Slavery in the West

Technology, transportation, and the market came together most notably in the rise of cotton production in the West and the movement of slavery to support the crop’s cultivation. Technological changes in the planting and harvesting of cotton as well as the revolutions in economics and transportation encouraged robust movement of white settlers and black slaves to the West. This process, referred to by historians as ‘the second slavery, encouraged farmers, speculators, and boosters importation of the traditional American system of plantation slavery to the West.

Planters of the Old South, looking to profit from their excess stocks of slaves, contracted with large northern slave-trading firms with branches in large gulf coast cities like Natchez and New Orleans. These firms’ speculators bought their human cargo in New Orleans and traveled with the purchased slavery to plantations throughout the southwest. “Alabama fever” swept the fertile Mississippi valley lands. The explosion of an exploitable cash crop like cotton was the foundation of the entire system. High slave and cotton demand coupled with improved transportation and plentiful land all combined to drive land and slave prices to new heights. The entire U.S. cotton output double in the decade after the War of 1812, with 50% of that total coming from Alabama and Mississippi.  This spurred the Second Middle Passage that took slaves from the Upper South to the expanding plantation economies of the Deep South and Texas. By 1860, over two million slaves, 55 percent of the entire U.S. slave population, lived in states that came into existence after the founding of the country.

By that same year, cotton and the speculative profits gained from the associated transportation and slave-trade apparatuses, claimed two-thirds of the entire U.S. economy; a reality that produced yet another speculative bubble  in 1837 that burst with even more force this time.

The discipline regime on western plantations added to the harshness of treatment and mental anguish of a population already ripped from their community and familial ties in the forced movement from the Old South to the West. The needs of the sugar and cotton industries fell upon the backs of slaves as smaller farmers and larger plantations owners pushed their slaves harder and harder for productivity increases. Despite the terror and hardships all around them, enslaved men and women formed families and fostered what sense of community they could while under constant threat from forced migration.

Capitalism and the mobility of slave property defined the domestic trade of the second slavery in the antebellum period. Much of the economic growth of the United State during the period was due in large part to the power to own labor property in human beings. This right to property, defended by slaveowners and affirmed in the Dred Scott decision, was not just a philosophical position but was a defense of owners most valuable asset. A labor force that could be moved and exhausted enabled planters to increase production in response to increasing demand.

Technological improvements in production, refining, and transportation allowed the movement of slave property and staple products on a hitherto unforeseen scale. These second slavery staple commodities were the building blocks of domestic and foreign industrial production. The flexibility and adaptability shown by slaveowners translated into other areas of American society such as new business practices. This entrepreneurial spirit, so lauded in the American DNA and chiefly extolled among the white settlers in the West, rested on the developments and demands placed upon the system of slavery exported west of the Mississippi in the antebellum period.

The expansion of slavery did not take place without much debate and controversy. Slavery and western expansion became the national crisis by the 1840s. The Kansas Nebraska Act of 1854 opened slavery to popular vote in the plains territories. The rush to populate Kansas Territory by abolitionists and pro-slavery supporters turned westward migration into a political battle over the future of the United States; as a result Bleeding Kansas, a guerrilla war in that territory lasted over a decade. Migrations westward precipitated the Civil War by forcing the nation to decide whether it would allow slavery to expand and the rights to property of slaveholders protected as inviolate throughout the country. While many sought new opportunities in the West, many others suffered from forced migration that uprooted whole communities and destroyed lives.