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Salt, Slavery, Kanawha Salines


The Kanawha Salines are a place whose history challenges conventional narratives and popular assumptions about slavery and freedom in the antebellum South. The paradoxical nature of slavery in this locale can be seen in the identity of the first documented people forced to labor in the salt works. A half century before enslaved Africans were imported to this region, European women and their families were kidnapped, enslaved, and marched to the salt mines by Native Americans: “In 1755, the Indians had carried Mary Ingles, her newborn baby, and others as captives....to this spot on the Kanawha to attain a salt supply.”1 Mary Ingles’ time in slavery was brief; like some of the African-American slaves who would perform similar work a half century later, she fled captivity in the salt mines and followed a river to freedom. While her story of salt slavery is commemorated in a play that is annually performed in the state of West Virginia, a mass-market paperback,2 and two3 feature films, the public memory rarely acknowledges the thousands of enslaved people who replaced her as slaves in the Kanawha Valley salt works, the unique economic and social conditions that created their bondage, and the racially integrated frontier workplace where they labored.

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