As he rode from the Choctaw Cession in northern Mississippi toward the plantation districts of western Tennessee, Virgil Stewart likely pondered his future and its possibilities. Possessed of a discontented soul and a firm sense that he was fated for greatness, the twenty-four-year-old Stewart was an impatient and easily frustrated man for whom present circumstances never quite satisfied. His current situation was no exception. It was January 1834, and Stewart had managed to acquire a few small parcels of land and achieve a middling status that many would have considered impressive for someone from beginnings as modest as his. But mostly he peddled furnishings out of a trunk, and he dreamed of doing grander things with his life. His ambitions were no less fierce for their lack of focus, and like many young men of his generation he believed his destiny could be waiting over the next hill. So Virgil Stewart kept on riding.1
On arriving in Tennessee’s Madison County, Stewart paid a visit to John Henning, a minister and cotton planter with whom he had become acquainted several years earlier. As they talked, Henning mentioned that two of his slaves had recently vanished and that a local farmer and petty criminal named John Murrell had stolen them. Henning had no real evidence that Murrell was the thief. But he was certain, and he asked Stewart if he was willing and had the time to help him corroborate his suspicions. Rumor had it that Murrell would soon be taking a trip to the town of Randolph, and Henning said his son Richard intended to follow him. If all went according to plan, in the course of his travels Murrell would reveal the location of John Henning’s slaves, simultaneously exposing his perfidy and enabling the elder Henning to recover his property. Randolph, though, was on the Mississippi River, more than fifty miles from the Henning plantation. John Henning did not want his son to undertake such a long and potentially dangerous mission alone in the middle of winter, so he proposed to Stewart that he join the expedition. Saying yes changed Stewart’s life.2
Richard Henning never arrived where he and Stewart agreed to meet to begin their journey, so Stewart set off on his own. He located John Murrell, engaged him in conversation, accompanied him on his trip, and acquired information that he claimed confirmed Murrell’s theft of John Henning’s slaves. On returning to Madison County, Stewart reported his findings to Henning, who gathered a posse, went to Murrell’s house, and arrested him. Afterward, sitting in a tavern as Henning and other wealthy citizens showered him with accolades for his bravery and cleverness, Virgil Stewart felt like an important and respected man. His moment to emerge from the anonymous masses and lay claim to an extraordinary future had arrived. He could not have known that his attempt to capitalize on that moment would result in the deaths of dozens of people back in Mississippi, but had he known, he might not have cared. It would not be the first time he had tried to take a shortcut at someone else’s expense, and after all, every white man was entitled to make of himself what he could. This is a book about the thrill of that classically American promise and the furious, dark consequences of its pursuit.3
THE EARLY 1830S WERE stirring times for many Americans like Virgil Stewart, who lived in a country enjoying material prosperity and expansive growth the likes of which had not been seen since the years right after the end of the War of 1812. As technological advances, infrastructural improvements, and manufacturing innovations converged with the sale of large swaths of expropriated Indian land, a dramatically increased money supply, and government policies that enabled rapidly proliferating state and local banks to unleash a deluge of paper notes and liberal loans, Americans chased unprecedented opportunities in flourishing cities and on burgeoning frontiers. By the middle of the decade, the contours of the economic landscape in the United States were unmistakable. These were flush times, and the sense that nearly anyone might dip into a virtually limitless pool of money and acquire credit with few questions asked made for a heady atmosphere. Countless Americans dreamed that anything was possible for those willing to hustle.4
And hustle they did. Indeed, it was common wisdom among many observers that the United States had become a nation of strivers excitedly responsive to the demands and possibilities of market capitalism. Michel Chevalier, for instance, found an irrepressibly kinetic populace when he visited the United States between 1833 and 1835. An engineer on a mission for the French government, Chevalier marveled at the “passion for locomotion” he saw everywhere he went, and despite his ambivalence about Americans’ unending obsession with money, he had to concede that he found their “go ahead” attitude invigorating. “If movement and the quick succession of sensations and ideas constitute life,” Chevalier thought, “here one lives a hundred fold more than elsewhere.” Americans had no interest in idle chatter, no time to digest a meal, no ability even to sit still. Instead, all was “circulation, motion, and boiling agitation.” Every man had a scheme for realizing a fast fortune and the collateral conviction that a person of humble origins might soon be a giant among his fellows. Andrew Jackson himself best demonstrated that prospect, his storied rise from frontier wastrel to wealthy squire to the most forceful president the country had ever known having made him the paragon of the self-made man and among the most popular individuals of his age.5
