, historical place as sharecroppers” and a reassurance to whites that the African American station in life was not just natural, it was romantic and desirable.  In the context of very real spatial segregation, economic exploitation, lynching, and overt racism, the Pilgrimage re-enforced the naturalness of the Jim Crow racial hierarchy by performing white nostalgia for the antebellum South.
While the Pilgrimage remained relatively unchanged from the 1930s through the 1960s, the Civil Rights movement had a huge impact on it.  In the early 60s, the first black audience members were horrified at the overt display of whiteness, but though SNCC and the NAACP were able to help Natchezians desegregate schools, stores, lunch counters, libraries, city parks, freedom activists were unable to stop the pilgrimage altogether, and black attempts to participate in the pageant in anything other than prescribed black roles met with fierce white resistance.  However, black participants withdrew from the Pageant and the Pilgrimage in the 1960s; though the event still happens every year, the absence of black participants reminds visitors that it is more about preserving white identity and pride than about fidelity to the Old South as it really was.

107: Agee & Evans’ Let Us Now Praise Famous Men

In July and August 1936, James Agee and Walker Evans were working on an article for a New York magazine in which they were to create a “photographic and verbal record” of “cotton tenantry in the United States.”  In particular, they were to write about “the daily living and environment of an average white family of tenant farmers.”  As it turned out, finding a “representative” sample of white tenant farmers proved difficult, but they found a group of three families and lived with them for less than four weeks, with Agee creating a written record and Evans taking photographs.  The article was not published, and the book went through multiple publishers before finally coming out in 1939.

Let Us Now Praise Famous Men is, as Bill Stott argues, a beautifully-made 1930s documentary; Evans’ photos have long since become iconic, and Agee’s prose claims the entire beat generation as its descendants.  Agee is also careful to situate himself and Evans as characters within the story of the tenant farmers’ lives, so that the reader is clear throughout that the book combines objective reality and normative interpretation.  The main argument of the book is encapsulated in the verse that serves as its title: “let us now praise famous men, and our fathers that begat us.”  The tension here is important: while the famous men lead us in creating history and are thus written down and remembered in history books, they are also responsible for the poverty in which his subjects live; while our fathers’ names are never known to the world, they are arguably more important, because without fathers there would be no children, no next generation to pass history down to.  Thus he celebrates the particularity of the human life of his subjects even as he critiques the universal structures that create it.

85: Neil Foley’s The White Scourge

Neil Foley’s The White Scourge: Mexicans, Blacks, and Poor Whites in Texas Cotton Culture uses whiteness studies as a model for investigating intraethnic divisions and the interactions between race, class, and gender in central Texas cotton culture between 1820 and the early 1940s, when the industry moved from small family farms run by white tenant families and white, Mexican, and black sharecroppers, to agribusiness dominated by nonwhite workers.  Foley pulls his title from a book that characterized poor white cotton farmers as the scourge of the south, but he argues that “the scourge of the South and the nation was not cotton or poor whites but whiteness itself – whiteness not simply as the pinnacle of ethnoracial status but as the complex social and economic matrix wherein racial power and privilege were shared, not always equally, by those who were able to construct identities as Anglo-Saxons, Nordics, Caucasians, or simply whites.”

The book complicates both black/white and South/West geographical and cultural binaries.  Central Texas was southern in its reliance on cotton farming and the sharecropping system, but Mexican sharecroppers and the arid lands to the west and south complicated Southern racial binaries and culture. White cotton farmers experimented with Mexican labor soon after the Texas Revolution; by 1910 white supremacists were calling Mexicans the “second color menace” and trying to prevent them from becoming culturally white.  At the same time, poor whites were being constructed as the “white scourge” because they occupied the same economic class as Mexican and black sharecroppers; their manliness and whiteness were threatened by their inability to become yeoman farmers.  The creation of industrial “factories in the field” in the 1920s, which combined technology and deskilled Mexican and black labor and thus further displaced white sharecroppers, further detached poor whites from the agrarian ideal of white yeoman farmer.  In the 1930s, landlords and owners of these factory farms took advantage of New Deal loopholes and evicted white sharecroppers from their lands, replacing them with cheaper non-white labor.  This last step in the process is dramatized in Steinbeck’s Grapes of Wrath, where the “fall from agrarian whiteness and yeoman manhood” are linked to losing farmlands.

