American History · spatial politics

water power


I went through my smartphone to find images that give way to thoughts about my coming lecture on “Waterways” in my Antebellum America class. The first is a close up of a piece of fish leather I purchased in Iceland in Summer 2017.  My time in the North Atlantic pushed my thinking on the use of water to claim power. I thought not only about the movement of African labor to the so-called New World via the so-called Middle Passage, but also about Erik the Red and his son Leif Ericson, those famous Vikings who headed west with the intent to exploit land in that direction (and not without problems from indigenous people).IMG_0317

Immediately above is a photo of the surf on the Gulf of Mexico. I probably took it while visiting Orange Beach, Alabama, a place I frequently visit as I am a Florida girl often looking for breaks from landlocked Tuscaloosa. While sitting on this beach, I sometimes think about how waters flowing here come from my beloved Atlantic Ocean, or the Eastern Seaboard. This body of water is mentioned in next week’s readings.

The first is David Cecelski’s study on the use of enslaved men’s labor near or off the coast of the Carolinas in the years leading to and beyond the American Revolution. Their bodies were expendable in a region that was still filled with many unknowns. Shipwrecks and the “lost” colonists on Roanoke could be remembered.

Fast forward to the Civil War when Robert Smalls, an enslaved man, who worked as a boat pilot for the Confederacy and managed to escape to a Union blockade because he knew the area alright. He even had a map showing where all of the mines rested in Charleston’s harbor. Because of his feat, Lincoln decided at last to enlist black men in the Union army.IMG_2550

The autonomy and yes, power, of these unlikely men in their oppressed state make me think of other individuals the Antebellum American students have learned about including Sarah Gayle, the wife of Alabama Governor John Gayle (1831-1835) who kept a diary to record her thoughts about the world around her. The diary can be seen as her way of resisting the difficult circumstance in which she often found herself as an elite southern white woman. Writing was a way to recenter herself in a society that often did not have her needs in mind – even if it said it did.

How do the “elite” look when she is left alone with six children and enslaved people, including one enslaved man who challenges her for a horse he wants/needs to use to complete his chores?

How do the “elite” look  when the enslaved people she inherited were sold to pay off her brother in law’s debts?

But more importantly, what does power look like with land and water in view in the antebellum period? Waterways get the cotton grown on land cleared of Indians to distant markets. Advancements in technology like the steamboat, as Louis Hunter, the author of our second reading addressing steamboats on western rivers, answered a practical need for a select few.

Sails that work on the high seas do not easily help water vessels on often shallow rivers that twist and turn.

The arrival of the steamboat via inventors like Robert Fulton, a character in the 1940 remake of “Little Old New York,” helped early and antebellum Americans manipulate the natural world (and people) around them (when regional loyalties did not get in the war. For sure, western powerbrokers sometimes had little use from “easterners.” Indeed, we tend to think of the antebellum period on a North-South binary, forgetting the emerging “west” that included states like Ohio (One aside: Hunter tells us that, while we often hear of Fulton’s name, some have argued we might also consider Henry Shreve, another inventor and the man for whom Shreveport, Louisiana is named, in discussions about steamboat design for western waters).

We forget, too, how Native Americans are critical to the story of progress, depending on who’s telling the story. The French had initially relied on the Indians to help them navigate  the “puny” eastern rivers in the sixteenth century. Navigating the tributaries connected to the Mississippi, the mother of all rivers in the west, required thought.

How much do we think about such things when walking and driving past the Black Warrior River here in Tuscaloosa? Maybe when we see a tugboat heading to or from Mobile we get the idea in the most surface ways, forgetting the larger histories about who gets to move and for what reasons.

We are part of that narrative now as it is a privilege to be in an education of higher learning, asking such questions.


As I tell my American Civilization to 1865 students, Cincinnati becomes a ground zero of sorts for the building of steamboats after a group of American Revolutionary war vets headed over the Appalachians toward the place we now call Ohio. But steamboats are not enough in shallow water. I recall now Avenia White, an enslaved woman, complaining about the “lowness” of the river in letters to Rice Ballard, her former master. She was writing in later summer and early fall of 1838 when work was hard to find because so few people and products were coming into town.  There was an obvious drought, lowering the Ohio.IMG_1008

If a black woman was working in one of two available occupations largely available to her in the the antebellum period – prostitution or domestic work – she was indeed having a hard time when the river was low in a port town. No one is in hotels and boarding houses so the landlords there don’t need her. Neither do the people running brothels.

It is interesting how attention to what the water permits us to do and not do unveils all kinds of stories about how power is constantly in flux. Even the most powerful must find ways to stay powerful. The lowly must do the same. Yes, their destitute state is not always an absolute.

Nature is sometimes a friend. Often it is not.

There are so many entry points to next week’s lesson. How will it all come together? Will the students see  via Hunter’s writing how the pre-Columbian Mississippian Indians they should have learned a bit about found the inland waterways more than sufficient to accomplish the tasks before them?

Will they see how things got a bit more complicated in a “civilizing” America where manners were necessary as hierarchies manifested (the newly monied acted in more refine ways to distinguish themselves from those beneath and even above them. i.e. “I’m moving on up“).

And even this is a messy story.  Eliza Potter, the mixed race hairdresser recalled in her 1859 memoir the newly freed woman who, upon having her first enslaved person, became quite the crude taskmasker. This freedwoman evidently did it in view of Potter who she had assumed would be an impartial onlooker given her own free state.

That was not the case. Or was it? Potter, like the white English travel writer Frances Trollope, told everybody’s business and while preaching about the need for restraint in a crude “western” world, she might be seen as a pretty complex person herself needing to restrain on her own self from time to time. By the way, neither was woman was unfamiliar with steamers as a good deal of their memoirs concern their travels through the western world. Even Chief Joseph Vann, the part-Cherokee man we earlier studied using Tiya Miles’ scholarship, owned a steamer.

What all do we do with these characters who force us to rethink some of the most basic ideas we had concerning what power looked like with the horrors of slavery in the backdrop? That’s the most urgent question of this course and one some of the students are getting very good at answering. I have appreciated watching how some of them are working harder on both their writing and reading as I do not give quizzes in an upper level class to gauge reading. I do give reflections that better help me see how people digested what they should have read and taken the time to sort through. There are few wrong answers. There may be missed opportunities to see what’s at stake. There may be opportunities, too, to better organize one’s thoughts. Back-reading helps.

More than anything, progress is the name of the game. I have seen it in this class and it makes me smile.

This is a lot through which to sort, something I do while reading on this gray day in T-town before watching the Tide take on Tennessee. My alma mater, the University of Miami, has a bye week.

PS The last two photos above are of the Black Warrior River and of the Atlantic. The latter was taken during a visit to see my mother earlier this year in South Florida.IMG_2716.JPG

PSS I am determined to learn how to make a paper boat. As we break for the Fall Semester, we may walk down to the Black Warrior River and if I get it right, I will place mine in a little creek leading to that waterway and think about those early watermen and this issue of water and power.

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