The Trinity River and Freedom / by Scot McFarlane

What is freedom?  For the inmates who live in the prison units along the Trinity River bottomlands in Tennessee Colony the answer is easy: Everything beyond the last razor wire fence.  Yet unless they are serving a life-sentence, the passing of time represents a better opportunity at freedom compared with escape into the bottoms.  If wet, the blackland mud will collect on their feet, weighing them down and leaving a trail of alien prints in the mud that even a hyposmic hound could follow.  As they near the river they will enter the checkerboard woods, so named because these blocks of field and forest resemble a checkerboard when viewed from above.  Originally cut with the purpose of making it easy for posted sentries to shoot escaping inmates as they crossed from one block of woods to another, the extensive edge habitat and lines of sight have made it the most productive section of a hunting preserve whose blinds tower over the white-tailed deer and wild boar flushed by the panicked escapees.

Beginning in the 1820s, much of the Texas landscape represented a similarly fraught geography of possibility and danger for those who attempted to escape their enslavement.  The end of the Civil War and the ratification of the thirteenth amendment, which abolished slavery, might appear to level the geography of freedom.  Yet violence only increased in Texas’ postwar years, and in the years after emancipation freedmen sometimes turned to the floodplains of rivers such as the Trinity in search of freedom.  The thirteenth amendment itself contained its own Trojan horse on the question of freedom. It reads: “Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convinced, shall exist within the United States, or any place subject to their jurisdiction.” Vagrancy laws and rising incarceration rates suggest how Texas sheriffs used the thirteenth amendment’s prison loophole to limit the gains of emancipation.  The thirteenth amendment at once enabled and restricted freedom.  A river runs through these tensions, which are made visible on the Trinity River and the plantations, runaway refuges, prisons, and homesteads along its course.

Those freedmen who settled along the river discovered that by breaking down the divide between land and water, by accepting the rhythm of flooding, they could elevate the divide between freedom and slavery and build independent communities.  Flooding regulated the kind of crops that could be cultivated, the kind of people who would plant them, and the kind of people who might try and control their labor.  Flooding also made rich land, albeit a bit slippery when wet, and cracked like thousands of broken pots when dry. Accepting certain limitations also meant unleashing the tremendous potential of the alluvium and the landscape itself.

Much of the wildlife, including the enormous scaled alligator gar that breathes air, depend on flooding to survive, only spawning when the river breaches its own levees.  Understanding the gar as ecological and historical also explains why some people who lived along the river did not see flooding as an aberration or a problem.  Like the gar, these river people viewed flooding as a necessary, inevitable process that they must incorporate into their routine, and which inevitably changed their perspective of the world.

However by the beginning of the 20th century, the gar had received the label of trash fish, sometimes left nailed to a tree where it continued to breathe air even as it died of desiccation, and the river had largely ceased to be a region of refuge.  The gar and river people never disappeared, but their importance diminished, becoming tokens of prehistory or precapitalism.  If anything remains unchanged from the 19th century today it is the always-changing Trinity, which still floods and shifts its banks, more readily than ever as the vast impervious surfaces of the Dallas metropolitan area channel water directly from the sky into the river.  Millions of people live with the river’s floodwaters, but they no longer adapt to them.  The Trinity no longer directs the shapes of their thoughts or their ideology.  The river is no longer a home.

When the river functioned as refuge, its most important quality was distance, the way its forest, mud, and floods kept sheriffs looking to fill work crews out of their homes.  In Texas, the violence only intensified starting in and after 1865 and freedmen looked for places where they could keep that violence at a distance.  So they did not initially adapt to the river by choice, and they only discovered the benefits of letting fears of flooding dissipate because they had bigger fears to live with.  In the Works Progress Administration’s interviews with former slaves in the 1930s, many interviewees spoke fondly of their time along the Trinity, how their families and communities flourished in such places.  One man spoke of how they often carried guns to protect themselves from the panthers that lived in the bottoms, but he left unsaid how the necessity of arming themselves against the panthers could also protect his family against the dangers that lurked beyond the river. 

Panthers still roam what’s left of the woods along the Trinity–if they’re lucky, the prison escapees might see a mountain lion, which would not attack, but would nonetheless frighten them, raise the hairs on the backs of their necks, and make them feel alive.  Running the last yards to the riverbank they’d find a deep, wide, and muddy channel, full of floating debris: sticks, footballs, oil jugs, and soda bottles.  There they would have to choose to swim in the swift water with the alligator gar and alligators or keep running along the bank.  However unfamiliar and frightening the landscape might be, for a moment at least, they would be free.