Book Review – Slavery’s Reach: Southern Slaveholders in the North Star State by Christopher P. Lehman

Book Review – Slavery’s Reach: Southern Slaveholders in the North Star State by Christopher P. Lehman

Slavery’s Reach by Christopher P. Lehman is an essential addition to the historiography of slavery in the United States of America. It is a well researched, eye-opening account of how slaveholders, their employees, and their benefactors infiltrated Minnesota through their political and economic influence. It shows not only how Southerners brought their unfree laborers and their wealth from unfree labor to the North, but how Northerners overlooked, acquiesced, and encouraged the influence of Southerners and their wealth. Slavery’s Reach is a heartbreaking acknowledgement of the greed for economic growth that benefited Minnesota and its citizens from the time it became a territory in 1849 until the time slavery was abolished by the 13th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution in 1865. The cost of that greed – human lives, freedom, and dignity. 

“Regardless of the ignorance of Minnesotans, they were complicit in some of the worst cruelties of southern slavery by conducting business with the slaveholders inflicting the cruelties.”

The book is laid out quite plainly, noting Minnesota’s connections to slavery in each of its varied forms chapter by chapter. The forms are numerous, two of which include fur traders, who were often employed by slaveholders, and commuters, who were Southern slaveholders that traveled to Minnesota during the summer months to buy up land and real estate. In each of these chapters, Lehman surgically analyzes the actions of men and women who either used their Southern wealth to enrich Minnesota or who were complicit in the political and economic advantages of that wealth. Lehman demonstrates, in more than adequate terms, the ways in which Southern wealth and influence permeated Minnesota while also accounting for those Northerners who looked the other way, or who indeed supported and collaborated with Southern interests.

While Slavery’s Reach is essential to our ever-widening understanding of our tainted past and its legacy for our present, it is not a digestible or compelling narrative. Rather, it presents a long list of politicians, entrepreneurs, businesspersons, and travelers who, in one way or another, accepted or contributed to Minnesota’s connectedness to slavery, slaveholders, and slave labor earned wealth. Though the research is impressive and necessary, it is presented with such a dry preciseness that without re-reading portions, it is difficult to follow an argument or example from beginning to end. The political, social, and economic context of the time period becomes redundant, repeating itself in almost every chapter. Also, there is no single anecdote, character, or narrative arc to drive the main argument of the book forward or string together its vastness of information. 

“Beholden to the interests of slaveholders, Sibley did not enforce the state’s prohibition of slavery. When Sibley declined to run for reelection in 1860, he had given the state a reputation for tolerating enslaved people and their captors within its borders.”

With that said, I do not wish to dissuade readers from picking up this book. As a Minnesotan who has dedicated much time to researching and understanding Minnesota’s early history, I found Slavery’s Reach to be thoroughly enlightening and achingly tragic. Though it should come as no surprise, men like Henry Sibley, Alexander Ramsey, and Henry Rice—who did so much to exploit, subjugate, and destroy Native peoples and their land—also exploited slavery to the benefit of their own wealth and high-standing. As Lehman thoroughly demonstrates, money and comfort superseded morals and dignity at almost every turn. Even those claiming to be abolitionists, such as Jane Grey Swisshelm, the Republican editor of the St. Cloud Visiter, accepted Southern money when it benefited their interests. 

“Minnesotans rarely interfered with the slaveholder-slave relationships in their hotels, and their apathy left slaves with no recourse but to forego the realization of their legal freedom.”

Far too many Minnesotans overlooked the sources of wealth pouring into the region during its early state and territorial periods. They made excuses for southern slaveholders or outright ignored legal and illegal human trafficking happening right under their noses. Today, we are reckoning with our legacy of profiteering at the cost of human dignity. Lehman shows us our legacy but stops short of anger and real condemnation—at least in writing. What do we do now? How do we choose to acknowledge the past without revering it, while making real change for the future and reparations for the lives that were stolen?   

Colin Mustful is a Minnesota author and historian with a unique story-telling style that tells History Through Fiction. His work focuses on Minnesota and surrounding regions during the complex transitional period as land was transferred from Native peoples to American hands. Mustful strives to create compelling stories about the real-life people and events of a tumultuous and forgotten past.

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