Author Archives: Jordan Schucker

Matthew Salafia — Slavery’s Borderland: Freedom and Bondage along the Ohio River (2013)

Map Showing the Ohio River as a Border Between Slavery and Freedom (American Literature & Culture)

“While the lower North was uniquely southern and the upper South was uniquely northern,” writes Matthew Salafia in Slavery’s Borderland (2013), “the result was a region defined by its blend of influences.”[1]  The author examines the importance of the Ohio River as a geographical, cultural, social, and political marker throughout the antebellum period and into the Civil War. Although opinions were strong and tensions were high between the North and the South in the years leading to the war, Salafia claims that the Ohio River Valley region remained committed to coexistence. Borderland residents rejected the sectionalism experienced throughout the rest of the country.[2]

Of significance to this project, Salafia discusses the “role of location, power, and politics in the institution of slavery.”[3] He uses a historical lens to explore the differences and similarities between the wage labor and chattel slavery systems that existed simultaneously along the banks of the Ohio River. Salafia explains that between the sentiments of White abolitionists, Black abolitionists, and pro-slavery sentiments, a form of “conservative antislavery” ultimately prevailed.[4] Salafia specifically discusses the experiences of freedom seekers in his book, who  had to cross “shared social boundaries between slavery and freedom.”[5] Escaped bondsmen and women often attempted to blend in with the free Black population in Ohio by shedding their identity as enslaved persons and adopting that of a wage laborer before relocating to further safety. Salafia also mentions that freedom seekers would weigh the benefits of escaping slavery against the possible limitations before attempting to flee. Those who decided not to flee likely realized that in practice, the “freedom” in the nearby borderland was often tainted by practices of forced labor that closely resembled the same system they were attempting to evade.[6]

Historical Marker that Describes the Journey of Eliza Across the Ohio River (New York Times)

Salafia does not use the term “stampede” in his book, but he does mention various family escape attempts. He explains that it was often difficult for enslaved individuals and their families to escape as a unit, and they only did so when they foresaw no possible alternatives. He emphasizes that “many slaves along the border escaped only after a triggering event threatened to tear them away from their community or forced them to reevaluate their enslaved condition.”[7] The borderland had additionally become more legally defined following the Fugitive Slave Act of 1793.[8] T

“The Modern Medea” (1867), Painting of Margaret Garner’s Actions by Thomas Noble (Library of Congress)

With specific reference to the limited number of group escapes, Salafia explains that the close bonds of family members often made their escape together difficult. “Group flight presented multiple challenges,” he writes, “making it more difficult for runaways to blend into the surroundings, find shelter, and gather food, but individual escape required fugitives to abandon their families to the yoke of bondage.”[9] Specifically, Salafia mentions George Ramsey, J.D. Green, Mary Younger, William Brown, John Moore, Henry Bibb, Charlotte, and Margaret Garner as enslaved people who had to make difficult decisions about escape and the future of their families.[10] These men and women had to consider the benefits, costs, and risks associated with escape before planning a course of action. If they were caught, some—such as Margaret Garner—were so distraught by the idea of being returned to slavery that they believed death was the better and necessary alternative.[11]

To help with slave escapes, several Black and white community members provided their homes, businesses, communication, money, and other services to men, women, and children seeking freedom. Prominent members who helped freedom seekers in free territories included Salmon P. Chase, a prominent abolitionist attorney and politician; Elijah Kite and his wife, who opened their home to Margaret Garner and her family; and the community of free African Americans in general, who provided “emotional, psychic, and sometimes physical support.”[12] Overall, Matthew Salafia uses the scope of his book to discuss the institution of slavery through the geographic consideration of the Ohio River Valley.


[1] Matthew Salafia, Slavery’s Borderland: Freedom and Bondage along the Ohio River (Philadelphia, PA: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2013), 2.

[2] Salafia, 3.

[3] Salafia, 5.

[4] Salafia, 7.

[5] Salafia, 10.

[6] Salafia, 11.

[7] Salafia, 168.

[8] Salafia, 76-78.

[9] Salafia, 175.

[10] Salafia, 175-180.

[11] Salafia, 180.

[12] Salafia, 166 & 180.

Nikki M. Taylor — Driven Toward Madness: The Fugitive Slave Margaret Garner and Tragedy on the Ohio (2016)

Garner mural

A Mural of the Garner Family Crossing the Ohio River (Historical Marker Database)

According to historian Nikki Taylor, “African American women are at the heart of American history and its many subfields.”[1] This statement certainly captures the essence of Taylor’s argument in Driven Toward Madness: The Fugitive Slave Margaret Garner and Tragedy on the Ohio, which describes the life of Margaret Garner and the sad fate of her enslaved family. Their experiences are used to analyze the pain that African American women endured in the antebellum period. Like many enslaved women, Garner had endured unthinkable traumas on the plantation she was bound to in Richwood, Kentucky. In addition to the forced labor she completed, she was also subject to verbal, physical, and sexual abuse in many forms.[2] According to Taylor, the tragic events that occurred following the Garners’ escape from slavery likely stemmed from this trauma.