No part of the country was more flush in the flush times than what was then its southwestern frontier, because western Georgia, Alabama, Mississippi, and eastern Louisiana possessed some of the most fertile soil on the continent for growing cotton. With the demand for the crop from the domestic and British textile industries practically insatiable and average New Orleans prices for it increasing by 80 percent during the first half of the 1830s, the forced removal of tens of thousands of Native Americans from millions of acres of prime southwestern cotton land dovetailed with federal provisions that set initial prices of public land at just $1.25 an acre to create a frenzy of migration, investment, and agricultural production. Already vital to the American economy by the start of the 1830s, over the course of the decade cotton crops brought to market by southwestern growers swelled capital accumulation that accelerated national economic development, furthered the rising position of the United States as a global power, and cemented cotton’s place as the most significant commodity on earth.6
In 1831 the United States produced about 350 million pounds of cotton, just under half of the world’s raw cotton crop. The bulk of that crop was shipped abroad, and cotton exports in 1831, worth a shade over $25 million, accounted for 35 percent of the value of all the goods exported from the United States. By 1835 the cotton crop had increased to more than 500 million pounds, roughly 70 percent of it grown in Alabama, Mississippi, Georgia, and Louisiana. Cotton exports, now worth nearly $65 million, amounted to more than half the value of all goods America sent overseas, a majority cotton maintained every year until 1841 and for most years prior to the Civil War. Thanks almost entirely to southwestern cotton production, in 1834 New Orleans bypassed New York as the most important export city in the country, and it would hold that position for almost a decade. In 1839 the United States produced more than 800 million pounds of cotton. Its share of worldwide production had become nearly two-thirds, and 80 percent of American cotton came from the Southwest. Of the 86 percent of the crop shipped overseas, two-thirds of it went to England, which relied on the United States for 81 percent of the cotton its mills turned into yarn and cloth.7
Little wonder, then, that when Virgil Stewart left his birthplace and sought opportunity in the 1830s, he headed for the Southwest, and even less that he ended up in Mississippi, which boomed like nowhere else in the region. The removal of the Choctaw and Chickasaw Indians between 1830 and 1832 opened the floodgates to white settlement of the northern half of the state, and hopeful purchasers swarmed federal land offices for months on end when they commenced business. The national government sold more than one million acres of public land in Mississippi in 1833 alone, twice as much as it sold in any other state. In 1835 the government sold nearly three million acres, which was more public land than had been sold in the entire country just a few years earlier.8
Capital came pouring into Mississippi as well. The number of banks incorporated in the state grew from one in 1829 to thirteen in 1837. Most had multiple branches, and their collective volume of loans bulged from just over one million dollars to more than fifteen million, seemingly with good reason. The nearly seventy-five thousand white people who moved to Mississippi between 1830 and 1836 doubled the state’s white population and provided an eager market for that money. Moreover, their ability to pay back what they borrowed appeared beyond question. In 1834 Mississippians produced 85 million pounds of cotton, a more than eightfold increase over the amount they had produced less than fifteen years earlier. In 1836 they brought more than 125 million pounds to market, and by 1839 the Mississippi cotton crop amounted to nearly 200 million pounds, at which point Mississippians grew almost a quarter of America’s cotton—more than the residents of any other state in the nation.9
Because cotton had the potential to yield returns very quickly and the efflorescence of banks made Mississippi a place where, as one man observed in 1836, “credit is plenty, and he who has no money can do as much business as he who has,” nearly anyone able to procure even a small piece of land could indulge the belief that he was on the road to success. It was no coincidence that the 1832 state constitution, which replaced the original 1817 charter crafted when Mississippi achieved statehood, was among the most democratic in the country. Mississippi’s growing population and its economic dynamism both reflected and reinforced broader cultural and political trends such that it epitomized the vaunted white male democracy of the age.10
