At first glance, antebellum Missouri should share little in common with the steep slopes of Appalachia. Despite differences in topography, climate, agriculture, and population, however, prior to the Civil War, the two regions shared similar characteristics in their use of slave labor on small-holdings. Small-holders often worked alongside their slaves in the house or field, and typically found diverse uses for their labor or hired slaves out to neighbors.
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While these practices have been chronicled in Appalachian historiography, small-holdings have been largely ignored in other parts of the South. In her ambitious On Slaverys Border: Missouris Small-Slaveholding Households, 1815-1865, Diane Mutti Burke helps fill this void.
As Mutti Burke shows, Missouri presented an ideal place for small-holders to settle. Its close proximity to free-states kept large planters uninterested, even in absentee owning, allowing room for smaller upcountry ambitions to sprawl. Small-holders came to improve their social and economic lot, and found both easier in a region of other holdings like theirs. Owning even one slave provided social and economic capital. It was not long, Mutti Burke contends, before the thousands of westward migrating slaveholders far surpassed their original intentions of replicating the eastern small-slaveholding paradigm, and instead created a distinctive slave society in which small slaveholders reigned supreme (51). In the years immediately preceding the Civil War, she argues, it was these small-holders, and not planters, that became Missouri powerbrokers.
On Slaverys Border differs from earlier works on slavery by examining the experience of both owner and enslaved, as well as the interaction between the two. As Mutti Burke explains at the outset,
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