Expanding My Western Horizons with Kevin Waite’s “West of Slavery”

ECW welcomes guest author Patrick Kelly-Fischer

We’re currently experiencing a veritable renaissance of scholarship about the Civil War in the West — and one of the most recent, excellent entries is Kevin Waite’s West of Slavery: The Southern Dream of a Transcontinental Empire. 

Published earlier this year by UNC Press, Waite’s work serves to place the war in the West in a wider context of slaveholders’ ambitions across the Southwest and Pacific Coast. He deftly connects the contemporary debates over the transcontinental railroad, the fundamental economics of the era, the emerging politics of newly American states and territories like California, and an overarching vision of Southern leaders who sought to expand slavery. 

Waite starts by carefully laying out the ties between the South and a growing West that was up for grabs in the nation’s looming sectional divide, before expanding into how that played out in particular states and territories. He touches briefly on how Utah’s Mormons dabbled in chattel slavery, but one of the most interesting pieces for me was his examination of how debt peonage in New Mexico served as, functionally, a form of slavery well beyond the ratification of the 13th Amendment. 

West of Slavery pays especially close attention to California’s politics. Much of the book revolves around slaveholders’ goal of establishing the transcontinental railroad across a Southern route, ending in southern California, in order to open an easier path between the Cotton Belt of the Deep South and ports in California, ultimately leading to markets in China. 

As a Coloradan, a highlight of the book for me was the effort by slaveholding separatists in southern California to secede from the northern part of the state, in order to form what they called “Colorado Territory”. While ultimately unsuccessful, it was one of a number of Southern efforts to draw the West closer into their orbit. This effort pre-dated what we know today as Colorado.

For me, like so many others, the cornerstone of emerging literature on the war in the Southwest is Megan Kate Nelson’s Three-Cornered War. Viewed in the context of Nelson’s work, West of Slavery serves as a prologue, fleshing out the pre-war years and helping to inform the motivations behind Confederate leadership as they pushed westward early in the war. 

Part of that motivation was, of course, that Jefferson Davis never seemed to meet a gamble or grandiose idea he didn’t like. And while that may be the nature of the war he was fighting, and some of those gambits were low-risk, the campaigns into Arizona and New Mexico occupied several thousand troops in 1862 who would surely have better served the Confederate cause in other Western campaigns that year. 

Waite also offers a tantalizing what-if of a Southern vision of the United States that would have extended well beyond the borders of the Confederacy and Border South, in a direction that’s received considerably less attention than thankfully ill-fated Southern ventures into the Caribbean and Central America. He never strays too far into speculative history, but the “what could have been” questions were percolating in the back of my mind throughout this read. 

Like any examination of slavery, the book can be a grim read, and Waite doesn’t pull any punches here. But like much of Western history, there’s a lighter side to it as well. If you aren’t familiar with Jefferson Davis’s pre-war experiments importing camels on behalf of the U.S. Army, Waite weaves that in as an entertaining aside, along with dozens of other anecdotes, colorful characters, and minor events, all of which serve to move the broader history along. 

West of Slavery is, fundamentally, a broadening of horizons; he avoids the trap of treating the Civil War as a discrete, 4-year event, that only took place on well-known battlefields, instead stretching both the chronological and geographic considerations of the Civil War era. He recognizes forms of servitude in the region beyond the enslavement of African-Americans, while in no way diminishing the horrors of that experience. 

If you’ve already read Three-Cornered War and are looking to flesh out your understanding of the context in which the Civil War was fought in the West, you can’t go wrong with adding West of Slavery to your reading list. And if you’re new to this chapter of the Civil War story, I can’t recommend West of Slavery highly enough as an entry point into, among other things, what drove the South to expend precious resources invading New Mexico and Arizona in 1862. 

