Review and Comment on “Before the Railroad: From Slavery to Freedom in the Canadian-American Borderland”

Gregory Wigmore, doctoral candidate at University of California at Davis, looks at how slaves of British Loyalists traversed both boundaries of nation-state and enslavement to secure manumission.  Wigmore begins his essay with a slave woman and her son escaping enslavement from an attorney in Upper Canada.  Similar to the process and dynamic of Harriet Tubman’s Underground Railroad, the mother and son board a small boat and flee Sandwich by way of the Detroit River to Detroit.  His compelling introduction, illuminates slave negotiation of the borderlands in order to attain freedom.  Wigmore situates his historical characters and many others in the greater historiography of slavery by suggesting their absence from the historical narrative and asserts that runaway slaves “played a significant role in the hardening of that boundary.” (p.438) Wigmore claims historians have traditionally looked at slave flight from the U.S. to Canada not the reverse.  Combined with cross border activities of the enslaved, the idea behind the border as sacred, and the deterioration of U.S.-British relations, Canadian and American officials sought to “recognize the boundary’s political significance.” (p. 483) All of these factors combined claims Wigmore, “inadvertently established free spaces where fugitives from the opposite side could find sanctuary, a development that destabilized and ultimately destroyed slavery in the borderland.” (p. 439)

I appreciate Wigmore’s use of Jeremy Adelman and Stephen Aron’s continental approach because I have also found relevance in my work.  Nevertheless, I am a little confused with his use of Peter Sahlins, Adelman, and Aron collectively, and I wonder if Adelman and Aron would be too.  Moreover, where is his discussion on our Borderland forefathers or should we move away from these Turnercentric discussions.  Finally, why not refer to Bridging National Borders in North America: Transnational and Comparative Histories, a seminal anthology in the discussion of a North American approach when using Adelman and Aron.

Categories: Book and Journal Reviews | 3 Comments

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3 thoughts on “Review and Comment on “Before the Railroad: From Slavery to Freedom in the Canadian-American Borderland”

  1. Thanks for the post, Jessica. You raise some good questions. Could you elaborate on what you found odd about using Sahlins? Is it that his reference to Sahlins (as well as Adelman and Aron for that matter) is pretty brief? These references may actually be part of the answer to your question about historiography. I think it’s increasingly unnecessary to reference work like Turner’s, which is not only less relevant topically in this case, but which has come to be seen as significantly flawed. That said, Turner’s work remains historiographically significant, and certainly would still have a place in a dedicated essay on borderlands historiography. Sahlins, on the other hand, published in 1989 is a classic in the “new” borderlands studies and its focus on the process of forming the boundary between France and Spain dovetails with Adelman and Aron’s notion of the hardening of borderlands to bordered lands. In other words, though he only quotes Sahlins in passing, the reference (along with nods to Adelman and Aron) serves to anchor Wigmore to that larger historiography in a way that’s more relevant than references to Turner or Bolton.

    All that said, I think you’re right that Wigmore might have found some useful references in the introduction to Bridging National Borders, which spends a good amount of space contemplating the Canada-US Border alongside the US-Mexico border.

  2. What I most appreciated about this article was how the story he tells reverses the usual teleology of borderlands studies, in which earlier more open and fluid dynamics give way to heavily-policed international borders. (This is the real thrust of Adelman and Aron’s article, for example). Wigmore shows how the consolidation of borders and the national institutions and identity that lay behind them could actually bring freedom and liberation for some. Strikes me as a fresh and timely reminder that nationalism and nations aren’t always so bad. A nice companion to Sean Kelley’s work on fugitive slaves on the Texas-Mexico border.

  3. Thank you Jared and Dr. Johnson for your insightful and intellectually stimulating responses. In reply to Jared’s comment I also found Wigmore’s use of both texts (Sahlins and Adelman and Aron) brief. When re-reading Sahlins, I agree with Jared’s statement. I too find Sahlins’ analysis important scholarship in borderlands historiography; however, when interested in the nation-state’s effects culturally, politically, and socially on its border regions, Sahlins is powerful.

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