|Date(s):||September 5, 1844 to April 8, 1848|
|Location(s):||ORANGE, North Carolina|
|Tag(s):||Westward Expansion, Slavery, Migration, slavery, runaway|
|Course:||“Contemporary Issues in Social Studies Education,” North Carolina State University|
One of the more striking aspects of the Cameron plantation letters is the account they offer of the exportation of slave life from the areas of initial settlement on the Atlantic seaboard beyond the Appalachian mountains into the old Southwest and the Mississippi. Ira Berlin's Many Thousands Gone and Generations Of Captivity trace this development to the period of the American Revolution, when British promises of freedom to runaway slaves in Virginia and the Carolinas led to the evacuation of many slaves to the west, with predictable disruption to slave families and communities (Berlin, Many Thousands Gone, 264-265). With freedom for white Americans from British colonial authority came more opportunities to extend unfreedom for black Americans across the continent. After the war, natural increase in the slave population created a surfeit of unfree labor (first in Virginia and Maryland, but later on in the states further south), which augmented this flow of slaves to places like Greene County, Alabama, where the Camerons established a second plantation in 1845, toward the tail end of this period of westward transportation of the slave system. Paul Cameron’s correspondence illustrates the careful, methodical measures he took to undertake this endeavor, while the attempt by the slave Milton hints at the effect this forced migration had upon the enslaved population.
Throughout the autumn of 1844, Paul Cameron steadily made plans to establish a new presence for his family business in Alabama. In a pair of letters to his father, he describes contracting to purchase shoe leather in Petersburg, Virginia (series: 1.3.3, box: 40, folder: 934, date: 1844-9-5) and discusses his plans to acquire tents, buttons, and wagons (series: 1.3.3, box: 40, folder: 935, date: 1844-10-12) in anticipation of setting his "people" upon the march of from Person County, North Carolina to the planned new plantation to the southwest (series: 1.3.3, box: 40, folder: 936, date: 1844-10-20). By November, Paul has seen the contingent off on its journey to Alabama (series: 1.3.3, box: 40, folder: 937, date: 1844-11-5), where he agrees to purchase plantations at both Candy's Landing and in Greene County (series: 1.3.3, box: 40, folder: 937, date: 1844-11-27, series: 1.3.3, box: 41, folder: 940, date: 1845-1-4). Cameron is quite meticulous about the preparations for the move. He is clearly a businessman of a conscientious nature. However, for all the pains he takes to ensure the smooth running of the westward march, Paul makes sure to travel to Alabama the following year in as luxurious a manner as one could in the 1840s. His attention to detail seems directed much more toward the furtherance of his financial interests in the expansion of his enterprise. While the slave Edmund becomes seriously ill during the journey (series: 1.3.3, box: 40, folder: 939, date: 1844-12-7), Cameron's main objection to his journey is the presence of blacks in his stage-coach (series: 1.3.3, box: 41, folder: 970, date: 1845-11-18). The attitude of the planter class is clearly illustrated: black people exist only as laborers and only merit consideration as agents of white economic designs. The damage to black people as people is of little concern.
This disregard for the wishes of real people is exemplified by the attempt of a slave named Milton to return to North Carolina in 1847 (series: 1.3.3, box: 43, folder: 1002, date: 1847-2-9). He is captured before even making it out of Alabama and returned to the Greene County plantation (series: 1.3.3, box: 43, folder: 1002, date: 1847-2-5, series: 1.3.3, box: 43, folder: 1006, date: 1847-4-8). While it seems counterintuitive that a slave would flee a plantation to return to another plantation, Berlin argued that most runaway slaves did not seek freedom, but rather absconded in order to visit family or otherwise maintain the bonds of community which the caprice of slave masters sometimes severed. To slave-holders like Paul Cameron, the move to the west as a simple business decision, to be executed with prudence and attention to detail, but with little concern for the human property involved. To slaves like Edmund, taken ill during a very long journey on foot, or Milton, run away back to the world he knew and had been removed from, the journey west was a brutal abruption.