RECAP: “The Third Empire: Abolition in Alaska & the Pacific Northwest,” April 7 Colloquium w/ Penn State Prof. Christina Snyder

While Penn State McCabe Greer Professor of History Christina Snyder’s April 14 talk at the Kinder Institute would eventually get to the Pacific Northwest, it began along the banks of the Red River in what is now Oklahoma, where Wallace and Minerva Burton were enslaved by a Chickasaw woman who leased them to the Choctaw Boys School, Spencer Academy. Co-authors of spirituals like “Steal Away to Jesus,” which in time would cross the Atlantic as the Fisk Jubilee Singers raised funds for the education of freed people, the Burtons were among the 8,000 African Americans toiling in bondage in Indian Territory on the eve of the Civil War, and they remained so even after the passage of the 13th Amendment, as the Choctaw’s petition that the Constitution had no jurisdiction over their own national affairs was upheld by the U.S. Supreme Court. Even after the Treaty of 1866 liberated people enslaved by the Cherokee, Choctaw, Creek, Chickasaw, and Seminole Nations, the promise of citizenship went unfulfilled.

Prof. Snyder started here, she explained, to illustrate a historiographical shift that was evident in her and her colleagues’ work with the Southern Poverty Law Center’s “Teaching Hard History” project. For generations, North American slavery was taught as an institution cordoned off in the Southern states, but as the SPLC’s curriculum shows, and as Prof. Snyder’s first book explores, that is hardly the case. We find slavery in Santa Fe, on Ivy League campuses, in Montreal kitchens, and in the Chickasaw Constitution, which declared that emancipation could only take place with the promise of financial compensation to enslavers. Still, she continued, there is no narrative which synthesizes the somewhat surprising scale and scope of slavery in North America, a gap her current book project, American Abolitions: The Slow Death and Many Afterlives of Slavery, aims to fill.

What Prof. Snyder previewed in her colloquium was the proposed sixth chapter of the new book, which examines an imperial paradox in Alaska and the Pacific Northwest, namely: why slavery existed there into the 1880s in spite of the confluence of three powers—Russia, Great Britain, and the U.S.—who had all embraced abolition. Russia, for example, was the second nation to abolish the slave trade and the first to ban slavery throughout its empire. That said, one of the more significant consequences of taking stringent (and geopolitically strategic) efforts to ensure that emancipation was enforced in the Caucasus Mountain region was that slavery persisted in colonial peripheries like Alaska long after the 1805 abolition decree was passed. Some of this might be attributed to willfully manipulated narrative. While the state-owned Russian-American Company (RAC) claimed 820 enslaved people in the Alaska Territory, they explained away this contradiction of imperial law in terms of Indigenous devotion to Russians’ presence there or willing service undertaken in the name of Christian conversion. After coming under scrutiny, the RAC conformed with imperial standards by making all enslaved Indigenous persons employees of the Company. A semantic distinction, though, as adult men were paid 120-180 rubles annually, nowhere near enough for survival.

The story of Great Britain’s Hudson Bay Company (HBC) reveals more of the same. Reporting back from the HBC’s outpost at Fort Vancouver in the Columbia River Valley, American diplomat-slash-spy William Slacum noted that each family there held between two and five people in bondage, in clear violation of the 1834 Abolition Act, which outlawed slavery throughout the British colonies. The primary source of his information was Reverend Herbert Beaver, an HBC employee who declared that he had seen “more real slavery” in his short time at the Fort than he’d witnessed in eight and a half years in the West Indies. And while settlers there would default to a language of slavery being “a custom of the country” and theirs being a “mild form of bondage,” Beaver made it known that at the fur trading post, much like on the Southern plantation, discipline was maintained by the “lash or cutlass, supported by presence of the pistol.” (Disclaimer: Beaver and his wife refused to do what they deemed menial work, required a servant who for all intents and purposes was enslaved by them, and belligerently lobbied for a second female attendant who “exceled at laundry,” all while receiving a double wine ration.) The HBC demanded answers from colonial Governor James Douglas about the state of affairs at Fort Vancouver, but they didn’t come, as Douglas, too, peddled rhetoric about territorial norms, limited power beyond the scope of the fort, and the benevolent bondage practiced there. A truer portrait came from Alexander Kennedy Isbister, a Métis employee of the Company who would leave the HBC for Great Britain and pursue a career as an educator and anti-slavery reformer. Great Britain, Isbister made clear, was simply too weak to impose its laws at the fringes of its empire, and the HBC’s trade monopoly too was entrenched—and too profitable—to entertain change. Bound people there, he assured those willing to listen, were not better off than those in the slave states of the South.

Craven forms of evasion continued as calls for emancipation grew. Enslaved people were not to be referred to as slaves but rather as “tenas men” and “tenas klootchmen” (little men and little women). They were, the British Indian Superintendent in British Columbia claimed, treated well as “hewers of wood and drawers of water.” Unsurprisingly, when the practice of slavery did end in the 1880s, it was the result of self-emancipation undertaken along with other Indigenous people of the region. Prof. Snyder concluded by circling back to the contradictions and thematic through lines that crossed over imperial boundaries in the Pacific Northwest. If a commitment to abolition gave the U.S., Great Britain, and Russia the moral capital to expand their empires, their formulated strategies for eradicating slavery in specific locales—the Caucasus Mountains, the Caribbean, and the American South—didn’t travel well, allowing anti-slavery movements to break down at the far reaches to which these empires stretched, ultimately burdening individual people with the responsibility to promote emancipation where and when local authorities not only failed to do so but also failed to express interest in doing so.