In terms of broader scholarship of the Civil War in the West, we’ve come a long way from when I was growing up in the 90’s and early 00’s, when there was just one go-to book if I wanted to learn about the war west of Texas: Donald Frazier’s Blood and Treasure. And unable to find a copy back then, I spent quite a few hours of my life poring over the two pages devoted to Sibley’s 1862 New Mexico campaign in my well-worn Time-Life Books Civil War Battle Atlas — good for what it is, but sparse on details or context.

Tell us in the comments: What are your favorite books on the Civil War era in the far West, and how do you think West of Slavery stacks up? 

Patrick Kelly-Fischer lives in Colorado with his wife, dog and cat, where he works for a nonprofit. A lifelong student of the Civil War, when he isn’t reading or working, you can find him hiking or rooting for the Steelers.

12 Responses to Expanding My Western Horizons with Kevin Waite’s “West of Slavery”

  1. Refreshing to see that the antebellum Southern dream of western expansion – so long neglected in classrooms everywhere – is finally being addressed. Connecting threads to this topic include: Knights of the Golden Circle; the Original “Territory of Colorado” with ready access to the Pacific Ocean; Jefferson Davis’s key role in massaging the “preferred” transcontinental railroad route while serving as Secretary of War; and the Gadsden Purchase. And, although we focus on King Cotton as the commodity sought by Europe, it was tobacco that Asia desired.

    1. I haven’t seen that before regarding tobacco, that’s interesting! Is there a source you can recommend where I could read more about that?

    2. “Tobacco for Asia.” The short answer to your query: this assertion is derived from study of De Bow’s Review (published 1846 through the Civil War) and by investigating the Minutes of Southern Commercial Conventions (sometimes called Agricultural Conventions and Great Conventions) attended by men of Southern feeling who used the annual forums to discuss goals and strategy in order to “advance the Southern section.” De Bow’s Review is available online at HathiTrust; and Southern Commercial Convention proceedings can be found inside De Bow’s Review and in the newspapers of the cities where the conventions occurred. For a longer answer…
      Why tobacco? The two biggest potential markets for Southern agricultural products in Asia — China and Japan — raised their own cotton: China produced enough to export to other parts of Asia [see De Bow’s Review 17 of July – DEC 1853 page 26]; and Japan originally bought cotton from China, but by the 1500s Japan was growing its own cotton on its southern islands [kimonoboy.com “Short History of Japanese Textiles”]. American trade with China had historically used sailing ships, and then clipper ships running between Massachusetts and Guangzhou (near Hong Kong.) After 1848 Hongkou (part of Shanghai) was also available. A railroad linking the South to California, and thence across the Pacific had potential to shorten shipping times and cut out Yankee Traders from involvement with Southern plantation products. According to “The Development of the Clipper Ship,” published 1929 by Charles E. Park, it required 88 days to sail from Shanghai to New York. But a clipper ship could sail from San Francisco to Honolulu in nine days; and from Honolulu to Hong Kong in 19 days. (Figure five days for a train to travel Charleston – Memphis – El Paso – San Diego with two days allowed for trans-shipping of cargo, and the total transport time required to get Southern products from Charleston to China is approximately 35 days.)
      The California Gold Rush which commenced in 1849 led to construction of thirty-one clipper ships to handle the demand of miners voyaging to the goldfields. After off-loading passengers, these clippers had no cargo or passengers to transport away from California. [Gold was hauled away on the U.S. Government Mail Steamers.] But it was found lucrative for empty clippers to sail in ballast across the Pacific to China, load a cargo of tea and sail to Liverpool. (Imagine the profit to be had if a cargo could also be shipped by these same clippers, from California to Asia?)
      In July 1853 Matthew Perry and his squadron of U.S. Navy ships “opened Japan” and in 1854 a treaty was signed allowing coaling of Navy ships; and protection of shipwrecked crews. The Dutch and the Chinese maintained pre-existing, exclusive trading rights with the Japanese, although over time the Japanese were viewed as “easing trade restrictions” with America. During one visit, reported in the Alexandria Gazette of 14 March 1857, page 4, it was observed: “All the trays and etc. were of lacquered ware… The guests sat in a line in front of tables, on which were pipes, tobacco and fire…”
      The Taiping Rebellion, which began in China in 1850 and which would endure until at least 1864 (and kill 20,000,000+ people) was discussed at Southern Commercial Conventions, and seen as “offering a commercial opportunity.” As Mr. C. K. Marshall of Mississippi stated at the 1854 Convention in Charleston: “Given [the current state of affairs] in China, it is [advantageous and timely] to open new markets for the great staples of the South: for their tea we will provide sugar, and also cotton and tobacco” – De Bows 17 page 98.
      As we know, despite all the plotting and preparation (a strip of Sonora Mexico was acquired for benefit of the proposed Southern Transcontinental Railroad, called Gadsden Purchase) the dream of “opening Asia to Southern trade” went unrealized, overtaken by the events of 1860/61. But the commercial world continued to turn…
      In 1869 Yasugoro Tsuchida introduced a new tobacco product to Japan: the cigarette. Quickly, a number of tobacco companies were established in Japan, with Murai Brothers Company LTD becoming one of the most successful cigarette companies. In 1899, American Tobacco Company (a cigarette company formed in 1890 by businessman James Duke of North Carolina combining five competitors together) acquired controlling interest in Murai Brothers; and in 1902 American Tobacco merged with the UK Imperial Tobacco Company, forming British- American Tobacco.