Taylor does not discuss the term “stampede” as a form of slave escapes in her book. She does, however, acknowledge the obstacles and potential successes of slave escapes in general. Taylor explains that the most likely demographic to make it to freedom were younger men who traveled alone. Yet the Garner family traveled as a group of eight, with the youngest member at nine months old and the eldest in their fifties.[3] Margaret Garner’s husband, Simon Jr. (later named Robert), had the most geographic experience of the group because his slaveholder had granted him jobs away from the plantation.[4] According to Taylor, enslaved people in Kentucky were unlikely to escape relative to other areas due to the close ratio of white slaveholders to enslaved people. In Kentucky, it was more likely for enslaved people to engage in acts of resistance rather than attempt escape.[5]

“The Modern Medea” (1867), Painting of Margaret Garner’s Actions by Thomas Satterwhite Noble (Library of Congress)

The Garners were set on freedom, however, despite the grim circumstances. They deliberated for over a month to determine their route to Ohio, which was just sixteen miles away.[6] They left the plantation at 10:00 pm on January 27, 1856, with a sled pulled by two horses. They had to cross the frozen—yet still dangerous—Ohio River, but their escape was successful. The family arrived in the free territory of Cincinnati, Ohio at 8:00 am on January 28.[7] Their relief was short-lived, however. Slaveholders quickly noticed the Garners were missing and began their pursuit. Once in Ohio, Archibald Gaines and Thomas Marshall obtained a warrant under the 1850 Fugitive Slave Act to repossess the Garners as their property. When a deputized group of people arrived at the home where the Garners were staying, they decided to fight rather than return to slavery. Robert shot a deputy and tensions escalated.[8] Assuming they would not make it out, Margaret grabbed a knife and slit the throat of her two-year-old daughter. She wanted her children to die rather than remain enslaved. She attempted to kill the rest of her children, but she was stopped by the owners of the house. Later, in an interview with Reverend Horace Bushnell, Garner claimed it was better for her children “to go home to God than back to slavery.”[9] The deputies forced their way through the door to take the pistol away from Robert. In a final attempt to prevent the enslavement of her children, Margaret hit her nine-month-old daughter in the face with a shovel.[10]

Newspaper Headline of the Garner Escape and Killings (St. Louis, MO Globe-Democrat)

The Garners’ fugitive slave trial transfixed people in Cincinnati. Crowds of Black and White anti-slavery protestors came to the courthouse each day. Groups of women also came to protest the separate murder trial involving Margaret Garner. This was significant because, according to Taylor, they were “the first documented collective and public protests by Black women on behalf of another Black woman in US history.”[11] On February 26, 1856, the court decided the Garners would be returned to their owners. In Kentucky, and an arrest warrant was issued for the Garner parents concerning their daughter’s murder. To prevent their arrest by Ohio officials, the slaveholders and their allies had the Garners sent on a steamboat to New Orleans. Yet on this journey, the boat collided with another, and Margaret’s youngest daughter was thrown from her hands into the water. Margaret appeared to be relieved that her daughter was finally free from slavery.[12]

Taylor uses the psychological concept of “soul murder” to place “physical, sexual, and mental trauma, abuse, and torture” alongside Margaret Garner’s story.[13] Overall, her book aims to utilize the trauma endured by Margaret and her family as a lens through which to analyze a mother’s murderous actions. Taylor writes that “there is a direct relationship between racist and sexist insults, sexual and physical assaults—injustice in any form—and psychological pain.”[14] Her literature seeks to make this relationship clear to her readers and give Margaret the voice she deserves. Previously, her story had been regarded as “non-narratable” by many historians and scholars, but Taylor’s work seeks to unravel the “black feminist interpretation” of Margaret’s choices.[15] According to Taylor, the spiral of psychological torture throughout Margaret’s life could only end with her tragic attempts to end her children’s enslavement.


[1] Nikki M. Taylor, Driven Toward Madness: The Fugitive Slave Margaret Garner and Tragedy on the Ohio (Athens, Ohio: Ohio University Press, 2016), 6.

[2] Taylor, 27.

[3] Taylor, 8.

[4] Taylor, 9-10.

[5] Taylor, 10-11.

[6] Taylor, 12.

[7] Taylor, 15-17.

[8] Taylor, 20.

[9] Taylor, 74.

[10] Taylor, 21-22.

[11] Taylor, 66.

[12] Taylor, 84-87.

[13] Taylor, 3.

[14] Taylor, 3.

[15] Taylor, 5.

