Theses Doctoral

Slavery, Pollution, and Politics on Texas' Trinity River

McFarlane, Wallace Scot

This dissertation brings together the history of slavery and environmental history to explore the legacy of slavery on Texas’ Trinity River from the 1820s to the 1970s. Many southern rivers, including the Trinity, experienced few sustained efforts to transform or control them until well into the twentieth century, and these environments were just as likely to diffuse rather than consolidate any particular group’s power over people. Unlike elites in the older regions of the slave South, no one assumed that they controlled the environment in places such as Texas’s Trinity River.

Drawing on nearly fifty different archives, my dissertation explains the surprising ways in which slavery, urbanization, and environmentalism were connected. Environmental racism changed the Trinity into a more flood prone and polluted place, but it also meant that its mostly black residents were rarely mentioned in official engineering reports or newspaper articles. This invisibility served as a temporary advantage during the racist violence of the post-emancipation decades and people squatted on land for which they did not hold titles. However, because so many people were not included in official records such as census reports, I have relied on qualitative sources to analyze this history.

Freedpeople incurred plantation slavery’s environmental debts of erosion and disease, but they also seized the opportunity to avoid crop-liens and other forms of usury by living in an overlooked landscape. Upstream cities on the Trinity gave little consideration to the effects of using the river as a sewer, and they ignored the black families who called the river home. In the early twentieth century, a novel class of elites on the lower half of the river began to issue bonds to build levees that pushed out many longtime residents. As prisons replaced plantations and subsistence-oriented farmers could no longer endure the worsened floods, pollution, and enclosure of its common lands, the lower Trinity lost most of its remaining residents. Yet as debates raged along the entire river about remaking it into a canal and the proper use of state and federal resources, the memory of an unruly river contributed to the political outcomes despite slavery’s legacy of inequality.

Geographic Areas


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More About This Work

Academic Units
Thesis Advisors
Jacoby, Karl H.
Ph.D., Columbia University
Published Here
May 4, 2021