  2. A more honest read without the influence of the current fashionable PC myth that “the South sought to expand slavery,” is Dr. Eugene Berwanger’s exceptional study The Frontier Against Slavery. It was written at a time when academic historians were only in the early stages of developing a historiography that was more about politics than history, and so it is a refreshing look at the historical evidence without the PC fabrication so popular today.

    Berwanger points out that a primary practical Southern interest in having equal access to the territories was for the purpose of having available lands by which to humanely emancipate slaves. How could the South ever emancipate a destitute people who made up almost half the population in a humane manner without lands available for them to survive? Jefferson had stated the practical necessity of diffusing the freed slave population in the vast available lands to the West. What prevented this effort was a rabid racism on the frontier that longed to keep it lily white. This was coupled with Northern racist laws that forbid any blacks migrating into Northern States without severe punishments and fines. (Read more about antebellum Northern racism in This attempt to bottle up the slave population on an ipso facto black reservation in the South was a major deterrent to Southern emancipation efforts. Northern politicians used this fear of blacks moving North and West to coalesce the North against the South. Lincoln himself used the myth that Southerners sought to expand slavery all over the country to resurrect his own moribund political career and satisfy his own racists desire for keeping the territories for the white race:

    “The whole nation is interested that the best use shall be made of these [western] territories. We want them for the homes of free white people.” (Peoria Speech, October 16, 1854)

    “There is a natural disgust in the minds of nearly all white people to the idea of indiscriminate amalgamation of the white and black races … A separation of the races is the only perfect preventive of amalgamation, but as an immediate separation is impossible, the next best thing is to keep them apart where they are not already together. If white and black people never get together in Kansas, they will never mix blood in Kansas…” (Speech delivered 6/26/1857)

    “Is it not rather our duty to make labor more respectable by preventing all black competition, especially in the territories… Sustain these men and negro equality will be abundant, as every white laborer will have occasion to regret when he is elbowed from his anvil or his plow by slave n_____s.”
    (Speech at Carlinville, Illinois. 8/31/58)

    The question must be asked, “Why would the South want to take a semi-tropical institution such as slavery into the arid climate of the West where it would not be profitable?” Even a Northern abolitionist politician such as Daniel Webster recognized the folly in such an fabrication:

    “Texas… was added to the Union as a slave State in 1845; and that, sir, pretty much closed the whole chapter, and settled the whole account… because the annexation of Texas… did not leave within the control of this Government an acre of land, capable of being cultivated by slave labor… not an acre…. What is there in New Mexico that could, by any possibility, induce any body to go there with slaves?“

