Black American slaves connected rivers, created wealth

Feb 24 '19 | By Ray
Black American slaves connected rivers, created wealth

Black American slave labor played the most important role in constructing, and maintaining the historic Muscle shoals area in the U.S. southern states. Many enslaved black men and women worked their entire lives, enslaved in the southern river region, and maintaining it’s prosperity. In order to understand the history of the Muscle Shoals area, those facets of that history having to do with the institution of ‘American chattel slavery’ must be examined. This article seeks to explore the history of black American slave labor, as well as the hiring, and the buying and selling of slaves who were ultimately used to construct and maintain important U.S. government infrastructure.  This article is not a thorough coverage of the subject, and due to limited information about local conditions, many questions remain unanswered.

Historical records do not indicate when the first slaves were brought into the Muscle shoals area. But long before Alabama became a state in the Union, forces were at work that resulted in slavery being established in Alabama. The French, Spanish, and British who at various times claimed the Shoals area all employed the practice of ‘chattel slavery’ in this region. Even after The American Revolution, ‘chattel slavery’ remained firmly established by law in southern U.S states.

As European settlers begin to move deeper into southern U.S. states like Kentucky, Tennessee, and Alabama shortly after the American Revolution, they brought their slave property with them. While this westward spread of slavery was going on, the Federal Constitution was adopted in 1788. It made slavery a legal institution under the protection of Federal authority.

Many enslaved black people in the south did not live on a plantation, and worked at tasks unrelated to plantation life. Some built roads, canals, bridges, and did other types of construction. For example, James Fennell, first president of the State Bank at Decatur, used his slaves in the erection of the bank building. The slaves cut large stone pillars and hauled them to Decatur using wheels made of tree trunks drawn by oxen.(1) Enslaved black people also worked in the Florence brickyard, stock and delivery boys, deck hands and stevedores, and at numerous other tasks. Most were unskilled laborers but some were highly valued for their special abilities.

When the civil War came, enslaved black people were often called upon to perform new and additional tasks. When in 1861 the Union armies were threatening Fort Donelson and Fort Henry on the Tennessee and Cumberland rivers, a call was sent out for 300 slaves to help erect the fortifications for that area.

Although American slave owners feared the loss of their property and were reluctant to let their slaves go work for contractors, and the U.S government, many slaves were used in the construction of and development of the famous Muscle Shoals, and connected the Tennessee, and Alabama river region to the Ohio river basin. The awesome amount of labor used to make this connection was provided by enslaved blacks, and opened the south up to the greater national, and international economy.

The Tennessee River was long conceived of as a potentially important means of transportation, navigation of the area between Chattanooga, Tennessee and Riverton, Alabama was generally restricted to flatboats, keelboats, and other small craft. Efforts to construct canals in the shoals dated back to 1783, but it was not until the advent of the steamboat during the 1820s that the river was seen as a potential major transportation route. In 1831, Congress authorized the construction of a canal around Muscle Shoals. 

To better understand the role that enslaved black people played in the historic feat, we would like to reference the book‘Slavery in the American Mountain South’ By Wilma A. Dunaway, Pages  89-91 (Published  by Cambridge University Press in 2003)(2)


One-third of the Appalachian counties were situated within the Ohio River Basin and linked to the Gulf of Mexico. Twelve West Virginia counties and three eastern Kentucky counties lay immediately upon the Ohio. Another thirty-three West, eastern Kentucky, and eastern Tennessee counties enjoyed secondary access to the Ohio River because they were transversed by the Monongahela, the Kanawha, the Guyandote, the Tug, the Kentucky, the Big Sandy, and the Cumberland Rivers, which fed into the Ohio.

To the south, the Tennessee River system meandered through the valleys and mountains of thirty-three Tennessee, Georgia, and Alabama counties, ultimately to connect with the Ohio River. At the southern extreme, twenty-three Georgia and Alabama counties were served by the Coosa River, which fed into the Alabama River at Montgomery to link this zone of Southern Appalachia to Mobile and the Gulf of Mexico. State legislatures created as public monopolies numerous navigation companies that were authorized to make river improvements, construct boats, operate landings for tolls, and accept payment to transport passengers and commodities. These navigation companies relied heavily upon slave laborers.

Along the region’s major waterways, more than five hundred small communities became landings for commercial activity and boat construction. Even natural sites like large caves were transformed into boat landings and warehouses where slaves loaded and unloaded commodities. Most of the river systems were improved with canals, locks, sluices, or dams to bypass shoals and falls. Probably the most famous was the Muscle Shoals of the Tennessee River, where the federal government funded the development of a canal.

Because of the interruption in the flow of commodities, merchandise was transferred to canal boats or barges for transshipment to steamboats. The Muscle Shoals canal contractor advertised to hire five hundred slaves annually, and the company drew most of those laborers from the Appalachian counties of northern Alabama. The canal was so desperate for workers that it offered day wages to entice temporary hires, in addition to the customary annual contracts. In the 1830’s the canal company was paying $15 monthly for slave hires. The canal also assured slaveholders that it would take medical responsibility “for any injury or damage” that occurred to slaves “in the progress of blasting of rock or the caving in of banks.”

Seven Appalachian counties of Virginia were connected to Richmond and to the Atlantic coast by way of the Roanoke River and the James River and Kanawha Canal. Virginia’s James River and Kanawha Canal purchased slaves and exploited black convicts.

The Canal Company also regularly advertised to hire slaves from Appalachian counties. In April 1838, for instance, the canal was “in immediate want of SEVERAL HUNDRED good laborers.” John Jordan and John Irvine contracted to construct the canal extension from Lynchburg to Buchanan, relying on forty-eight owned and six-hundred hired slaves.

In addition, a Rockbridge County contractor used slaves to build the extension between Lexington and the main canal. After construction, slaves were used to repair locks and to do regular maintenance. When the canal began to experience labor shortages in the 1850’s, the superintendent “urged on the board the propriety of purchasing sufficient numbers of young men and boys (black slaves)” to keep the canal “in repair.” The company found it cheaper to purchase slaves than to endure the “difficulty, trouble, and expense” of hiring laborers “at exorbitant rates.”

Moreover, the canal considered slaves “an economical measure” because of “the great savings” over the cost of hiring white laborers. In the northern tier of Appalachian counties, the Shenandoah and Potomac Rivers and the Chesapeake and Ohio Canal linked together into a network that drew eighteen Appalachian counties of Virginia, West Virginia, and Maryland into the wider system of national commerce.

The Maryland canal relied on slaves just as heavily as the Virginia and Alabama canals. By the 1850’s, DeBow’s Review was claiming that “in ditching, particularly in canals” a female slave could “do nearly as much work as a man.” The periodical had arrived at the conclusion because slave women had been employed extensively to do ditching during construction of the Chesapeake and Ohio Canal.

In conclusion, we can see that through historic references enslaved black people living in America played the most important role in building the southern waterways and valuable infrastructure, all of whom paid the ultimate sacrifice. We must honor and always remember these amazing individuals who under no fault of their own were forced to bear labor to this nation we call home. Their bones are buried in the same soil as all that have come before use, yet today, their descendants do not enjoy the prosperity and fruits of their labor. In fact, Black American descendants of slaves are statistically the poorest group of people in the United States, and this we must work together to change.


1. Leftwich, Two Hundred Years at Muscle Shoals, page 54.

2. ‘Slavery in the American Mountain South’ By Wilma A. Dunaway, Pages  89-91


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