On Slavery's Border

Missouri's Small-Slaveholding Households, 1815-1865

By Diane Mutti Burke

From The University of Georgia Press

368 pp / 6.0 x 9.0 / 2010

buy this book

On Slavery's Border is a bottom-up examination of how slavery and slaveholding were influenced by both the geography and the scale of the slaveholding enterprise. Missouri's strategic access to important waterways made it a key site at the periphery of the Atlantic world. By the time of statehood in 1821, people were moving there in large numbers, especially from the upper South, hoping to replicate the slave society they’d left behind.

Diane Mutti Burke focuses on the Missouri counties located along the Mississippi and Missouri rivers to investigate small-scale slavery at the level of the household and neighborhood. She examines such topics as small slaveholders' child-rearing and fiscal strategies, the economics of slavery, relations between slaves and owners, the challenges faced by slave families, sociability among enslaved and free Missourians within rural neighborhoods, and the disintegration of slavery during the Civil War. Mutti Burke argues that economic and social factors gave Missouri slavery an especially intimate quality. Owners directly oversaw their slaves and lived in close proximity with them, sometimes in the same building. White Missourians believed this made for a milder version of bondage. Some slaves, who expressed fear of being sold further south, seemed to agree.

Mutti Burke reveals, however, that while small slaveholding created some advantages for slaves, it also made them more vulnerable to abuse and interference in their personal lives. In a region with easy access to the free states, the perception that slavery was threatened spawned white anxiety, which frequently led to violent reassertions of supremacy.

Reviews & Quotes

"On Slavery’s Border considerably advances our understanding of the slave South(s). Taking seriously long-standing calls for greater attention to slavery in non-plantation areas, Mutti Burke paints an intimate portrait of slaveholding in a state where slaveholders of small means predominated. Showing what this meant for how slaves, slaveholders, and non-slaveholders related to each other, socialized, built communities, and constituted family and kin networks, this book expands and fundamentally alters the historiographical landscape. Here slaves commonly endured hiring out and abroad marriages and slaveholders just as commonly saw their sons put behind the plow; here slavery was at once intimate and intensely violently. As historians turn increasingly to the global and transnational dimensions of American slavery, On Slavery’s Border reminds us of the continued importance of the local."
— Thavolia Glymph, author of Out of the House of Bondage: The Transformation of the Plantation Household

"On Slavery’s Border tackles two important and understudied subjects: the history of slavery in the South’s border states, and the nature of small-scale slavery. It is full of original and interesting and useful insight about many topics—from the forced and voluntary migrations that created Missouri’s patterns of slavery, to white gender ideologies that resembled those of the midwestern farming communities to the north and east, to the labor, leisure, and familial interactions that shaped the material and affective worlds of whites and African Americans. I am very enthusiastic about On Slavery’s Border, and expect that its audience will include historians of slavery and of the South; historians specializing in African American history, family history, and the study of women, gender and sexuality; and of course both scholarly and popular readers interested in Missouri history."
— Leslie A. Schwalm, author of Emancipation’s Diaspora: Race and Reconstruction in the Upper Midwest

"Highly original and beautifully crafted, On Slavery’s Border intervenes meaningfully and helpfully into some of the most important scholarly conversations about southern slavery. Mutti Burke tackles a region of the antebellum South rarely examined, and the dividends are rich. From her, we learn a great deal about the dynamics of slavery on small slaveholding farms. This is a book that will be read with enormous profit by historians of the Old South specifically, of slavery generally."
— Mark M. Smith, author of How Race is Made: Slavery, Segregation, and the Senses

About Diane Mutti Burke

Diane Mutti Burke is an assistant professor of history at the University of Missouri at Kansas City.

Upcoming Events

View More Events >>

Participating Institutions

The Series

"The Early American Places series is an exciting development in scholarly publishing, one that will highlight the most important part of the study of history: the local and particular dimensions of global issues and trends. This is where the rubber meets the road, where ordinary people's lives help to make, and are made by, the bustling wider world in which they live. Early American Places is an original series, and it will publish important scholarship."

— Stephanie M. H. Camp, University of Washington