Environmental History Seminar Backwater: Making Space for Slavery in the Red River Valley, 1803-1850 21 February 2012.Tuesday, 5:15PM - 7:15PM Katherine Stevens, Harvard University Comment: Megan Kate Nelson, Harvard University

"Backwater" tells the story of the expansion of slavery along the Red River of Louisiana with attention to the questions and concerns of environmental history. The essay's central character is a phenomenon called the Great Raft, a one-hundred-mile morass of tangled driftwood trees, shrubs, and silt in the middle of what should have been the Red River's main channel. The Raft influenced the lives of all parties involved in the transformation of the Red River into cotton country. Native polities, emigrant planters, slaves forced to emigrate, Indian agents, creole traders, steamboat captains, and inventors all had their lives shaped by the Raft.  

For the most part, the histories of these many actors on the leading edge of plantation slavery have been told separately. Histories of Indian Removal focus on politics either within Indian nations or in U.S. policy. Histories of slaves and slaveholders tend to focus on the plantation without asking how plantation spaces were made in the first place. Histories of technology focus on coteries of inventors, often removing them from the political and material worlds in which they worked. What these separate narratives share, however, is a story of environmental transformation. "Backwater" brings these actors together through the Raft and through an 1830s federal project to "permanently" remove it.