Certainly, casual assessments of Mississippi’s circumstances made it hard to argue with the results. To Natchez lawyer William Henry Sparks, the 1830s were years when it was as if “a new El Dorado had been discovered; fortunes were made in a day … and unexampled prosperity seemed to cover the land as with a golden canopy[;] … where yesterday the wilderness darkened over the land with her wild forests, to-day the cotton plantation whitened the earth.” Author Joseph Holt Ingraham, who toured Mississippi in 1834, offered a similar observation, considering cotton growing a “mania” that would not pass “till every acre is purchased and cultivated” and the state became “one vast cotton field.” Ingraham concluded that “if the satirical maxim, ‘man was made to make money,’ is true … [then] the mint of his operations lies most temptingly” in Mississippi. Burrell Fox, a farmer who migrated to Mississippi in the early 1830s, was not as lettered as Sparks or Ingraham, but no refinement was required to see what cotton made possible. “I like this cuntry,” he wrote back to relatives in North Carolina, “better then any cuntry I have evry yet seen for making money.”11
The dazzling plenty of the flush times, however, could not entirely blind Americans to troubling attendant realities. If the Southwest exemplified the energetic optimism and seemingly limitless potential of the era, it also crystallized the dangerous volatility and unnerving doubts that would ultimately undo Virgil Stewart and leave in shambles the landscape onto which he and so many others projected their fantasies. It was true that Americans everywhere in the 1830s, collectively loaded with cash and credit, enthusiastically engaged in moneymaking ventures of nearly any sort, no matter how questionable. Newspapers by the middle of the decade were filled with reports of “stock jobbers” who persuaded the artless multitudes to make dubious investments they did not understand and with stories of madcap real estate schemes for land whose skyrocketing prices bore no plausible relation to its actual worth: a township of Maine timberland purchased in the 1820s for $620 that sold for $180,000; a tract of town property in Louisville bought for $675 in 1815 that brought its owner an offer of $275,000; a remote river island in northwestern Ohio that cost $1,000 and sold less than two months later for $3,000; New York village lots along the Erie Canal whose buyers paid ten times what the land had sold for six months earlier.12
But in the Southwest, Americans built a culture of speculation unique in its abandon. Joseph Baldwin, a young lawyer from Virginia who came to the region in 1836, recalled literally sensing a shift in the economic environment as he rode into it. Contrasting the “picayune standard” of the East with “the wild spendthriftism, the impetuous rush and the magnificent scale of operations” of the Southwest, Baldwin noted that “the new country seemed to be a reservoir, and every road leading to it a vagrant stream of enterprise and adventure.” With cotton prices continuing to rise regardless of the volume placed on the market and “marvellous accounts” of the Southwest’s fertile soil circulating nationally, none of the usual rules of business and finance appeared to apply. “Money, or what passed for money,” Baldwin remembered, was the “only cheap thing to be had,” and real estate costs “rose like smoke. Lots in obscure villages were held at city prices; lands, bought at the minimum cost of government, were sold at from thirty to forty dollars per acre, and considered dirt cheap at that.” It barely mattered whether a person even wanted to grow cotton or participate directly in the land bonanza, as men accumulated “paper fortunes” without ever girdling a tree or touching a plow and imagined instant riches at “every cross-road and every avocation.”13
Baldwin’s portrayal of the Southwest in the flush times was not published until years later, and in some measure he intended it as caricature. But contemporary accounts suggest he exaggerated little about the frenzy he witnessed. Here too Mississippi led the way. Baldwin’s fellow Virginia lawyer William Gray was thoroughly taken in by the infectious economic environment he found there. Gray had planned on just passing through Mississippi en route to Texas, where he was to act as a land agent for some men from Washington, D.C., but on hearing of “great speculations in lands in all parts of the State” he stopped to do some business for himself. He spent days poring over maps and examining settlements where every parcel had been bought and sold as many as four times in five years at prices that spiraled higher and higher. Speed was critical, as Gray met men who spent tens of thousands of dollars on plantations without ever seeing the property and others who were disappointed because the land they scouted got snatched out from under them before they could get back to the government land office to purchase it. But Gray was not dissuaded. The energy of the “new world” he had stumbled into was intoxicating. “I cannot help feeling the contagion,” Gray wrote in his diary, “and want to be dealing in tens and hundreds of thousands.”14
