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Black Bondspeople, White Masters and Mistresses, and the Americanization of the Upper Mississippi River Lead District

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image of Journal of Global Slavery

African Americans inhabited a multicultural spectrum of bondage and resistance in the antebellum Illinois-Wisconsin lead district. Contests between early Upper Mississippi River Valley Native American, French, and British inhabitants first forced bondspeople into the lead country. There, overlapping US and French practices of bondage and lengthy race-based indentures made a mockery of the Northwest Ordinance that forbade slavery, consigning black men and women to outright slavery at worst or a liminal, limited freedom at best. Bondage fractured families and imposed arduous mining and domestic labor upon African Americans. Simultaneously, it underpinned white Americans’ bids for supremacy in the region, making elite masculinity, protecting whiteness, promoting political advancement, and civilizing the “wilderness” in the process. In response to the miseries inflicted upon them, bondspeople pursued courtroom resistance and sought extralegal respite through religion and within military culture. Too often, their efforts yielded disappointment or devastation. Freedom eluded most until 1850.

Affiliations: 1: Saginaw Valley State University


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