Taking Slavery West in the 1850s


Category:  History & Sociology

Via:  outis  •  3 months ago  •  13 comments

By:   Livia Gershon (JSTOR Daily)

Taking Slavery West in the 1850s

Before the Civil War, pro-slavery forces in the South—particularly the future president of the Confederacy, Jefferson Davis—tried to extend their power westward.


I wonder how many Americans would vote for Jeff Davis today.

He was working industriously for his ideals.

That's good, right?

S E E D E D   C O N T E N T


Looking back at the years before the Civil War, one might be inclined to regard chattel slavery as a backward system, confined to a single region and doomed to destruction one way or another. But, as historian Kevin Waite writes, at the time, pro-slavery forces—particularly the future president of the Confederate States of America, Jefferson Davis—were positioning enslavement as the key to the future of a continent-spanning nation.

Soon after the end of the Mexican-American War in 1848, Waite writes, then-Senator Davis began talking up the westward expansion of slavery. He argued that enslaved people could farm the lower Colorado River area and perhaps mine gold that might be found around the Gila River.

For Davis, a key to expanding the power of the enslaver class was enhancing the economic and political ties between the South and West. One form this took was a push to have the first transcontinental railway run along a southern route, opening up a robust commerce channel from South Carolina to Southern California. As President Franklin Pierce's secretary of war, Davis worked with pro-slavery campaigner James Gadsden to secure land for this project. This ended with the Gadsden Purchase, adding a strip of land along what's now the border of New Mexico and Arizona to the country's territory.

"By 1854, a commercial empire stretching to the Pacific seemed close at hand for slavery's cotton economy," Waite writes.

Northern forces were only able to stave off this outcome by passing the Kansas-Nebraska Act, which opened areas previously set aside for Native nations to white settlement, paving the way for a northern railroad route. The ensuing national political fights, centered on pro- and anti-slavery violence in Bleeding Kansas, put plans for a Pacific railroad along any route on hold.

But Davis had other ideas for creating a southern corridor across the continent. One was a weird chapter in which he convinced Congress to bring dozens of camels from the Middle East to help fight the tribes of the Southwest and defend white settlers. Another was the more successful creation of a southern overland mail route from St. Louis to Los Angeles, which resulted in better roads and more secure routes for white settlers.

As Davis wrote in a letter to a friend, he expected that slaveholders bringing enslaved laborers westward along a southern route would demonstrate the "advantage" of the slave system to white westerners.

And, in fact, Waite writes, western states and territories, including California and New Mexico, did often ally with southern leaders on national issues in the run-up to the Civil War. Once the war began, the Confederacy was briefly able to claim the part of the territory now known as Arizona, with the support of many of its citizens. Confederate forces also attempted to foment a revolution in California to swing the state to its side.

Like the Confederate cause in general, these efforts ultimately failed. But they reflected a very real potential for an extension of pro-slavery power across the growing country.


jrDiscussion - desc
Freshman Principal
1  seeder  Outis    3 months ago

We don't know our own history.

Drinker of the Wry
Senior Expert
1.1  Drinker of the Wry  replied to  Outis @1    3 months ago

Why should history do any better in our education system than reading, writing, math, science, civics, etc...

Freshman Principal
1.1.1  seeder  Outis  replied to  Drinker of the Wry @1.1    3 months ago

Anything to say about the seed?

Drinker of the Wry
Senior Expert
1.1.5  Drinker of the Wry  replied to  Outis @1.1.1    3 months ago

Yes, the South didn’t want to be isolated and wanted to expand slavery to keep sufficient votes in Congress.

Perrie Halpern R.A.
Professor Expert
1.1.6  Perrie Halpern R.A.  replied to  Drinker of the Wry @1.1.5    3 months ago

Parts of this thread removed for off topic by seeder

Drinker of the Wry
Senior Expert
1.1.7  Drinker of the Wry  replied to  Perrie Halpern R.A. @1.1.6    3 months ago


Sean Treacy
Professor Principal
1.2  Sean Treacy  replied to  Outis @1    3 months ago


Sparty On
Professor Principal
1.2.1  Sparty On  replied to  Sean Treacy @1.2    3 months ago

Problem is, how is it taught?    If it’s taught.

Likely not how it was taught to us in the 60’s and 70’s that’s for sure.

Sadly, a quality Civics curriculum is not even taught anymore in many schools

Professor Principal
1.2.2  Texan1211  replied to  Sparty On @1.2.1    3 months ago


Professor Principal
2  Kavika     3 months ago

The Confederates heading out of Texas to NM and CA for their silver and gold. The battles fought in NM, Gloretta Pass being the largest if I remember correctly, were critical in stopping the Confederates from reaching CA. 

Meanwhile, the civil war was creating some strange situations in Cali. From 1850 to 1870 there was a Native American slave market in downtown LA where the current US courthouse stands. 

Good article.


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