Given that land companies operating in Mississippi considered short-term profits of 100 percent to be eminently reasonable, Gray’s excitement was understandable. Probably he would have concurred with the newspaper editor from his home state who looked to the Southwest in 1835, saw escalating cotton prices and plentiful land, and presumed that prosperity would last indefinitely. “The boundless fields of the South and West will yet take years to explore and settle,” asserted the editor of the Lynchburg Virginian, “and we know of nothing in the probable course of events likely to throw a damper on the spirit of enterprise which is now impelling thousands to leave the lands which their grandfathers tilled, for new homes and new sources of wealth.”15
To be sure, there was an unusually large amount of money in Mississippi. The residents of the Natchez District were among the wealthiest in the United States, and they funneled substantial resources into land, banks, internal improvements, and other promising investment opportunities. Moreover, funds streamed into the state from around the country and around the world as nonresident investors from New York, Boston, Philadelphia, London, and other financial centers pumped millions of dollars into land companies, state bonds, and bank stocks. The Second Bank of the United States bloated the state with money further still. In the early 1830s it poured nearly half its business into the Southwest, flooding the region with loans to facilitate and take advantage of the profits produced in the cotton plantation economy. Andrew Jackson’s withdrawal of federal deposits from the Bank after his reelection in 1832 threatened to curtail such expansiveness, but the selection of the Planters’ Bank of Mississippi as one of the federal depositories that replaced it ultimately kept the deluge of southwestern credit going. By early 1835 it surged at a more frenetic pace than ever. All told, Mississippi’s banking capital increased roughly by a factor of ten between 1830 and 1837, at which point bank loans had risen to an average of nearly one hundred dollars per capita, more than triple the national average and almost a sevenfold increase from the start of the decade.16
But not everyone was so sanguine about Mississippi’s prospects. James Davidson, a lawyer traveling through the state late in 1836, considered the speculative enthusiasms of Mississippians unsustainable, confiding to his diary that there would be “a tremendous failure here some day, and that not far hence.” Baldwin, who lived in Mississippi for more than a year, also worried that delusion had supplanted reason and concluded that the craze was an irrational “hell-carnival” where “avarice and hope joined partnership” and everything stood “on its head with its heels in the air.” Somewhat more concretely, one newspaper editor devoted nearly a dozen articles in the summer and fall of 1836 to an extended assault on the state’s banking system, contending that financial malfeasance and corruption underlay bank operations so profoundly that Mississippi would surely be ruined without reform.17
Skepticism about such abundance was not unwarranted. The titanic battle over the Bank of the United States not only highlighted the fragility of credit markets and their vulnerability to shifting political winds, but Jackson’s humbling of the Bank also effectively destroyed whatever regulatory influence it had exercised over the broader economy. State and local bankers in Mississippi ran wild with their newfound freedom, so much so that Mississippi’s affluence by the middle of the 1830s rested in significant measure on a series of bookkeeping fictions. Often having just a small fraction of their capital in hand, banks counted money stockholders committed as if they had already paid it in, printed notes and issued credit on promised rather than actual holdings, and routinely provided sweetheart loans to institution officers and political cronies who used property purchased with that financing as collateral for still more credit at other banks. Public land sales further distorted bank operations, as purchasers used paper money borrowed from banks to buy cheap land from the federal government, which redeposited the funds back into those same banks, which then loaned that same money out over and over again, creating ever greater speculative momentum.18
Indeed, had more Mississippians possessed the expertise to assess financial critiques that appeared in the newspapers, the circumspection to wonder how long the unlikely combination of increasingly high cotton prices and increasingly large cotton crops could possibly continue, or the basic concern that the flush times might suddenly end and leave them in the lurch, the debt-fueled delirium of the era might never have come into being at all. Instead of fearing the possible fallout, however, most came to the Southwest believing, as Virgil Stewart did, that lives of hardscrabble obscurity could be easily transformed into lives of influence and standing, that opportunity was lost to those who hesitated, that great risks yielded great rewards, and that failure always happened to someone else. Still, experience taught all but the most enthusiastic migrants that not everything was as promised on the cotton frontier. They could scoff at the notion that southwestern prosperity was an illusion, but few could deny that disturbing implications accompanied the scramble to turn forests and swamps into plantations and towns nonetheless.