Richard D. Sears — Camp Nelson, Kentucky: A Civil War History (2002)

“Burnside was at Camp Nelson just preparing to start out and I thought if I could only make it to that place I would be all right.”[1]

Portrait of Peter Bruner After the Civil War (National Park Service)

This thought was prominent in Peter Bruner’s mind as he envisioned his escape to freedom near the Kentucky border around 1862. At about seventeen years old, Bruner—an enslaved man—and several others attempted to evade their violent slaveholders by reaching safety at Camp Nelson. In his memoir documented by author Richard Sears, Bruner recalls the other members of his group being captured before they reached the camp. Bruner attempted to hide in the weeds a half-mile away from the scene but was eventually discovered. He explains that the capturers took him and the rest of the freedom seekers “before the Magistrate” and they swore they “were runaway slaves.”[2] The men were then taken to jail near Lexington, Kentucky where they stayed with more than twenty other freedom seekers.[3] When he was nineteen, Bruner again attempted to escape to Camp Nelson. This time he was successful. He enrolled in the US Army on July 25, 1864, and he served for two and a half years.[4]

In his book Camp Nelson, Kentucky: A Civil War History, Sears documents Bruner’s escape to what was later one of the most important refugee camps during the American Civil War. Sears utilizes primary documents such as letters, memoirs, and telegraphs to convey historical details about the camp. Much of the book contains background information and firsthand experiences at Camp Nelson throughout the Civil War.  Yet, the only mention of a group escape from slavery is found in Peter Bruner’s experiences.

Soldiers in the US Colored Troops Outside Barracks at Camp Nelson (National Archives and Records Administration)

Throughout his book, Sears charts how Camp Nelson evolved from a military installation to a key haven for enslaved Kentuckians and their families fleeing bondage. The camp was originally constructed in Jessamine County, Kentucky with four central goals in mind: to protect Hickman Bridge (an establishment crucial for seizing Tennessee), to prepare to invade Tennessee, to take control of the Cumberland Gap, and to gather soldiers in central Kentucky.[5] The US Army was initially optimistic about these goals, but the camp later faced hardship. As the transport roads from Camp Nelson to troops in East Tennessee became muddier, they were virtually impossible to utilize. Because of this, animals and soldiers faced starvation and received minimal military supplies.[6] Although the camp generally failed as a military installment, it served well as a pit stop for US soldiers returning from Tennessee. The camp had to expand its amenities, which enslaved people (whom Union officials referred to as “contrabands”) constructed.[7] After the US Army opened enlistment to enslaved men in the summer of 1864, Camp Nelson became the most notable Black recruitment hub in the state and the third-largest in the nation for the US Colored Infantry.[8] Many men and their families viewed enlistment as an escape from the horrors of slavery.

A refugee camp at Camp Nelson during the Civil War (National Archives and Records Administration)

In the late months of the Civil War, the camp became a place of refuge for Black and white men, women, and children. According to Sears, many believed “Camp Nelson would be the largest center for black progress…in the state of Kentucky.”[9] These hopes, however, did not ultimately come to fruition. Some refugees who arrived at Camp Nelson included white unionist families who were no longer safe in East Tennessee. Others were the families of enslaved men who enlisted in the US Army.[10] Some women and children were driven away or returned to slavery. For those permitted to stay at the camp, mortality rates soared due to overcrowding and disease.[11] In place of this unofficial camp, Rev. John Gregg Fee and Capt. Theron E. Hall opened the government-sponsored Camp Nelson Refugee Home in 1865. Black women and children with relatives fighting in the war could stay there legally, which thousands viewed as protection from slavery.[12] Despite its high mortality rate—and its relatively short lifespan from January 1865 to March 1866—the legacy of the institution was profound. It provided a place for Black people to gather, work, and attend school. When the war ended in April 1865, however, Camp Nelson was discarded. The Freedmen’s Bureau, established by the federal government to address the newly-freed four million African Americans in the US, was tasked with dismantling the camp and its Refugee Home. Many refugees had nowhere safe to relocate, so they stayed at the camp as long as possible. The camp was officially closed on March 14, 1866, and the refugees who remained at the site became the first residents of a new town.[13]

Present Day Camp Nelson National Cemetery (National Park Service)

Although Camp Nelson, Kentucky: A Civil War History mentions many instances of escapes from slavery—including the experiences of Peter Bruner and his group of freedom seekers —the term “stampede” is not used.





[1] Richard D. Sears, Camp Nelson, Kentucky: A Civil War History (Lexington, KY: The University Press of Kentucky, 2002), 13.

[2] Sears, 14.

[3] Sears, 14.

[4] Sears, 104.

[5] Sears, “Historical Introduction,” xxi.

[6] Sears, “Historical Introduction,” xxv.

[7] Sears, “Historical Introduction,” xxxiii.

[8] Sears, “Historical Introduction,” xxx.

[9] Sears, “Historical Introduction,” lvii.

[10] Sears, “Historical Introduction,” xxxii.

[11] Sears, “Historical Introduction,” lii.

[12] Sears, “Historical Introduction,” lii.

[13] Sears, “Historical Introduction,” lx.