Foley thus shows how poor whites, Mexicans, and blacks complicated whiteness in central Texas.  With the shift from small family farms run by whites, blacks, and Mexicans to white-owned factory farms that exploited Mexican labor, poor whites became detached from their land and the economic independence that came with it.  Here, whiteness fractured along class lines and become more of a matrix than a monolith.

70: Eric Foner’s Reconstruction

Eric Foner’s Reconstruction: America’s Unfinished Revolution, 1863-1877 is a synthetic history of American Reconstruction that combines social, political, and economic aspects of Reconstruction into three overarching themes:

  • the centrality of black experience
  • the larger context of an emergent national state
  • the impact of social, political, economic, and moral developments in the North affected the course of Reconstruction in the South

A synthesis of “revisionist” scholarship on black experiences after slavery, Foner’s book clearly and consistently emphasizes the experiences, worldviews, interpretations, and actions of black Southerners across class lines.  He thus builds on the work of new social historians and continues WEB DuBois’ project in Black Reconstruction, which rewrote the history of the Reconstruction period by reframing black “debauchery” as white racism and a deliberate attempt to retain the power of white elites by discrediting freed blacks.  He also integrates “post-Revisionist” studies into his argument by showing how Reconstruction policies themselves were woefully inadequate, and thus the North, as well as the South, was complicit in the failure of the Reconstruction project.  Even though freed blacks were eager to take control of their working lives and many had millenial expectations of a post-racial society, white Southerners were so afraid of losing their disciplined workforce that they blocked land purchases, denied credit access, built exploitation into a new sharecropping system, and used violence to prevent freed people from exercising their newfound freedom.

Foner is careful to show that Reconstruction failed not because of class warfare, but because of racial conflict; poor whites aligned with white elites to oppress blacks in support of Republican “free labor ideology,” even though this move was against their own class interests.  He thus complements a detailed discussion of black community institutions and efforts to gain education and representation with an analysis of how fear of black assertiveness shaped both the postslavery system and the emergence of a new Republican party.  As Foner suggests, in the complex post-Civil War environment of Reconstruction, ‘perhaps the remarkable thing about Reconstruction was not that it failed, but that it was attempted at all and survived as long as it did.”

38: Ira Berlin’s Many Thousands Gone

Ira Berlin’s argument in Many Thousands Gone is a simple one: the slave experience in America varied over time and from place to place, and as the institution of slavery matured from 1619 to 1861, racism and slavery fed on one another to increasingly exploit and degrade African Americans.  Although this book was published in 1998, it is the first major synthetic work to argue that slavery was not a monolithic, unchanging enterprise from such a long view.

Berlin divides the history of American slavery into four regions (the North, the Chesapeake, the Lowcountry, and the lower Mississippi Valley) and compares them across three chronological eras.  The first or ‘charter generation’ of slaves were cosmopolitan Atlantic creoles, many of whom came from West Africa or the West Indies, had interacted with the Spanish or Portuguese, and had worked as translators or interpreters.  Slavery was relatively fluid in all four regions, and some slaves bought their freedom, baptized children, had children with whites, and owned property.  Beginning in the late 17th century, three revolutions then transformed slavery.  The Plantation Revolution, which began in Barbados and spread to the Chesapeake and the Carolinas in the late 17th/ early 18th centuries, consolidated planter power and shifted from wage to slave labor.  The Democratic Revolution produced the first sustained intellectual opposition to slavery in the New World, but had contradictory effects on slavery: it became more entrenched in the South, began to disappear in the North and Old Northwest, and was accompanied in all regions by virulent racism.  The Cotton Revolution undercut the illusion that slavery was a dying institution by expanding slavery, despite decreasing production, soil exhaustion, and shift to grain.

While this is largely a synthetic work, Berlin does employ a number of innovations.  First, he focuses on two unique overarching developments: the shift from “societies with slaves” to “slave societies,” and the historical development of race as a generational phenomenon.  His focus on the generational development of race is particularly important because the generations up with the three chronological periods under study.  But even more important is his insistent preservation of dual points of view – both the history of slavery and the diverse histories of the people who were enslaved.  He thus combines two very different ways of doing history: as a narrative of domination, and as an exploration of the cultures and agency of the oppressed.

If you would like more info, there is a much more in-depth summary here.