Salt and Midwestern Slavery

67. Salt is life. That’s not romantic hyperbole. If we have too little sodium in our blood (hyponatremia), all sorts of nasty things can happen to us, including seizure, coma, and death.

Of course, most folks worry about getting too much salt. The average American ingests about 3.5 grams of sodium a day. That puts us only in the middle of the worldwide pack. The world average seems to be about 4 grams. Some countries, from Central Asia to East Asia, eat much higher amounts. In Thailand, for instance, the average intake appears to be 13.5 grams per day, and in Kazakhstan, it’s 15.2 g.

Intake is much lower in sub-Saharan Africa. In some cases, it’s at or below the intake considered necessary. This may explain how High Blood Pressure (HBP) became a special problem for African Americans. According to the American Heart Association, more than 40% of non-Hispanic blacks are hypertensive. HBP seems to hit blacks harder, and it seems to start earlier in life.

It appears that African Americans may be genetically predisposed to be more sensitive to salt. Their ancestors were forced, through enslavement, to live in an environment that encouraged excessive salt intake, far beyond what was typical in sub-Saharan Africa. Salt pork or bacon was an essential part of the Southern diet for whites and blacks alike. But the ancestors of European Americans were accustomed to eating significant amounts of salted fish and meats, especially during the winter months. Before refrigeration, anything not consumed fresh was probably salted. Today, even with our concerns about sodium intake, we get only about half of the sodium that the average American consumed in 1800.

Many components of “soul food” dishes are high in sodium, from sausages, to fried bologna sandwiches, to ribs prepared with salty rubs. One teaspoon of Louisiana brand hot sauce equals 10% of your recommended sodium intake. A whiff (¼ teaspoon) of my favorite seasoning, Slap Ya Mama, provides 13%. Half a cup of Bush’s canned baby butter beans is 20%. It all adds up, and quickly.

Where does all that salt come from? It became a strategic issue in the Civil War. The Union’s Gen. Sherman declared that salt was as important as gunpowder. “Without salt they cannot make bacon and salt beef,“ he said, and thus, the Confederate “armies cannot be subsisted.”

It takes about one pound of salt to produce nine pounds of bacon, and even more to preserve beef. So Union troops attacked salt production points on the North Carolina coast, at Saltville, Va., and other spots, while the Union Navy’s blockade kept out a lot of the salt the rebels tried to import from Wales.

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Salt was a strategic mineral. One important site of salt production was in the southern tip of Illinois, the Great Salt Springs along the Saline River, in Gallatin County, near the Kentucky border. The main springs were Half Moon Lick and the repugnantly-named “Nigger Spring,” which points to the issue at hand:

Salt from saline springs is extracted by evaporating brine. But of course it takes water a long time to evaporate on its own, especially in a temperate climate. So the water must be boiled off in large evaporation pans. That, in turn, required large amounts of firewood (and later, coal). The whole process was arduous and labor-intensive.

Before English settlement, the French, who had learned about the saline springs from the Native Americans, worked the saline springs using enslaved labor brought in from the Caribbean. By the end of the 1700s, the French were using enslaved workers all the way up the Mississippi valley, as far as northeast Iowa and the lead mines of Julien Dubuque.

The Northwest Ordinance of 1787 had forbidden slavery in the territory that included Illinois. But the enslaved held by the French who were already there were exempted. Meanwhile, slaveholding settlers from Tennessee and Kentucky had brought in their own enslaved people, and flatly refused to free them. In 1805, the Indiana Territorial legislature passed a law specifically allowing enslaved labor to be brought in to man the salt works. By 1820, the census showed 500 enslaved people in Gallatin and Randolph counties.

Slavery in Illinois finally became illegal in 1825, but a loophole was created for the salt works, which were leased from the state. The biggest salt works, covering 30,000 acres, were leased to John Crenshaw (1797-1871), who had more than 700 enslaved people working the salt furnaces and adjacent coal mines.

Crenshaw became incredibly wealthy, and the state of Illinois profited as well. At one point, the enslaved workers he held were generating one-seventh of the state’s budget.

Crenshaw’s mansion, Hickory Hill; now known as the Old Slave House. 

In addition to the profits from the salt works being generated by enslaved labor, Crenshaw was also interested in generating more enslaved workers to be sold. His slave quarters included a room known as the “breeding room” or “Uncle Bob’s room.” Crenshaw had imported a enslaved man named Bob, who had a reputation for fathering strong and healthy babies, and would force enslaved women to have sex with him.

Hickory Hill was also a station on the so-called Reverse Underground Railroad. It is said that Crenshaw used the third floor to house captured escaped slaves, as well as kidnapped free blacks, before they were taken into the slaveholding states for sale. The small cells are said to have ring bolts in the floor, for shackling his prisoners. In 1848, Crenshaw lost a leg when some of the enslaved men attacked him while he was beating the women.