    Webster points out that banning slavery in the territories, where it isn’t going anyway, is nothing more than than a “taunt,” “a reproach,” a flaunting of “superior power,” for no other reason than to be “an indignity” taking away from the South “a proper equality of privilege” and derogatory to Southern “character and rights.” And that is exactly the argument Southern Statesmen such as Davis and Calhoun made, only in Webster’s words:

    “And I would put in no Wilmot proviso for the mere purpose of a taunt or a reproach. I would put into it no evidence of the votes of superior power, for no purpose but to wound the pride, even whether a just pride, a rational pride, or an irrational pride, to wound the pride of the gentlemen who belong to Southern States.

    I have no such objet, no such purpose. They would think it a taunt, an indignity; they would think it to be an act taking away from them what they regard a proper equality of privilege; and whether they expect to realize any benefit from it or not; they would think it at least a plain theoretic wrong; that something more or less derogatory to their character and their rights had taken place. I propose to inflict no such wound upon any body, unless something essentially important to the country, and efficient to the preservation of liberty and freedom, is to be effected.”

    Webster was exactly right. John C. Calhoun, the greatest Southern statesman and the man President John Kennedy called the greatest congressional statesman, validated Webster’s concerns in a congressional letter signed off on by 40 Southern Congressmen in 1849:

    “Their object, they allege, is to prevent the extension of slavery, and ours to extend it, thus making the issue between them and us to be the naked question, shall slavery be extended or not… So far from maintaining the doctrine, which the issue implies, we hold that the Federal Government has no right to extend or restrict slavery, no more than to establish or abolish it; nor has it any right whatever to distinguish between the domestic institutions of one State, or section, and another, in order to favor one and discourage the other. As the federal representative of each and all the States, it is bound to deal out, within the sphere of its powers, equal and exact justice and favor to all. To act otherwise, to undertake to discriminate between the domestic institutions of one and another, would be to act in total subversion of the end for which it was established–to be the common protection and guardian of all. Entertaining these opinions, we ask not, as the North alleges we do, for the extension of slavery. That would make a discrimination in our favor, as unjust and unconstitutional as the discrimination they ask against us in their favor. It is not for them, nor for the Federal Government to determine, whether our domestic institution is good or bad; or whether it should be repressed or preserved. It belongs to us, and us only, to decide such questions. What then we do insist on, is, not to extend slavery, but that we shall not be prohibited from immigrating with our property, into the Territories of the United States, because we are slaveholders; or, in other words, that we shall not on that account be disfranchised of a privilege possessed by all others, citizens and foreigners, without discrimination as to character, profession, or color. All, whether savage, barbarian, or civilized, may freely enter and remain, we only being excluded.” (The Address of the Southern Delegates in Congress to Their Constituents.)

    Jefferson Davis would in an 1850 speech before Congress express this same principled desire for equal rights in the territories, instead of any desire to expand slavery there. Davis sees through the moralizing facade regarding a ban on slavery in the territories, to the real motivating agenda of the North. Davis knows that by keeping slaves out of the territories, the North keeps out Southern voters who might eventually settle and form Southern allied States opposed to Northern economic policies. It is not a humanitarian concern for the slaves, but rather:

    “the cold, calculating purpose of those who seek for sectional dominion, I see nothing short of conquest on the one side, or submission on the other…fanaticism and ignorance, political rivalry, sectional hate, strife, for sectional dominion, have accumulated into a mighty flood, and pour their turgid waters through the broken Constitution… Why is this resolution to obstruct the extension of slavery into the Territories introduced? It must be for the purpose of political power; it can have no other rational object. Every one must understand that, whatever be the evil of slavery, it is not increased by its diffusion…”

    Davis would also add another reason for equal access to the territories – THE ABILITY TO EMANCIPATE THE SLAVES:

