AUGUST 29, 2021
THAT THE American Civil War spilled into the territories of the Southwestern United States is generally known but largely unappreciated. One of the few popular culture representations of this theater of the conflict, the Sergio Leone film The Good, the Bad and the Ugly (1966), is so fanciful and ridiculous that it is easy to dismiss the whole thing as a fantasy unmoored from actual history. Nonfiction about the subject has not always been helpful in this regard either. Usually cataloged as “regional history,” most books have treated the secession drama in the West as a historical novelty rather than something integral to the larger story of the war. The disastrous Confederate attempt to conquer New Mexico, for instance, is often portrayed as a quixotic adventure rather than a manifestation of a long-standing expansionist agenda.
This marginalization extends to the issue of slavery. The conventional wisdom has been that slavery was largely an abstraction to Westerners. The forms of involuntary servitude that were practiced in the West, such as debt peonage and the illicit trade in captured Native people, have historically been too often regarded, by Anglo-Americans, Spanish-speaking elites, and even too many modern historians, as sufficiently different from what was going on elsewhere to be easily rationalized, and even defended, as something other than slavery in the mines and on the ranches. Thus, histories of the Civil War in the West have downplayed or ignored slavery as an issue in the region.
Kevin Waite, assistant professor of American history at England’s Durham University, challenges these usual narratives in his new book, West of Slavery. Waite’s provocative writing on slavery and its legacy has appeared in popular publications like The Atlantic, Slate, and The Washington Post, and his ambition in West of Slavery is certainly in keeping with what has appeared elsewhere. From the outset, the author is clear that he intends to reject old “pioneer tropes” in favor of the more analytical approach of “The New Western History,” placing the story of the frontier firmly in the context of the struggles that shaped the nation as a whole.
The book’s release comes as The New York Times’s 1619 Project, which centralizes the institution of slavery as a perennial force in American history, dominates the national conversation about how our country’s past is taught and presented. Waite shares the project’s sentiment, reaching back to the republic’s earliest days to show how the slaveholding class helped drive the young nation’s expansion westward, making the history of the West as much a history of the United States’s relationship with slavery as it is in the East.
Discussion of the West’s role in slavery is fraught for a number of reasons, including the tendency of some to downplay the institution’s legacy by pointing out that many whites came to this continent as indentured servants. This is, of course, bunk, and Waite avoids this potential trap entirely by arguing that efforts to continue what he calls “The Other Slavery” under American law made for political alliances between Southerners and Spanish-speaking elites, particularly in California and New Mexico. While the plantation system would likely never be economically viable at a large scale in the West, expanding political support was as much a goal for the slaveholding as expanding the “peculiar institution” itself.
Waite attends to the role of slavery in driving the West’s economic and political development (or, often, lack thereof) in his extensive discussion of the railroads. The usual narrative is that the debate over slavery in the decade leading up to secession so dominated business in Congress that a project like a transcontinental railroad was impossible to contemplate until after the war. Waite shows that the issue was far more complicated. Expanding the rail system to the Pacific Coast, he argues, was regarded as critical to the plantation economy, though Southerners envisioned a route along the 32nd parallel, which would benefit the slave states by facilitating the export of cotton to markets in Asia. The potential benefits of such a “great slavery road” also cemented a political alliance with Southern California. The author points out that none other than Jefferson Davis, who served as Secretary of War during the critical years of 1853–1857, was well positioned to steer federal resources to survey potential Southern routes. With this, Waite brings together a number of cherished foundational stories of the Anglo-American Southwest and shows how they too are born out of slavery:
Perhaps the most surprising aspect of this history is not that slaveholders failed to construct the railroad of their fantasies but that, given the odds, they came as close as they did. The Butterfield Overland Road was merely the latest in a string of interlinked proslavery victories across the Far West. The Gadsden Purchase, the Pacific railroad surveys, the US Camel Corps, and finally the Overland — each one of these operations was designed, in part, to extend the slave South’s control across the continent. […] Once completed, the Overland became one of the signal geopolitical victories of this generation of slaveholders, a tribute to their political dexterity, influence, and willingness to deploy federal power. And, however briefly, it also stood as a powerful symbol on the American landscape — a monument to the Continental South.
One thing that Waite does not adequately explore is how most of the Spanish-speaking elites, particularly in California and New Mexico, abandoned their alliances with Southern proslavery Democrats when secession became a reality. Andrés Pico, for example, is specifically cited as a supporter of the Southern-leaning “Chivalry” faction among California’s Democrats, but his Union support during the war, which included organizing pro-Union volunteer soldiers, is only mentioned in passing. This should not be regarded as an oversight however. Other scholars such as David Hayes-Bautista have discussed some reasons for the shift in sentiments, and covering it here seems tangential to Waite’s argument that the former territories of Mexico were seen by proslavery leaders as fertile ground for promoting their agenda.
The relationship between proslavery politicians, such as “Chivalry” Senator William M. Gwin of California, and the established Spanish-speaking leadership is merely part of a very thorough and broad survey of slavery and its legacy in the West. Waite writes about topics that are too infrequently discussed, such as early Mormon efforts to accommodate slavery in Utah and the presence of slaves in the California goldfields. All this, he argues, was integral to the slaveholding class’s notion to create the “transcontinental empire” referred to in the book’s subtitle, where slavery would continue and flourish.
Most importantly, in perhaps the strongest chapters, Waite discusses the postwar legacy of slavery and how it shaped what the West became, from the formation of Orange County, California, to the Chinese Exclusion Acts and, finally, the proliferation of politically motivated Confederate monuments in the 20th century.
Kevin Waite’s West of Slavery: The Southern Dream of a Transcontinental Empire corrects oversights on Western slavery that are rooted in familiar mythology. The notion of the South just wanting to be left alone, which is central to the lore of the “lost cause,” is undermined by the Confederacy’s invasion of New Mexico and the land-grabbing drive behind it. Conversely, the revisionist historiography that denies the centrality of slavery to the Civil War would tend to ignore the “peculiar institution” as an issue, while the cherished lore of the West as a land of rugged individualism is inconsistent with the idea of forced servitude. Likewise, the region’s place in the popular imagination as a land where men (and it is usually men) could remake themselves and start over tends to overlook the reality that many Westerners had brought with them old prejudices and old agendas from their home states.
By showing how slavery was integral to the development of the Southwestern territories, Waite brings much-needed energy to the study of Western history, which has for too long regarded the region as special and alien to the controversies that divided the rest of the country. This is a critical contribution to our understanding of why slavery poisoned the whole nation and not merely a portion.