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  • Writer's pictureNicholas Nelson

Why Slavery's Reach is the Book I Needed Most

A picture of the front cover of Slavery's Reach: Southern Slaveholders in the North Star State by Christopher P. Lehman, printed by the Minnesota Historical Society Press
The front cover of Slavery's Reach, designed by Victoria Roberts, illustrates the unpredictability of slavery's reach into Minnesota's culture, economics, real estate, politics, trading, travels, and so much more.

Let's check the receipts.

Following slaveholder money and power in Minnesota, Slavery's Reach: Southern Slaveholders in the North Star State by Christopher P. Lehman generates an image of pro-slavery Minnesota before and during the Civil War. Businesses ran by slaveholders and unfree workers went up and down the Mississippi river, granting freedom to slaves that went north, but those same workers weren't allowed freedom when returning to the South. Why? What we now know as Snow Birds began in the riches of plantation owners buying property in Minnesota and becoming the first "bi-regional commuter." How did that happen? Hotel's were a safe place to bring slaves even after Minnesota became a free state. Why was that?This book tackles all this and so much more in just over 200 pages!

Checking business receipts and censuses is just the beginning subject matter in this book. Lehman collects a massive amount of data on various slaveholders in the south to see their lasting impact on the Minnesotan territory. From those accounts and money transfers, he was able to find hotels, businesses, parts of real estate, and families that encouraged and fought to keep slavery within Minnesota. It follows figure heads like Pierre Chouteau, Jr., George Clitherall, William Spring Hall, Charles Mackubin, Henry Sibley, Henry Rice, Thomas Calhoun, Jr., Mary and John Butler, James L. Orr, and much more!

Growing up as a Minnesotan, I was always taught that my state was always on the side of victory during the Civil War. By that I mean, I thought we were always abolitionists through and through, no questions asked. And although in the back of my mind a tiny red flag was raised saying that wasn't exactly the case, I still believed it. I learned that the Dred Scott case was important in slave history, but I didn't know its true implications against slavery in the south and its relationship with the north. I knew Minnesota fought to end slavery because it was right. This book helps to illustrate the good, the bad, and the ugly of this state's history in a humbling and honest way. Minnesotans only fought to end slavery because it gave the south too much of an economic advantage. They didn't fight mostly because it was just morally wrong. The book goes into more details about it and I cannot recommend this work any higher.

During the George Floyd Uprising, the world was just beginning to pick apart the ugly we've been repressing for so long. Unfortunately it was at the cost of another human life. During my own exploration into racist history and how I can best fight it today, I've found that local history plays more into our society than any historical war fought on foreign soil. Yes, we should not repeat World War II and that's important to learn, but the rich and nasty history we stand on every day is closer to home. We need to be experts on our own history in order to create a new and better society. In my attempt of understanding, this book came right to the front. It was published just last fall by the Minnesota Historical Society Press, a publishing house hyper-focused on Minnesota, accuracy, and expression (the last 47 pages of this book are references and notes (I feel the need to express that in these days of Fake News)).

If you are anywhere near interested in picking up a copy of Slavery's Reach, please feel free to order it directly from or at your local bookstore.


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1 Comment

Christopher P. Lehman
Christopher P. Lehman
Sep 04, 2020

Thank you so much for this essay. I am very appreciative.

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