Scot McFarlane is completing his Ph.D. in environmental history at Columbia University. He received a B.A. from Bowdoin College and taught high school history before coming to Columbia. His dissertation, Slavery, Pollution, and Politics on Texas’s Trinity River, studies the relationship between rivers, slavery, and urbanization in the 19th and 20th centuries. In addition to the Jefferson Scholars Foundation, his work has been award several national fellowships including from the American Council of Learned Societies. Scot’s earlier research has been published in the leading history journals such as The Journal of Southern History and Environmental History. In the fall of 2019, Scot taught his own seminar at Columbia, Rivers, Politics, and Power in the US, and was a finalist for the university-wide Presidential Teaching Award. As a Public Humanities Fellow at Columbia’s SOF/Heyman Center Scot has created “Confluence: The History of North American Rivers” at riverhistories.org that bridges activism and academic methods of knowledge to explore the importance of rivers throughout our continent.
Slavery, Pollution, and Politics on Texas’ Trinity River
The Trinity River flows from the cities of Fort Worth and Dallas into rural East Texas, providing a physical connection between the urban Sunbelt and the rural South. This study of the Trinity River extends from the plantation economy of the mid-nineteenth century to the emergence of the environmental movement in the middle of the twentieth century in order to show how the river changed in response to the legacy of slavery and urbanization. Most of the major works written about the history of rivers in the United States have emphasized the way in which people and corporations have consolidated their power through the control of rivers to limit democracy. Yet many southern rivers experienced few sustained efforts to transform or control them until well into the twentieth century. In the South, rivers were just as likely to diffuse rather than consolidate any particular group’s power over people. Rural opposition to a proposed canal on the Trinity in the twentieth century was not only rooted in attachment to place, but in residents’ understanding of the river itself. Whereas the upstream cities had largely confined the Trinity between its levees, the people living downstream had dealt with worsened flooding on the Trinity as a direct result of upstream urbanization and this experience meant that they had a better understanding that a project to canalize the river was both financially and ecologically impractical.