Mark Twain's Mississippi

A Polarizing Border, 1800-1850

by Peter J. Kastor, PhD, Washington University

The changes in the Mississippi Valley from 1800-1850 represented a condensed version of the broader changes that would occur throughout North America during the eighteenth and nineteenth century. Not only did the last vestiges of Indian power collapse in the faced of white supremacy, but the fluid and complex relationships that had marked life for so long gave way to an increasingly simplistic racial hierarchy.

All of the factors at work in the Mississippi Valley—demography, commerce, diplomacy, and culture—came together to reshape these racial relationships. For example, the Europeans who vied for control of the Mississippi in 1800 may have each sought racial control, but they lacked the diplomatic power to do so. Meanwhile, the relative scarcity of white settlers made the Europeans dependent on Indians for trade. Indians welcomed this state of affairs, since the needs of Europeans for diplomatic allies or for trading partners often placed Indians in advantageous situations. Nothing exemplified this state of affairs better than the large population of mixed-race peoples who occupied the Mississippi Valley. In addition to the Métis in the mid and upper Mississippi Valley, the lower Mississippi Valley was home to a large population with African and European ancestry. That mixed-race population formed the majority of the free people of color in New Orleans, the largest and most prosperous free black community anywhere in North America. These mixed-race populations all secured their goals by exploiting the economic and diplomatic realities that continued to shape life on the Mississippi.

This does not mean that residents of the Mississippi Valley had somehow overcome the challenge of racial tension. To the contrary, the Mississippi Valley had experienced intense, often violent racial conflicts. For example, the largest slave revolt in U.S. history occurred in 1811 in the plantation district fronting the Mississippi just outside New Orleans. Rather, it was the pragmatic realities of a frontier culture that created these racial relationships. The same overlap of commerce, diplomacy, and culture would lead to equally important changes in the racial landscape during the nineteenth century. The Louisiana Purchase, the subsequent resolution of diplomatic affairs, and the movement of white settlers and African American slaves to the Mississippi Valley in Antebellum Era enabled the federal government to consolidate its power over the residents of the Mississippi. The racial implications of this change were rooted in a culture that made white residents of the United States profoundly different from the Indians or the Europeans who had preceded them. The United States government and its citizens saw no reason for the sort of racial give-and-take that had characterized life in the Mississippi Valley for so long.

Along the way, the Mississippi River became an increasingly polarized racial border. For decades, it served as the unofficial line separating places of white and Indian control. As Indian power collapsed along with Indian populations in the second quarter of the nineteenth century, the river would force Americans to face the implications of racial tension between white and black. For example, the Mississippi River both connected and divided the free state of Illinois from the slave state of Missouri. The most explosive legal case of black slavery—Dred Scott v. Sanford—concerned a Missouri slave who claimed that his long residence in Illinois entitled him to freedom.Mississippi River at Cairo, Illinois, mid-nineteenth century

While white residents in the free states of the Mississippi Valley might oppose the power that slaveholders and slaveholding states derived from unfree labor, few of them were eager to welcome free people of color. As a result, the Mississippi Valley may have contained two very different legal systems based on race—one that permitted enslavement and one that did not—but white residents throughout the Valley saw benefits to the own racial supremacy. African-Americans saw the Valley in very different ways. They knew that Louisiana and Mississippi were home to largest, most brutal slave systems in the United States, but they also knew that New Orleans had more opportunities for free people of color than anywhere else in the South. Whether enslaved or free, African Americans in the Deep South also concluded that places like Illinois or Iowa might offer them the best chance for a new future, emphasizing the language of freedom enshrined in the history of those states rather than the anti-black attitudes that often prevailed.