Cultural anxieties nagged as ambition and the pursuit of self-interest shaded into rapacious greed, economic speculation courted fiscal recklessness and resembled the morally questionable practice of gambling, and the sense that staggering wealth might be acquired quickly without much in the way of productive work undermined the notion that success came from diligence and frugality. Politics evolved as an insider game in which jockeying for access to capital and the levers of power often trumped ideological or partisan commitment, and personal recriminations among members of protean cliques could and did descend into bloodshed. The social terrain of the Southwest offered little more psychological mooring. The institutions or customs that might have instilled civility and order were weak or nonexistent, and appearances were often deceptive, allowing the brash, the crafty, the venal, and the predatory to thrive. Fast-talking lawyers manipulated barely functioning courts for their own benefit, surrogates for land speculators bullied settlers to get what they wanted, and swindlers, counterfeiters, horse thieves, and bandits of all stripes worked their own angles. Like all perceptive satirists, Alabama’s Johnson Jones Hooper captured an essential truth about the prevailing ethic of the Southwest in the flush times with the maxim that guided his fictional creation, Simon Suggs: “It is good to be shifty in a new country.”19
Trends like these were hardly confined to the Southwest. Nearly everywhere in the United States, demographic shifts and population movements exposed Americans to unfamiliar people of indeterminate credibility. Engagement in an expanding market economy entailed trusting faceless forces that few thoroughly understood, and the temptations of easy money created epidemics of speculation that leery commentators feared would ruin the minds and finances of those they touched. Making the economic, cultural, and social apprehensions of the era more acute in a place like Virgil Stewart’s Mississippi was not merely the stampede created by the availability of so much land from which so much profit might be extracted. It was the fact that everything white Americans envisioned for the future there depended on the successful extension of slavery.20
The white population of Mississippi grew fast in the 1830s, but the black population grew even faster. Just over 65,000 in 1830, by 1836 the number of slaves had jumped to more than 164,000, an increase of roughly 250 percent and substantial enough that blacks had come to outnumber whites in the state. Whites brought still another 30,000 slaves into Mississippi before the end of the decade. By 1840 the enslaved population constituted approximately 52 percent of the state’s total and was triple what it had been ten years earlier.21
Every white man intending to plant cotton in Mississippi aimed to own slaves, and those who already owned some aimed to increase their holdings. Michel Chevalier noted that a cotton plantation was essentially “a sort of agricultural manufactory,” and assembling a productive workforce was the key to maximizing output and returns. The more slaves a man owned, the more land he could cultivate and the more cotton he could bring to market. It was no secret that slave labor made everything about the flush times possible. As Joseph Ingraham remarked, “to sell cotton in order to buy negroes—to make more cotton to buy more negroes, ‘ad infinitum,’ is the aim and direct tendency of all the operations of the thorough-going cotton planter; his whole soul is wrapped up in the pursuit. … [W]ithout slaves there could be no planters. … Without planters there could be no cotton; without cotton no wealth. Without [slaves] Mississippi would be a wilderness, and revert to the aboriginal possessors. Annihilate them to-morrow, and this state and every southern state might be bought for a song.”22
If cotton was the engine driving the development of American capitalism before the Civil War, the enslaved were the fuel consumed to make that development possible. Moreover, because they were simultaneously laborers who grew the cotton that could make their owners wealthy and relatively liquid assets that could be sold and converted into cash, the enslaved would appear to have been fairly sturdy investments. As regional market prices for field hands rose in conjunction with cotton prices in the early 1830s, the logic behind holding one’s capital in human form was ostensibly unassailable.23
But the explosive growth of slavery in Mississippi and throughout the Southwest also significantly aggravated the instabilities of the cotton frontier. Thousands of white Mississippians financed slave purchases much as they bought everything else—by borrowing against anticipated cotton production, often to pay professional slave traders who did booming business in the state. Slaveholders also mortgaged slave property bought on credit to provide security for additional loans, and sometimes then used those loans to purchase even more slaves. This was a tremendous piling of debt upon debt, the obligations for which were to be fulfilled by crops that had yet to be planted and worked by coerced laborers who effectively paid with their sweat for their own enslavement.24
Had the enslaved been as sound and reliable an investment in practice as they were in theory, such financial leveraging might have been sensible and even shrewd. But Mississippians who bought bondspersons from slave traders had to assess the value of their most crucial assets on the basis of limited information, relying mostly on the assurances of traders that the enslaved people offered as merchandise were healthy and submissive, possessed of solid work habits, and legally acquired. And none of those things was necessarily true. Instead, as white migrants re-created slavery along the frontier, the insalubrious climate and harsh work regime led to high death rates and considerable resistance among immiserated slaves, most of whom had been stolen from their families and communities. Title fraud was widespread, traders sometimes lied about the fitness of the slaves they sold or concealed histories of rebelliousness, and filing suit against deceptive traders could prove a protracted, expensive, or fruitless endeavor. White southerners expressing disdain for slave traders commonly referred to them as “negro speculators.” Yet when white Mississippians purchased slaves from traders they were no less profoundly involved in speculation, their collective borrowing of tens of millions of dollars heightening the economic and social contingencies inherent in building a property regime grounded in human chattel.25
