Summary: Ridgeway 

This short chapter tells the story of the slave catcher Arnold Ridgeway. Ridgeway is the son of a Virginia blacksmith. As he grows up, he looks for something active and meaningful to do with his life. At 14 he joins patrols that round up escaped slaves and harass slave villages and free Black men, as well as Native Americans and criminals. He goes north to New Jersey and New York as a bounty hunter to bring back captured fugitive slaves. Up north, he is successful and makes money. Eventually, he puts together a gang of his own, which he brings back to Virginia to work directly for plantation owners, hunting down and capturing escaped slaves. He is unable to catch Cora’s mother, Mabel, but when he is called on to look for runaway Cora, he realizes that there must be a stop on the underground railroad in Georgia and vows to find and destroy it.

Analysis: Ridgeway

In this chapter, Whitehead uses a motif of iron to examine the role and effects of industrialization in the development of the United States. Ridgeway’s father, a blacksmith, is described as worshiping iron. In comparing his feelings about iron to Tom Bird’s description of the Great Spirit, he positions iron as the god he worships and his proper place on earth as forging it into tools and hardware useful to society. Iron is used as a metaphor for strength and masculinity, and Ridgeway grows to believe that men who do not work in a direct, physical way with the system are not worthy of his full respect. When Ridgeway becomes a slave catcher and his father argues that retrieving “tools,” meaning enslaved people, is less noble than creating literal tools, Ridgeway counters that they both serve the industrial system surrounding cotton production, since the invention of the cotton gin, which speeds the cleaning of cotton bolls, allows mills to process more fiber and requires more cotton plants grown and harvested by slave labor. In this way, Whitehead shows how the industrialization of the United States, which fueled its growth in this period, relies on iron and slavery.