Sean Kelley's Los Brazos de Dios

Hartwick’s Kelley Explores Border Slavery in New Book

November 19, 2010

Hartwick College Associate Professor of History Sean Kelley's new book, "Los Brazos de Dios: A Plantation Society in the Texas Borderlands, 1821-1865," (Louisiana State University Press) examines the influence of the Mexican Republic on Texas plantation society. He posits that the Texan relationship with Mexico had a significant impact on its culture and commerce, moreso even than did the "frontier."

In his detailed examination of Texas's most important plantation region, Kelley asserts that the dominant influence was not the frontier but the Mexican Republic. The Lower Brazos River Valley-the only slave society to take root under Mexican sovereignty-made replication of eastern plantation culture extremely difficult and complicated. By tracing the synthesis of cultures, races, and politics in the region, Kelley reveals a distinct variant of southern slavery-a borderland plantation society.

"The book thinks about slavery and slavery in Texas as a borderland institution," he explained. "People have ignored that. When people have told the story of the westward expansion of slavery, they tell it as if slavery expanded into nothing. What I tried to do in the book is to discuss the transplantation of slavery into the west, but it expanded into something - in the case of Texas it expanded into Mexico.

"I argue that the influence of Mexico was felt in two ways," he continued, "Mexican policy and Mexican law made for a unique demographic mix. This is a plantation society with a slavery society, but you see European immigrants too. It was Mexican policy that brought the Germans in before slavery really gelled. Second, you have illegally imported Africans. The U.S. banned importation of slaves in 1808, but they continued down toward Cuba. There was a border dispute between the Anglo-Americans and the Mexican government. These days we call that the Texas Revolution, but because of that border dispute, African slaves were brought into the area from Cuba. The border dispute made that possible."

With the abolition of slavery in Mexico, Kelley explained, the nation south of the border came to represent freedom for Texan slaves.

"Mexico became a symbol of freedom," he said. "Once these Anglo-Texans achieved independence - which they fought for partly because they were worried about what Mexico is going to do about slavery - you set up Mexico as a symbol of freedom, and there's a lot of slave flight south across the border.

"Northern Americans often like to consider themselves culturally superior and progressive, and one of the things I'm trying to do is upend that notion. The U.S. and Mexico are similar in the sense they had been European colonies and within 40 years of each other they declared independence. Both of them during their wars of independence had viewed slavery as an evil, something inconsistent with the new republics with which they were going to replace the Empire. Mexico followed through, but the U.S. didn't. It's a much messier story than that, but ultimately that's the bottom line."

Kelley's book is available at bookstores and online.

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Hartwick College is a private liberal arts and sciences college of 1,500 students, located in Oneonta, NY, in the northern foothills of the Catskill Mountains. Hartwick's expansive curriculum emphasizes a uniquely experiential approach to the liberal arts. Through personalized teaching, collaborative research, a unique January Term, a wide range of internships, and vast study-abroad opportunities, Hartwick ensures that students are prepared for the world ahead. A Three-Year Bachelor's Degree Program and strong financial aid and scholarship offerings keep a Hartwick education affordable.

Contact: Christopher Lott
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