Southwestern political leaders recognized the problematic nature of the slave trade and tried to control it. Louisiana, Alabama, Georgia, and Mississippi all implemented interdictions against the interstate trade in the early 1830s, with the last putting in its 1832 constitution an outright ban on “the introduction of slaves” to the state “as merchandize, or for sale.” Considerations for public safety and economic stability alike were at play here. Really, there was little substantive distinction between the two. By giving force to concerns that devious and unsavory slave traders brought too many slaves from too many places infected with the contagion of rebellion like that which had broken out in southeastern Virginia during the summer of 1831, policymakers in the Southwest hoped to signal to potential immigrants and investors alike that their states remained secure places to live and dependable places to put their money. Slave unrest would neither threaten white lives nor interfere with efficient cotton production.26
Had authorities upheld these limitations on the interstate slave trade, it might also have had the salutary and reassuring effect of containing the level of debt citizens of southwestern states owed to nonresidents, thus keeping more capital in the respective states and out of the pockets of slave traders. But whites in the Southwest seldom took paper prohibitions seriously. In Mississippi, the same constitutional clause outlawing the interstate slave trade explicitly protected the right of state residents to purchase slaves anywhere in the country and bring them into Mississippi for their personal use, a guarantee that spurred the increasingly prevalent practice of men buying slaves from traders just across the Mississippi River in Louisiana. Most did not even bother with the technical adherence to the law such a ruse allowed. The ban on the interstate trade was deeply unpopular, and rather than pass enabling legislation clarifying the penalty for violating it, during its 1833 session the state legislature imposed a tax on slave sales, thereby sanctioning a form of commerce that violated the state constitution. Far from having to end or even curb their business, traders in Mississippi sold more slaves in the years after the passage of the constitutional ban than they ever had before.27
Thus, while white Mississippians had outwardly clamped down on the potential influx of rebellious slaves and established a method for managed and rational expansion of the slave population, the facts of the situation were nearly the opposite. So the flush times proceeded apace, but an underlying sense of their precariousness lingered, and the social and economic order imperative for the alchemical transformation of the wilderness into money remained an elusive one. Whites on Mississippi’s cotton frontier could never be sure that the enslaved who outnumbered them and on whom they depended to lift them out of debt by bringing plantations into being were not also plotting against their lives and livelihoods. They could never even be sure that other white people shared their priorities for securing property rights and racial dominance or whether they were deceitful schemers who reveled in the frontier’s very lack of order. An unsteady and unstable amalgam of divergent and contradictory interests, the Southwest in the flush times was defined as much by suspicion, fraud, and extraordinary levels of violence as by opportunity, confidence, and enterprise.
This was not the world Virgil Stewart had expected to find. It was far more dangerous and chaotic than the world in which he had grown up, yet it retained the hierarchies among white people that he had hoped to leave behind. Just about anyone could borrow his way to the top, but slaveholders and other wealthy and politically connected men still held sway and were willing to act ruthlessly should anything or anyone endanger the delicate equilibrium of their surroundings. Those who could not quickly or effectively make their way into their circles or at least their good graces, meanwhile, found themselves in jeopardy of being left behind. People could get cast adrift in this world, whipsawed as they tried to figure out how to proceed, and disillusioned when circumstances forced them to confront their own inadequacies. There were reasons that men in the Southwest became notorious for fighting, drinking, and a seething aggression easily provoked to a boiling rage.
The events that sit at the heart of this book—the collapse of one man’s aspirations, the evolution of an imagined conspiracy against the property holders of the Southwest, the eruption of a terrifying slave insurrection scare, the merciless purge of a city carried out by a mob—were linked in time and space, taking place mostly in Mississippi and its environs and mostly between 1833 and 1835, but they were linked too by how they reflected central paradoxes of the social, cultural, and economic changes that came to define the United States in the decades before the Civil War. Most Americans living in the East during the flush times considered the farflung southwestern frontier exotic and distant from their own experiences. Historians ever since have largely agreed, foregrounding the emergent urban and industrial centers of the Northeast as the quintessential places for understanding the antebellum age, and particularly for understanding the transformations wrought by the ongoing advance of capitalism. We need not deny their significance to ask whether the seductive allure, propulsive power, and cruel disquiet of America’s expanding civilization might be seen better instead along its leading edge.