Date of Award

Spring 5-2012

Degree Type


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)





Committee Chair

William K. Scarborough

Committee Chair Department


Committee Member 2

Max Grivno

Committee Member 2 Department


Committee Member 3

Sarah Franklin

Committee Member 4

Mark Smith

Committee Member 5

Louis Kyriakoudes

Committee Member 5 Department


Committee Member 6

Kyle Zelner

Committee Member 6 Department



“Slavery and Empire: The Development of Slavery in the Natchez District, 1720- 1820,” examines how slaves and colonists weathered the economic and political upheavals that rocked the Lower Mississippi Valley. The study focuses on the fitful— and often futile—efforts of the French, the English, the Spanish, and the Americans to establish plantation agriculture in Natchez and its environs, a district that emerged as the heart of the “Cotton Kingdom” in the decades following the American Revolution. Before American planters established their hegemony over Natchez, the town was a struggling outpost that changed hands three times over the course of the century. “Slavery and Empire” explores how enslaved Africans struggled to find their footing on this unstable ground. Slaves seized upon many weapons to claim their freedom. Some cast their lots with Indians hostile to their colonial masters, while others tested their chains in the courts. Slaveowners often found the field tilted against them; wars, regime changes, and an unstable economy conspired to place their mastery—not to mention their titles to land and slaves—on unsound footings. The pitched battles between slaves and their owners, along with the contests between colonial subjects and their countries, had a profound effect on a region that became the heart of the Deep South.

As the French began to settle the Natchez District in the early 1720s, only seventy slaves worked in the fertile Natchez fields for their European masters. Sixty-four of these slaves were African, the rest were bound Native Americans. Over the next century, the slave numbers increased gradually and when Mississippi became a state in 1817, the first census taken shows a slave majority in all counties that the Americans carved out of the Natchez District. Yet Natchez experienced a very uneven development over the course of the century that bridged the first French attempt and American success in creating a slave society in the district. Although slave numbers multiplied, planters, imperial officials, and the enslaved sought every means to contest one another over measures of control and power in Natchez. These constant conflicts, coupled with economic crisis and imperial strive in the lower Mississippi Valley, made for a bumpy road to the pinnacle of planter power and the uncontested reign of King Cotton in the 1820s.