Crenshaw was indicted at least twice for his slave trading and kidnapping activities, but he seems to have escaped conviction. Under the notorious Fugitive Slave Act of 1850, northerners were legally required to catch and return escaped slaves, which essentially legalized Crenshaw’s slave trading activity. In that same year, he and his family moved into the nearby town, ironically named Equality. A German family was hired to move into the house and run the farm. Since then, it is said that some 150 visitors have reported that the third floor is haunted.

The house was given to the state in 2000, but it is closed. Its morbid historical significance is clear, but no one quite seems to know what to do with it.

It’s one of the sickening ironies of America’s slave-based economy that enslaved African Americans were forced to produce salt, a product that continues to shorten their descendants’ lives.

The Crenshaw House also raises questions of reparations and social justice. Salt production was a vital industry, and the State of Illinois profited directly and significantly from creating loopholes to legalize the use of enslaved labor, in violation of the spirit of the Northwest Ordinance of 1787.

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Map of Minnesota Territory, c.1850. Minnesota Territory was created in 1849. It reached as far west as the Missouri River, including land that would become Dakota Territory in 1861. Wisconsin, to the east, became a state in 1848. Iowa, to the south, became a state in 1846. Nebraska Territory, to the southwest, was not created until 1854

Illinois was not alone. Many of Iowa’s earliest settlers in the 1830s came from slaveholding states. Some, including territorial officials, brought enslaved people with them, on grounds that they were “personal property.” Kidnappers and slave hunters from Missouri ventured into Iowa’s fledgling towns along the Mississippi.

Enslaved people were held by Army officers at Fort Snelling, in Minnesota Territory. The most famous enslaved Minnesotan was Dred Scott, of the infamous 1857 Supreme Court decision that declared, against Scott, that “Blacks had no rights which the White man was bound to respect.”

In Wisconsin, the French fur traders held enslaved workers as far back as the early 1700s. Later, in the lead mining district in the southwest corner of the state, the territory’s first white settlers, many from the south, brought enslaved workers with them. Even the Nebraska Territory, with only a small number of white settlers before the Civil War, nonetheless counted 15 enslaved residents in the 1860 Census. That same year, in November 1860, only months before the Civil War, the Otoe County sheriff advertised the sale of Hercules and Martha, apparently to settle the debts left by a slaveholder.

Resolving the legal problem of enslaved people living in free territory caused harm in other ways as well. Some slaveholding settlers did free enslaved people, but others tried to ship them back to the south for sale. Being “sold down the river” to the misery of the huge cotton plantations in the deep south was especially terrifying. An 1842 case against Illinois’ John Crenshaw concerned the fate of Maria Adams and her children, who had been shipped off to Texas.

Slavery in the Midwest was controversial, of course. After the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850 became the law of the land, Missouri slaveholders stirred up trouble in the southeast corner of Iowa when they insisted that Iowans help them track down escaped slaves. The Texas Ordinance of Secession complained about Iowa as one of the states that was not upholding the “rights” of slave owners to their “property.” Many in the southern states were particularly angry that after the creation of Kansas Territory in 1854, Iowa’s Gov. Grimes had given aid and protection to Free Soilers crossing Iowa in order to enter Kansas.

Obviously, slavery was rare in the Midwest, but it did exist. And, as the case of John Crenshaw and his salt works reminds us, it could be every bit as cruel as the worst Simon Legree on a deep south plantation.

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Author: Dan Anderson

I'm an Iowa boy by choice. I love cooking and I love history, so I thought I'd put the two together.

2 thoughts on “Salt and Midwestern Slavery”

  1. This is a fascinating piece, but I’m wondering if you could furnish your source for the claim that slavery was tolerated in “free” states or regions in some instances because the slaves were regarded as “personal property.” Of course, all slaves were property, but adding the word “personal” implies a narrower focus. This concept, if I’m interpreting it correctly, would explain why citizens from many “free” Midwest states tolerated the presence of slaves who were household servants but were critical of using slaves in commercial or industrial capacities. Crenshaw obviously was operating mainly as a commercial slaveholder, and he ran into some opposition. But he probably would have been ignored and accepted had he merely kept a few people in bondage as house servants.

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    1. Thanks for asking about this! I guess I was thinking in terms of the perspective of slaveholders generally rather than the free state population’s attitude. As far as sources, I had in mind material from the link for Iowa, which talks about the reaction of some toward the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850. Many of the early settlers in southeast Iowa had come from Virginia, Maryland, and Missouri, compared to the center section of the state, which had attracted more settlers from New England. I meant “personal property” in the sense of “This is the personal business of the slaveholder, and so I won’t interfere.” — Dan

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