From the planter societies and subsistence settlements of the 17th century to the global markets of the late 18th century, white, black, and Indian women participated extensively in the early American economy. As the colonial world gave way to an independent nation and household economies yielded to cross-Atlantic commercial networks, women played an important role as consumers and producers. Was there, however, a growing gendered divide in the American economy by the turn of the 19th century? Were there more restrictions on women’s business activities, property ownership, work lives, consumer demands, or productive skills? Possibly, we ask the wrong questions when exploring women’s history. By posing questions that compare the past with present conditions, we miss the more nuanced and shifting patterns that made up the variety of women’s lives. Whether rural or urban, rich or poor, free or enslaved, women’s legal and marital status dictated some basic parameters of how they operated within the early American economy. But despite these boundaries, or perhaps because of them, women created new strategies to meet the economic needs of households, families, and themselves. As entrepreneurs they brought in lodgers or operated small businesses that generated extra income. As producers they finagled the materials necessary to create items for home use and to sell at market. As consumers, women, whether free or enslaved, demanded goods from merchants and negotiated prices that fit their budgets. As laborers, these same women translated myriad skills into wages or exchanged labor for goods. In all these capacities, women calculated, accumulated, and survived in the early American economy.
Jane T. Merritt
The forced, coerced, and voluntary labor systems of the Spanish and early US–Mexico borderlands were as diverse as the territories where they predominated, and they evolved substantially over the course of three centuries. Spanish borderlands refers to an immense region that encompassed New Spain’s northern “interior provinces.” They were mostly inhabited and controlled by Indigenous peoples. In the 19th century, these provinces would become the modern border states and territories of California, Nevada, Arizona, New Mexico, Utah, Colorado, and Texas to the north; and Baja California, Sonora, Chihuahua, Coahuila, Nuevo León, and Tamaulipas to the south. Thousands of Indigenous, Black, mulatto, and mestizo people worked in coerced and unfree labor systems that ranged from outright slavery to encomienda, repartimiento, and debt peonage. New labor forms emerged with expanding global trade, economic reform, and industrialization in Europe and the United States. Compensated labor coexisted alongside forced labor in the colonial period, until it came to rival and, in some cases, replace involuntary labor by the early 19th century. Yet debt peonage and chattel slavery grew in importance during the same period. Workers themselves struggled to maintain autonomy and resisted through means that ranged from flight, malingering, and migration to outright rebellion.