Enslaved People's Environmental Thought in the Antebellum American South
In the first half of the nineteenth century, the American South was a region undergoing rapid social and environmental change. As cotton cultivation reshaped the physical landscape, Americans theorized about the relationship between people and their environments. From transcendentalism to agrarianism, American ideas about ecological interaction reflected the importance of the environment in human life. Historians, however, have usually written about the emergence of environmental thinking with sole reference to white thinkers. But what did enslaved people, who made up a significant portion of the American South, think about the rapid transformation of their landscapes? How did they understand their relationships with nature? And how did they see the environment affecting the conditions of their enslavement?
My dissertation argues that enslaved people’s ideas about, and knowledge of, nature were central to how they thought about themselves and their world, how they worked, organized, and sought comforts and enjoyment, and how they marshalled resistance. Nature was a space in which enslaved people cultivated profoundly different worldviews than those of enslavers. My research reorients historical conversations about the agency of enslaved peoples, arguing that histories of slavery must attend to enslaved people’s thoughts and ideas, as well as their experiences. The dissertation’s first chapter explores the theoretical and methodological grounding of my project. Taking an expansive view of intellectual history, I see ideas as materially enacted as well as written and discussed, and argue that enslaved people’s experiential knowledge of nature provided them with access to alternative spatial and intellectual geographies. Histories of the emergence of American environmental thinking have for too long obscured African American actors and the environmental dimensions of Black political thought.
This project is thematically organized across a wide geography. In the second chapter, I focus on forced migration and the establishment of plantation agriculture in the lower South. This chapter tells the stories of enslaved people who were uprooted from their homes and forcibly moved, often through a process of prolonged encounter with the natural world, to new environments further south. I explore the roles of these enslaved migrants in the shaping of the lower South’s physical geography, as well as their ideas about the shifting ecologies of their lives. In considering the construction of the “Cotton Kingdom” from the perspective of those who actually built it – the enslaved people who cleared forests, dredged swamps, built fences and widened rivers – this chapter moves beyond the tendency of historians to tell the story of the lower South as one of white ideology and black labor.
The third chapter analyzes the experiences of runaways from slavery in the nineteenth- century American South. With particular focus on runaways’ ecological knowledge, I consider the myriad ways in which runaways learned about, understood, and engaged with their physical environments. This “landscape literacy” encompassed everything from information about local caves and hideouts, to strategies for evading bloodhounds, to wayfinding tools and tactics, and runaways fostered, exchanged, and debated their ecological knowledge. The chapter uses an approach grounded in sensory history to argue that the experiences of runaways from slavery cannot be understood without attention to runaways’ landscape literacy.
The fourth chapter turns to the passage of time, and specifically explores how enslaved people used seasons, weather, and natural disasters to mark and measure time. Many enslaved people, for example, marked life events by whether they occurred before or after the great meteor shower of November 1833. Enslaved people developed inventive and intricate ways of recording the passage of time in the absence of traditional markers, and these strategies emerged from a deep knowledge of the natural world. Enslaved people’s ecological timekeeping is an underexplored component of the technological and cultural history of the nineteenth-century American South.
The final chapter of the dissertation revolves around a unique group of enslaved men who were renowned geologists, naturalists, and explorers. Stephen Bishop, Mat Bransford, Nicholas Bransford, and Alfred were the guides at Kentucky’s Mammoth Cave, a popular destination for tourists and academics. They were experts on the region, named many of the Cave’s passages, and orchestrated tours filled with folklore, history, science, and artistry. The guides’ expertise made its way into the writings of a litany of visitors to the cave and their ideas shaped wider nineteenth-century discourses on nature.