    “No, sir, we have not sought to rest our rights upon the expression of Congressional opinion, but upon the principles of the Constitution and the laws of nature… We have a right to claim that our territory shall increase with our population… and it is but just, and fair, and honest that it should be accorded to us without any restriction or reservation… What has been the progress of emancipation throughout the whole history of our country? It has been the pressure of free labor upon the less profitable slave labor, until the slaves were transferred to sparser regions, and their number, by such transfer, was reduced to a limit at which, without inconvenience or danger, or serious loss, emancipation of the few who remained might occur… it is odious among us now, as it was with our ancestors. We only defend the domestic institution of slavery, as it exists in the United States; the extension of which into any new territory will not increase the number of the slaves by one single person, but which it is very probable may, in many instances, produce emancipation… It is not, then, for the purpose of emancipation or for the benefit of the slaves that it is sought to restrict it; no sir, quite otherwise”

    Isn’t it long overdue that we dispense of this notion that the South sought to expand slavery? This popular fashionable neo-Marxist notion that history must be forced to fit an oppressor vs oppressed
    CRT agenda is disingenuous at best, and ideological spin at its worst!

    1. I see in the second paragraph above I forgot to finish a sentence in regard to another great reference: Disowning Slavery: Gradual Emancipation and Race in New England, 1780 – 1860, by Dr. Joanne Pope Melish. This book is especially enlightening regarding Northern racism.

  3. I just drove through Camp Verde, Texas where the Camel experiment was posted at. Beautiful location. Nothing is left of the camp now, but there is a modern store which traces itself back to an original sutler store at the camp. They have a camel statue outside.

    Plantation slavery had spread as far as it was going to go in central Texas. Farther west it wasn’t going to be a good business model. I’m not sure when big agriculture took off in California, but the plantation model, I imagine, could have worked there, especially in the big valley.

    1. Daniel Webster would not agree with you about California:

      “But what I mean to say is, that African slavery, as we see it among us, is as utterly impossible to find itself, or to be found in California and New Mexico, as any other natural impossibility. California and New Mexico are Asiatic in their formation and scenery. They are composed of vast ridges of mountains of enormous height, with broken ridges and deep valleys. The sides of these mountains are barren, entirely barren; their tops capped by perennial snow…. I look upon it, therefore, as a fixed fact, to use an expression current at this day, that both California and New Mexico are destined to be free, so far as they are settled at all… free by the arrangement of things by the Power above us.”

    2. To Lyle Smith: California was admitted to the Union in 1850 as a free state. At no point did the Confederacy have designs on turning any free State into a slave state. Contrary to Lincoln’s attempt to convince Northern voters that they did have such designs, it’s a patently false idea since the Confederacy’s guiding principle was states’ rights, and the Confederate Constition explicitly removed the central Confederate government from having any say regarding any state’s decision re slavery. Some of you may have to have another go at the Confederate Constitution….

  4. Interesting, the sleight of hand used in attempt to negate claims that “Southerners desired to expand their system West,” via self-limiting terminology and semantics: “plantation slavery” and “African slavery, as we see it among us.” The African slaves documented in California working gold claims for their masters “do not count as plantation slaves.” And, as regards “no attempt was made to convert free states into slave states…” that effort appeared to be conducted incrementally: Mexican Free Territory settled by Southern slave owners and their “property” (in Texas and Sonora); Filibusters in Nicaragua and Cuba attempting to establish slave states (helping to create the Golden Circle); Fugitive Slave Act of 1850 making Northerners complicit in the perpetuation of slavery; the emphasis established by Kansas-Nebraska Act regarding “status of pre-State territories” (think Kansas) biased towards “slavery allowed, with option to repeal… later… if a Free-State Constitution is ‘correctly’ chartered, and accepted by the U.S. Congress.” And, as concerns California: delegates from that State arrived in Washington D.C. early in 1860, intending to push for detachment of six southern counties in accordance with the Pico Act of 1859, to form the pro-slavery Territory of Colorado. That effort was overtaken by events…
    [As for Kevin Waite: his 2016 dissertation “The Slave South in the Far West” is available online, and well worth the read.]

Please leave a comment and join the discussion!

%d bloggers like this: