Underground Railroad

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Underground Railroad
Undergroundrailroadsmall2.jpg
Map of Underground Railroad routes to modern day Canada
Founding locationUnited States
TerritoryUnited States, and routes to British North America, Mexico, Spanish Florida, and the Caribbean
EthnicityAfrican Americans and other compatriots
Activities
Allies
Rivals Slave catchers, Reverse Underground Railroad

The Underground Railroad was a network of secret routes and safe houses established in the United States during the early to mid-19th century. It was used by enslaved African Americans primarily to escape into free states and Canada. [1] The scheme was assisted by abolitionists and others sympathetic to the cause of the escapees. [2] The enslaved who risked escape and those who aided them are also collectively referred to as the "Underground Railroad". [3] Various other routes led to Mexico, [4] where slavery had been abolished, and to islands in the Caribbean that were not part of the slave trade. [5] An earlier escape route running south toward Florida, then a Spanish possession (except 1763–83), existed from the late 17th century until approximately 1790. [6] [7] However, the network now generally known as the Underground Railroad was formed in the late 18th century. It ran north and grew steadily until the Emancipation Proclamation was signed by President Abraham Lincoln. [8] One estimate suggests that, by 1850, 100,000 enslaved people had escaped via the network. [8]

Contents

Political background

At its peak, nearly 1,000 enslaved people per year escaped from slave-holding states using the Underground Railroad – more than 5000 court cases for escaped enslaved were recorded – many fewer than the natural increase of the enslaved population. The resulting economic impact was minuscule, but the psychological influence on slaveholders was immense. Under the original Fugitive Slave Act of 1793, officials from free states were required to assist slaveholders or their agents who recaptured fugitives, but citizens and governments of many free states ignored the law, and the Underground Railroad thrived.

With heavy lobbying by Southern politicians, the Compromise of 1850 was passed by Congress after the Mexican–American War. It stipulated a more stringent Fugitive Slave Law; ostensibly, the compromise addressed regional problems by compelling officials of free states to assist slave catchers, granting them immunity to operate in free states. [9] Because the law required sparse documentation to claim a person was a fugitive, slave catchers also kidnapped free blacks, especially children, and sold them into slavery. [10] Southern politicians often exaggerated the number of escaped slaves and often blamed these escapes on Northerners interfering with Southern property rights. [11] The law deprived people suspected of being slaves the right to defend themselves in court, making it difficult to prove free status. In a de facto bribe, [12] judges were paid a higher fee ($10) for a decision that confirmed a suspect as an enslaved person than for one ruling that the suspect was free ($5). Many Northerners who might have ignored enslavement issues in the South were confronted by local challenges that bound them to support slavery. This was a primary grievance cited by the Union during the American Civil War, [13] and the perception that Northern States ignored the fugitive slave laws and regulations was a major justification for secession. [14]

Routes

Underground Railroad routes went north to free states and Canada, to the Caribbean, into United States western territories, and Indian territories. Some freedom seekers (escaped slaves) travelled South into Mexico for their freedom. [15]

North to free states and Canada

Structure

Harriet Tubman (photo H. B. Lindsley), c. 1870. A worker on the Underground Railroad, Tubman made 13 trips to the South, helping to free over 70 people. She led people to the northern free states and Canada. This helped Harriet Tubman gain the name "Moses of Her People". Harriet Tubman.jpg
Harriet Tubman (photo H. B. Lindsley), c. 1870. A worker on the Underground Railroad, Tubman made 13 trips to the South, helping to free over 70 people. She led people to the northern free states and Canada. This helped Harriet Tubman gain the name "Moses of Her People".
Quaker abolitionist Levi Coffin and his wife Catherine helped more than 2,000 enslaved people escape to freedom. Levi coffin.JPG
Quaker abolitionist Levi Coffin and his wife Catherine helped more than 2,000 enslaved people escape to freedom.

The escape network was neither literally underground nor a railroad. (Actual underground railroads did not exist until 1863.) According to John Rankin, "It was so called because they who took passage on it disappeared from public view as really as if they had gone into the ground. After the fugitive slaves entered a depot on that road no trace of them could be found. They were secretly passed from one depot to another until they arrived at a destination where they were able to remain free." [17] It was known as a railroad, using rail terminology such as stations and conductors, because that was the transportation system in use at the time. [18]

The Underground Railroad did not have a headquarters, nor were there published guides, maps, pamphlets, or even newspaper articles. The Underground Railroad consisted of meeting points, secret routes, transportation, and safe houses, all of them maintained by abolitionist sympathizers and communicated by word of mouth. Participants generally organized in small, independent groups; this helped to maintain secrecy because individuals knew some connecting "stations" along the route but knew few details of the escapees' immediate area. People escaping enslavement would move north along the route from one way station to the next. "Conductors" on the railroad came from various backgrounds and included free-born Blacks, white abolitionists, the former enslaved (either escaped or manumitted), and Native Americans. [19] [20] Believing that, "slavery was contrary to the ethics of Jesus", Christian congregations and church clergy played a role, especially the Religious Society of Friends (Quakers), Congregationalists, Wesleyan Methodists, and Reformed Presbyterians, as well as the anti-slavery branches of mainstream denominations which entered into schism over the issue, such as the Methodist Episcopal Church and the Baptists. [21] The role of free Blacks was crucial; without it, there would have been almost no chance for fugitives from slavery to reach freedom safely. [22]

Terminology

Members of the Underground Railroad often used specific terms, based on the metaphor of the railway. For example:

  • People who helped enslaved people find the railroad were "agents" (or "shepherds")
  • Guides were known as "conductors"
  • Hiding places were "stations" or "way stations"
  • "Station masters" hid enslaved people in their homes
  • People escaping slavery were referred to as "passengers" or "cargo"
  • Enslaved people would obtain a "ticket"
  • Similar to common gospel lore, the "wheels would keep on turning"
  • Financial benefactors of the Railroad were known as "stockholders" [23]

The Big Dipper (whose "bowl" points to the North Star) was known as the drinkin' gourd. The Railroad was often known as the "freedom train" or "Gospel train", which headed towards "Heaven" or "the Promised Land", i.e., Canada. [24]

William Still, [25] sometimes called "The Father of the Underground Railroad", helped hundreds of slaves escape (as many as 60 a month), sometimes hiding them in his Philadelphia home. He kept careful records, including short biographies of the people, that contained frequent railway metaphors. He maintained correspondence with many of them, often acting as a middleman in communications between people who had escaped slavery and those left behind. He later published these accounts in the book The Underground Railroad: Authentic Narratives and First-Hand Accounts (1872), a valuable resource for historians to understand how the system worked and learn about individual ingenuity in escapes.

According to Still, messages were often encoded so that they could be understood only by those active in the railroad. For example, the following message, "I have sent via at two o'clock four large hams and two small hams", indicated that four adults and two children were sent by train from Harrisburg to Philadelphia. The additional word via indicated that the "passengers" were not sent on the usual train, but rather via Reading, Pennsylvania. In this case, the authorities were tricked into going to the regular location (station) in an attempt to intercept the runaways, while Still met them at the correct station and guided them to safety. They eventually escaped either further north or to Canada, where slavery had been abolished during the 1830s. [26]

To reduce the risk of infiltration, many people associated with the Underground Railroad knew only their part of the operation and not of the whole scheme. "Conductors" led or transported the fugitives from station to station. A conductor sometimes pretended to be enslaved to enter a plantation. Once a part of a plantation, the conductor would direct the runaways to the North. Enslaved people traveled at night, about 10–20 miles (16–32 km) to each station. They rested, and then a message was sent to the next station to let the station master know the escapees were on their way. They would stop at the so-called "stations" or "depots" during the day and rest. The stations were often located in basements, [27] barns, [28] churches, [29] or in hiding places in caves. [30]

The resting spots where the escapees could sleep and eat were given the code names "stations" and "depots", which were held by "station masters". "Stockholders" gave money or supplies for assistance. Using biblical references, fugitives referred to Canada as the "Promised Land" or "Heaven" and the Ohio River, which marked the boundary between slave states and free states, as the "River Jordan". [31]

Struggle for freedom in a Maryland barn. Wood-engraving from William Still's The Underground Rail Road, p. 50 Desperate Conflict in a Barn.png
Struggle for freedom in a Maryland barn. Wood-engraving from William Still's The Underground Rail Road, p. 50

The majority of freedom seekers that escaped from slavery did not have help from an abolitionist. Although there are stories of black and white abolitionists helping freedom seekers escape from slavery many escapes were unaided. [15] Other Underground Railroad escape routes for freedom seekers were maroon communities. Maroon communities were wetlands or marshes where escaped slaves established their own independent communities. Maroon communities in the United States were in Virginia called the Great Dismal Swamp, the maroon communities of the Black Seminole Indians in Florida, and others. [33]

Traveling conditions

Although the fugitives sometimes traveled on boat or train, [34] they usually traveled on foot or by wagon in groups of one to three escapees. Some groups were considerably larger. Abolitionist Charles Turner Torrey and his colleagues rented horses and wagons and often transported as many as 15 or 20 people at a time. [35] Free and enslaved black men occupied as mariners (sailors) helped enslaved people escape from slavery by providing a ride on their boat, providing information on the safest and best escape routes, and safe locations on land, and locations of trusted people for assistance. Enslaved African American mariners had more mobility than enslaved people on land, because they traveled to and from the United States on their ships importing and exporting goods to the Caribbean, Europe, and the United States. African American mariners had information about slave revolts occurring in the Caribbean which was relayed to enslaved people in the United States. Free and enslaved African American mariners assisted Harriet Tubman in her rescue missions. Harriet Tubman was enslaved in the Eastern Shore of Maryland that is surrounded by marshes, rivers, and the Chesapeake Bay. Free and enslaved black mariners provided Harriet Tubman news about the best escape routes, and helped her on her rescue missions. Also, Tubman used black mariners during the Civil War to help her free over 750 enslaved people in South Carolina. During the Civil War, Tubman served as a Union spy in South Carolina. The black mariners provided Tubman with information about the location of Confederate mines and other Confederate weapons supply lines to her, which Tubman relayed to the Union Army. [36] [37] [38]

Routes were often purposely indirect to confuse pursuers. Most escapes were by individuals or small groups; occasionally, there were mass escapes, such as with the Pearl incident. The journey was often considered particularly difficult and dangerous for women or children. Children were sometimes hard to keep quiet or were unable to keep up with a group. In addition, enslaved women were rarely allowed to leave the plantation, making it harder for them to escape in the same ways that men could. [39] Although escaping was harder for women, some women were successful. One of the most famous and successful conductors (people who secretly traveled into slave states to rescue those seeking freedom) was Harriet Tubman, a woman who escaped slavery. [40] [41]

Due to the risk of discovery, information about routes and safe havens was passed along by word of mouth. Southern newspapers of the day were often filled with pages of notices soliciting information about fugitive slaves and offering sizable rewards for their capture and return. Federal marshals and professional bounty hunters known as slave catchers pursued fugitives as far as the Canada–US border. [42]

Fugitives were not the only black people at risk from slave catchers. With demand for slaves high in the Deep South as cotton was developed, strong, healthy blacks in their prime working and reproductive years were seen and treated as highly valuable commodities. Both former slaves and free blacks were sometimes kidnapped and sold into slavery, as was Solomon Northup of Saratoga Springs, New York. "Certificates of freedom," signed, notarized statements attesting to the free status of individual blacks also known as free papers, could easily be destroyed or stolen, so provided little protection to bearers.

Some buildings, such as the Crenshaw House in far southeastern Illinois, are known sites where free blacks were sold into slavery, known as the "Reverse Underground Railroad". Under the terms of the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850, when suspected fugitives were seized and brought to a special magistrate known as a commissioner, they had no right to a jury trial and could not testify on their own behalf. Technically, they were guilty of no crime. The marshal or private slave-catcher needed only to swear an oath to acquire a writ of replevin for the return of property.

Congress was dominated by Southern congressmen because the population of their states was bolstered by the inclusion of three-fifths of the number of slaves in population totals. They passed the Fugitive Slave Law of 1850 because of frustration at having fugitives from slavery helped by the public and even official institutions outside the South. In some parts of the North, slave-catchers needed police protection to exercise their federal authority. Opposition to slavery did not mean that all states welcomed free blacks. For instance, Indiana, whose area along the Ohio River was settled by Southerners, passed a constitutional amendment that barred free blacks from settling in that state.

Arrival in Canada

International Underground Railroad Memorial in Windsor, Ontario UndergroundRailroadmonumentWindsor.jpg
International Underground Railroad Memorial in Windsor, Ontario
John Brown participated in the Underground Railroad as an abolitionist. John Brown by Levin Handy, 1890-1910.jpg
John Brown participated in the Underground Railroad as an abolitionist.

British North America (present-day Canada) was a desirable destination, as its long border gave many points of access, it was farther from slave catchers, and beyond the reach of the United States' Fugitive Slave Acts. Further, slavery ended decades earlier in Canada than in the United States. Britain banned the institution of slavery in present-day Canada (and in most British colonies) in 1833, though the practice of slavery in Canada had effectively ended already early in the 19th century through case law, due to court decisions resulting from litigation on behalf of slaves seeking manumission. [43]

Most former enslaved, reaching Canada by boat across Lake Erie and Lake Ontario, settled in Ontario. More than 30,000 people were said to have escaped there via the network during its 20-year peak period, [44] although U.S. Census figures account for only 6,000. [45] Numerous fugitives' stories are documented in the 1872 book The Underground Railroad Records by William Still, an abolitionist who then headed the Philadelphia Vigilance Committee. [46]

Estimates vary widely, but at least 30,000 slaves, and potentially more than 100,000, escaped to Canada via the Underground Railroad. [44] The largest group settled in Upper Canada (Ontario), called Canada West from 1841. [47] Numerous Black Canadian communities developed in Southern Ontario. These were generally in the triangular region bounded by Niagara Falls, Toronto, and Windsor. Several rural villages made up mostly of people freed from slavery were established in Kent and Essex counties in Ontario.

Fort Malden, in Amherstburg, Ontario, was deemed the "chief place of entry" for escaped slaves seeking to enter Canada. The abolitionist Levi Coffin, who was known for aiding over 2,000 fugitives to safety, supported this choice. He described Fort Malden as "the great landing place, the principle terminus of the underground railroad of the west." [48] After 1850, approximately thirty people a day were crossing over to Fort Malden by steamboat. [49] :15 The Sultana was one of the ships, making "frequent round trips" between Great Lakes ports. Its captain, C.W. Appleby, a celebrated mariner, facilitated the conveyance of several fugitives from various Lake Erie ports to Fort Malden. [49] :110 Other fugitives at Fort Walden had been assisted by William Wells Brown, himself someone who had escaped slavery. He found employment on a Lake Erie steamer and transported numerous fugitives from Cleveland to Ontario by way of Buffalo or Detroit. "It is well known", he tells us, "that a great number of fugitives make their escape to Canada, by way of Cleaveland. ...The friends of the slave, knowing that I would transport them without charge, never failed to have a delegation when the boat arrived at Cleaveland. I have sometimes had four or five on board at one time." [50]

Another important destination was Nova Scotia, which was first settled by Black Loyalists during the American Revolution and then by Black Refugees during the War of 1812 (see Black Nova Scotians ). Important Black settlements also developed in other parts of British North America (now parts of Canada). These included Lower Canada (present-day Quebec) and Vancouver Island, where Governor James Douglas encouraged Black immigration because of his opposition to slavery. He also hoped a significant Black community would form a bulwark against those who wished to unite the island with the United States.[ citation needed ]

Upon arriving at their destinations, many fugitives were disappointed, as life in Canada was difficult. While not at risk from slave catchers due to being in a different country, discrimination was still widespread. Many of the new arrivals had to compete with mass European immigration for jobs, and overt racism was common. For example, in reaction to Black Loyalists being settled in eastern Canada by the Crown, the city of Saint John, New Brunswick, amended its charter in 1785 specifically to exclude Blacks from practicing a trade, selling goods, fishing in the harbor, or becoming freemen; these provisions stood until 1870. [51]

With the outbreak of the Civil War in the U.S., many black refugees left Canada to enlist in the Union Army. While some later returned to Canada, many remained in the United States. Thousands of others returned to the American South after the war ended. The desire to reconnect with friends and family was strong, and most were hopeful about the changes emancipation and Reconstruction would bring.

Folklore

Since the 1980s, claims have arisen that quilt designs were used to signal and direct enslaved people to escape routes and assistance. According to advocates of the quilt theory, ten quilt patterns were used to direct enslaved people to take particular actions. The quilts were placed one at a time on a fence as a means of nonverbal communication to alert escaping slaves. The code had a dual meaning: first to signal enslaved people to prepare to escape, and second to give clues and indicate directions on the journey. [52]

The quilt design theory is disputed. The first published work documenting an oral history source was in 1999, and the first publication of this theory is believed to be a 1980 children's book. [53] Quilt historians and scholars of pre-Civil War (1820–1860) America have disputed this legend. [54] There is no contemporary evidence of any sort of quilt code, and quilt historians such as Pat Cummings and Barbara Brackman have raised serious questions about the idea. In addition, Underground Railroad historian Giles Wright has published a pamphlet debunking the quilt code.

Similarly, some popular, nonacademic sources claim that spirituals and other songs, such as "Steal Away" or "Follow the Drinking Gourd", contained coded information and helped individuals navigate the railroad. They have offered little evidence to support their claims. Scholars tend to believe that while the slave songs may certainly have expressed hope for deliverance from the sorrows of this world, these songs did not present literal help for runaway slaves. [55]

The Underground Railroad inspired cultural works. For example, "Song of the Free", written in 1860 about a man fleeing slavery in Tennessee by escaping to Canada, was composed to the tune of "Oh! Susanna". Every stanza ends with a reference to Canada as the land "where colored men are free". Slavery in Upper Canada (now Ontario) was outlawed in 1793; in 1819, John Robinson, the Attorney General of Upper Canada, declared that by residing in Canada, black residents were set free, and that Canadian courts would [56] protect their freedom. Slavery in Canada as a whole had been in rapid decline after an 1803 court ruling, and was finally abolished outright in 1834.

When frictions between North and South culminated in the Civil War, many Black people, both enslaved and free, fought for the Union Army. [57] Following Union victory in the Civil War, on December 6, 1865, the Thirteenth Amendment to the Constitution outlawed slavery. [58] Following its passage, in some cases the Underground Railroad operated in the opposite direction, as fugitives returned to the United States. [59]

Criticism

Frederick Douglass was a writer, statesman, and had escaped slavery. He wrote critically of the attention drawn to the ostensibly secret Underground Railroad in his seminal autobiography, Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave (1845):

I have never approved of the very public manner in which some of our western friends have conducted what they call the Underground Railroad, but which I think, by their open declarations, has been made most emphatically the upperground railroad.

He went on to say that, although he honors the movement, he feels that the efforts at publicity serve more to enlighten the slave-owners than the slaves, making them more watchful and making it more difficult for future slaves to escape. [60]

Notable people

South to Mexico

Background

Beginning in the 16th century, Spaniards brought enslaved blacks to New Spain. Over time, free African-Spaniards took up various trades and occupations and served in the military. They had human rights. [85]

"The Old Stone Fort of Nacogdoches," by Lee C. Harby, The American Magazine, April 1888 edition 1888-view-Old Stone Fort-Harby-illus-American Magazine.jpg
"The Old Stone Fort of Nacogdoches," by Lee C. Harby, The American Magazine, April 1888 edition

In 1806, enslaved people arrived at the Stone Fort in Nacogdoches, Texas seeking freedom. They arrived with a forged passport from a Kentuckian judge. The Spanish refused to return them back to the United States. More freedom seekers traveled through Texas the following year. [86]

Enslaved people were emancipated by crossing the border from the United States into Mexico, which was a Spanish colony into the nineteenth century. [87] In the United States, enslaved people were considered property. That meant that they did not have rights to marry and they could be sold away from their partners. They also did not have rights to fight inhumane and cruel punishment. In New Spain, people were recognized as humans. They were allowed to join the Catholic Church and marry. They also were protected from inhumane and cruel punishment. [86]

During the War of 1812, Battle at Fort Barrancas Andrew Jackson invaded Spanish Florida in part because enslaved people had runaway from plantations in the Carolinas and Georgia to Florida. Some of the runaways joined the Black Seminoles who later moved to Mexico. [86] Mexico sent mixed signals, though, on their position against slavery. Sometimes they allowed enslaved people to returned to slavery and they allowed Americans to move into Spanish territorial property to establish cotton plantations, bringing enslaved people to work the land. [86]

In 1829, Mexican president Vicente Guerrero (who was a mixed race black man) formally abolished slavery in Mexico. [15] [88] Freedom seekers from Southern plantations in the Deep South, particularly from Louisiana, Mississippi and Texas, escaped slavery and headed for Mexico. [15] [86] At that time, Texas was part of Mexico. The Texas Revolution, initiated in part to legalize slavery, resulted in the formation of the Republic of Texas in 1836. [88] Following the Battle of San Jacinto, there were some enslaved people who withdrew from the Houston area with the Mexican army, seeing the troops as a means to escape slavery. [89] When Texas joined the Union in 1845, it was a slave state [88] and the Rio Grande became the international border with Mexico. [89]

Pressure between free and slave states deepened as Mexico abolished slavery in 1837 and western states joined the Union as free states. As more free states were added to the Union, the lesser the influence of slave state representatives in Congress. [87] [86]

Slave states and slave hunters

The Southern Underground Railroad went through slave states, lacking the abolitionist societies and the organized system of the north. People who spoke out against slavery were subject to mobs, physical assault, and being hanged. There were slave catchers who looked for runaway slaves. There were never more than a few hundred free blacks in Texas, which meant that free blacks did not feel safe in the state. The network to freedom was informal, random, and dangerous. [90]

Military forts, established along the Rio Grande border during the Mexican-American War of the 1840s, captured and returned fleeing enslaved people to their slaveholders. [91]

The Fugitive Slave Act of 1850 made it a criminal act to aid fleeing escaping enslaved people in free states. Similarly, the United States government wanted to enact a treaty with Mexico so that they would help capture and return bonds-people. Mexico, however, continued their practice to allow anyone that crossed their borders to be free. Slave catchers continued to cross the southern border into Mexico and illegally capture black people and return them to slavery. [88] A group of slave hunters became the Texas Rangers. [91]

Routes

Routes from Indian Territory (Oklahoma), Arkansas, and Louisiana through Texas: 1) Dallas or Nacogdoches to Austin - San Antonio - Loredo, 2) Nacogdoches to Houston - Galveston - boat to Mexico , 3) Nacogdoches to Houston - Matamoros [89]
Eastman Johnson, A Ride for Liberty - The Fugitive Slaves, oil on paperboard, 22 x 26.25 inches, circa 1862, Brooklyn Museum. Depicts a family of African-Americans fleeing enslavement in the Southern United States during the American Civil War Brooklyn Museum - A Ride for Liberty -- The Fugitive Slaves - Eastman Johnson - overall.jpg
Eastman Johnson, A Ride for Liberty – The Fugitive Slaves , oil on paperboard, 22 × 26.25 inches, circa 1862, Brooklyn Museum. Depicts a family of African-Americans fleeing enslavement in the Southern United States during the American Civil War

Thousands of freedom seekers traveled along a network from the southern United States to Texas and ultimately Mexico. [92] Southern enslaved people generally traveled across "unforgiving country" on foot or horseback while pursued by lawmen and slave hunters. [90] Some stowed away on ferries bound for a Mexican port [88] [92] from New Orleans, Louisiana and Galveston, Texas. [89] There were some who transported cotton to Brownsville, Texas on wagons and then crossed into Mexico at Matamoros. [89]

Sometimes someone would come 'long and try to get us to run up north and be free. We used to laugh at that.

—Former slave Felix Haywood, interviewed in 1937 for the federal Slave Narrative Project. [89]

Many traveled through North Carolina, Arkansas, Alabama, Louisiana, or Mississippi towards Texas and ultimately Mexico. [88] [92] People fled slavery from Indian Territory (now Oklahoma). [89] Black Seminoles traveled on a southwestern route from Florida into Mexico. [15] [93]

Going overland meant that the last 150 miles or so were traversed through the difficult and extremely hot terrain of the Nueces Strip located between the Nueces River and the Rio Grande. There was little shade and a lack of potable water in this brush country. [90] [lower-alpha 1] Escapees were more likely to survive the trip if they had a horse and a gun. [90]

The National Park Service identified a route from Natchitoches, Louisiana to Monclova, Mexico in 2010 that is roughly the southern Underground Railroad path. It is also believed that the El Camino Real de los Tejas was a path for freedom. It was made a National Historic Trail by President George W. Bush in 2004. [92]

Assistance

Some journeyed on their own without assistance, and others were helped by people along the southern Underground Railroad. [88] Assistance included guidance, directions, shelter, and supplies. [90]

Black people, black and white couples, and anti-slavery German immigrants provided support, but most of the help came from Mexican laborers. [90] [92] So much so that enslavers came to distrust any Mexican, and a law was enacted in Texas that forbade Mexicans from talking to enslaved people. [89] Mexican migrant workers developed relationships with enslaved black workers whom they worked with. They offered guidance, such as what it would be like to cross the border, and empathy. Having realized the ways in which Mexicans were helping enslaved people to escape, slaveholders and residents of Texan towns pushed people out of the town, whipped them in public, or lynched them. [90] [92]

Some border officials helped enslaved people crossing into Mexico. In Monclova, Mexico a border official took up a collection in the town for a family in need of food, clothing, and money to continue on their journey south and out of reach of slave hunters. [91] Once they crossed the border, some Mexican authorities helped former enslaved people from being returned to the United States by slave hunters. [89]

Freedom seekers that were taken on ferries to Mexican ports were aided by Mexican ship captains, one of whom was caught in Louisiana and indicted for helping enslaved people escape. [87]

Knowing the repercussions of running away or being caught helping someone runaway, people were careful to "cover their tracks" and public and personal records about freedom seekers are scarce. The are records in greater supply by the people trying to promote slavery or catch enslaved people who have run away. More than 2,500 escapes are documented by the Texas Runaway Slave Project at Stephen F. Austin State University. [90]

Southern freedom seekers

Advertisements were placed in newspapers offering rewards for the return of their "property". Slave catchers traveled through Mexico. There were Black Seminoles, or Los Mascogos who lived in northern Mexico who provided armed resistance. [92]

Tom Blue, enslaved by General Sam Houston, ran away and joined the Mexican military Tom Blue, General Sam Houston's bodyguard.jpg
Tom Blue, enslaved by General Sam Houston, ran away and joined the Mexican military

Sam Houston, president of the Republic of Texas, was the slaveholder to Tom who runaway. He headed to Texas and once there he enlisted in the Mexican military. [94]

One enslaved man was branded with the letter "R" on each side of his cheek after a failed attempt to escape slavery. He tried again in the winter of 1819, leaving the cotton plantation of his enslaver on horseback. With four others, they traveled south west to Mexico at the risk of being attacked by hostile Native Americans, apprehended by slave catchers, or being attacked by "horse-eating alligators". [87]

Many people did not make it to Mexico. In 1842, a Mexican man and a black woman left Jackson County, Texas on two horses, but they were caught at the Lavaca River. The wife, an enslaved woman, was valuable to her owner so she was returned to slavery. Her husband, possibly a farm laborer or an indentured servant, was immediately lynched. [90]

Freedom seekers changed their names in Mexico. They married into Mexican families and relocated further south of the American-Mexican border. All of these factors makes it hard to trace the whereabouts of the former enslaved people. [92] A database at Stephen F. Austin State University has a database of runaway slave advertisements as part of The Texas Runaway Slave Project. The Works Progress Administration during the Great Depression initiated a Federal Writers' Project to document slave narratives, including those who settled in Mexico. One of them was Felix Haywood who found freedom when he crossed the Rio Grande. [92]

Rio Grande stations

Two families, the Webbers and the Jacksons, lived along the Rio Grande and helped people escape slavery. The husbands were white and the wives were former black enslaved women. [92] Nathaniel Jackson purchased the freedom of Matilda Hicks and her family. He was a white southerner and she was an enslaved woman, who had been childhood sweethearts in Alabama. [92] He was the son of her slaveholder, [88] who helped a group of seven families in 1857 and others cross into Mexico. [90]

John Ferdinand Webber, born in Vermont, lived along the Rio Grande with his wife, Silvia Hector Webber, [92] who was reported to have helped runaway enslaved people cross the Rio Grande. [90] The Jacksons and Webbers, who both owned licensed ferry service, were well-known among runaways. [89]

Arrival in Mexico

Freedom seekers found that when they made it to Mexico, they lived with the knowledge that they could be illegally kidnapped by slave catchers or blackbirders. [90] Slave hunters who tried to kidnap former slaves from Mexico could be taken to court or shot. [87]

There was little support from their new communities and few opportunities for employment. They did not have official paperwork that stated that they were free. [90] They were, though, able to enter into indentured servitude contracts and join military colonies. [87]

Some people, after they settled in Mexico, returned to the United States to help family members escape and to guide them to Mexico. [87]

Colonies

There were abolitionists from the north who petitioned the Mexican government to establish colonies for free and runaway blacks. Benjamin Lundy, a Quaker, lobbied for a colony to be established in what is now Texas during the early 1830s, but he was unable to do so when Texas legalized slavery when it separated from Mexico and became the Republic of Texas (1836). [88] Black Seminoles successfully petitioned for land and established a colony in 1852. The land is still owned by their descendants. [88]

Scholarship

$25 Reward for Tom, Galveston Weekly News from May 11, 1858 Galveston Weekly News from May 11, 1858. "$25 Reward.jpg
$25 Reward for Tom, Galveston Weekly News from May 11, 1858

The Texas Runaway Slave Project, located in Nacogdoches at the Stephen F. Austin State University, has researched runaway advertisements that appeared in 19,000 editions of newspapers from the mid-19th century. [89]

Alice L. Baumgartner has studied the prevalence of enslaved people who fled slavery from the Southern slave states to Mexico. She published South to Freedom: Runaway Slaves to Mexico and the Road to the Civil War. [86] Roseann Bacha-Garza, of the University of Texas Rio Grande Valley, has managed historical archeology projects and has researched the incidence of enslaved people who fled to Mexico. [91] [95] Maria Hammack has also researched the journey taken by freedom seekers for her doctorate at the University of Texas at Austin. [91]

National Underground Railroad Network

Following upon legislation passed in 1990 for the National Park Service to perform a special resource study of the Underground Railroad, [96] in 1997, the 105th Congress introduced and subsequently passed H.R. 1635 – National Underground Railroad Network to Freedom Act of 1998, which President Bill Clinton signed into law in 1998. [97] This act authorized the United States National Park Service to establish the National Underground Railroad Network to Freedom program to identify associated sites, as well as preserve them and popularize the Underground Railroad and stories of people involved in it. The National Park Service has designated many sites within the network, posted stories about people and places, sponsors an essay contest, and holds a national conference about the Underground Railroad in May or June each year. [98]

The Harriet Tubman Underground Railroad National Historical Park, which includes Underground Railroad routes in three counties of Maryland's Eastern Shore and Harriet Tubman's birthplace, was created by President Barack Obama under the Antiquities Act on March 25, 2013. [99] Its sister park, the Harriet Tubman National Historical Park in Auburn, New York, was established on January 10, 2017, and focuses on the later years of Tubman's life as well as her involvement with the Underground Railroad and the abolition movement. [100]

Inspirations for fiction

Contemporary literature

See also

Notes

  1. Of recent years, unauthorized migrants have died when crossing this area, evidenced by bones found by immigration agents. [89]

Related Research Articles

Harriet Tubman African-American abolitionist

Harriet Tubman was an American abolitionist and political activist. Born into slavery, Tubman escaped and subsequently made some 13 missions to rescue approximately 70 enslaved people, including family and friends, using the network of antislavery activists and safe houses known as the Underground Railroad. During the American Civil War, she served as an armed scout and spy for the Union Army. In her later years, Tubman was an activist in the movement for women's suffrage.

Fugitive Slave Act of 1850 Act of the United States Congress

The Fugitive Slave Act or Fugitive Slave Law was passed by the United States Congress on September 18, 1850, as part of the Compromise of 1850 between Southern interests in slavery and Northern Free-Soilers.

Fugitive slaves in the United States

In the United States, fugitive slaves or runaway slaves were terms used in the 18th and 19th century to describe enslaved people who fled slavery. The term also refers to the federal Fugitive Slave Acts of 1793 and 1850. The use of "fugitive" and "runaway" infers that the enslaved person had committed a crime and inferred that slaveholder was the injured party. Enslaved people who fled servitude were in fact freedom seekers, which reflects African American's objectives to make liberty a reality.

Samuel Green (freedman) African American slave

Samuel Green was an slave, freedman, and minister of religion. A conductor of the Underground Railroad, he was tried and convicted in 1857 of possessing a copy of the anti-slavery novel Uncle Tom's Cabin by Harriet Beecher Stowe following the Dover Eight incident. He received a ten-year sentence, and was pardoned by the Governor of Maryland Augustus Bradford in 1862, after he served five years.

Ellen and William Craft American fugitive slaves and abolitionists

Ellen Craft (1826–1891) and William Craft were American fugitives who were born and enslaved in Macon, Georgia. They escaped to the North in December 1848 by traveling by train and steamboat, arriving in Philadelphia on Christmas Day. Ellen crossed the boundaries of race, class, gender, and physical ability by passing as a white male planter with William posing as her personal servant. Their daring escape was widely publicized, making them among the most famous of fugitives from slavery. Abolitionists featured them in public lectures to gain support in the struggle to end the institution.

Thomas Garrett

Thomas Garrett was an American abolitionist and leader in the Underground Railroad movement before the American Civil War. For his fight against slavery, he was subject to threats, harassment and assaults. A $10,000 bounty was established for his capture, He was arrested and convicted in the Hawkins case. Over his life, he helped more than 2,500 African Americans escape slavery.

Slave catcher People who tracked down slaves in the United States

In the United States a slave catcher was a person employed to track down and return escaped slaves to their enslavers. The first slave catchers in the Americas were active in European colonies in the West Indies during the sixteenth century. In colonial Virginia and Carolina, slave catchers were recruited by Southern planters beginning in the eighteenth century to return fugitive slaves; the concept quickly spread to the rest of the Thirteen Colonies. After the establishment of the United States, slave catchers continued to be employed in addition to being active in other countries which had not abolished slavery, such as Brazil. The activities of slave catchers from the American South became at the center of a major controversy in the lead up to the American Civil War; the Fugitive Slave Act required those living in the Northern United States to assist slave catchers. Slave catchers in the United States ceased to be active with the ratification of the Thirteenth Amendment.

Lewis Hayden American abolitionist, lecturer, businessman and politician (1811-1889)

Lewis Hayden escaped slavery in Kentucky with his family and escaped to Canada. He established a school for African Americans before moving to Boston, Massachusetts to aid in the abolition movement. There he became an abolitionist, lecturer, businessman, and politician. Before the American Civil War, he and his wife Harriet Hayden aided numerous fugitive slaves on the Underground Railroad, often sheltering them at their house.

Samuel Burris

Samuel D. Burris was a member of the Underground Railroad. He had a family, who he moved to Philadelphia for safety and traveled into Maryland and Delaware to guide freedom seekers north along the Underground Railroad to Pennsylvania.

Songs of the Underground Railroad

Songs of the Underground Railroad were spiritual and work songs used during the early-to-mid 19th century in the United States to encourage and convey coded information to escaping slaves as they moved along the various Underground Railroad routes. As it was illegal in most slave states to teach slaves to read or write, songs were used to communicate messages and directions about when, where, and how to escape, and warned of dangers and obstacles along the route.

Edmonson sisters American abolitionists

Mary Edmonson (1832–1853) and Emily Edmonson (1835–1895), "two respectable young women of light complexion", were African Americans who became celebrities in the United States abolitionist movement after gaining their freedom from slavery. On April 15, 1848, they were among the 77 slaves who tried to escape from Washington, DC on the schooner The Pearl to sail up the Chesapeake Bay to freedom in New Jersey.

Reverse Underground Railroad

The Reverse Underground Railroad is the name given, sardonically, to the pre-American Civil War practice of kidnapping in free states not only fugitive slaves but free blacks as well, transporting them to slave states, and selling them as slaves, or occasionally getting a reward for return of a fugitive. Those who used the term were pro-slavery and angered at an "underground railroad" helping slaves escape. Also, the so-called "reverse underground railroad" had incidents but not a network, and its activities did not always take place in secret. Rescues of blacks being kidnapped were unusual.

Underground Railroad in Indiana

The Underground Railroad in Indiana was part of a larger, unofficial, and loosely-connected network of groups and individuals who aided and facilitated the escape of runaway slaves from the southern United States. The network in Indiana gradually evolved in the 1830s and 1840s, reached its peak during the 1850s, and continued until slavery was abolished throughout the United States at the end of the American Civil War in 1865. It is not known how many fugitive slaves escaped through Indiana on their journey to Michigan and Canada. An unknown number of Indiana's abolitionists, anti-slavery advocates, and people of color, as well as Quakers and other religious groups illegally operated stations along the network. Some of the network's operatives have been identified, including Levi Coffin, the best-known of Indiana's Underground Railroad leaders. In addition to shelter, network agents provided food, guidance, and, in some cases, transportation to aid the runaways.

<i>Harriet</i> (film) 2019 U.S. biographical film

Harriet is a 2019 American biographical film directed by Kasi Lemmons, who also wrote the screenplay with Gregory Allen Howard. It stars Cynthia Erivo as abolitionist Harriet Tubman, with Leslie Odom Jr., Joe Alwyn, and Janelle Monáe in supporting roles. A biography about Harriet Tubman had been in the works for years, with several actresses, including Viola Davis, rumored to star. Erivo was cast in February 2017, and much of the cast and crew joined the following year. Filming took place in Virginia from October to December 2018.

Underground Railroad in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania

Harrisburg was a pivotal hub in the Underground Railroad (UGRR) particularly because the number of free blacks that could assist runaways and the many routes through the area.

The Tilly Escape

The Tilly Escape occurred in October 1856 when an enslaved woman, Tilly, was led to safety by Harriet Tubman. Historians who have studied Tubman consider it: "one of her most complicated and clever escape attempts." It was a risky trip because Tubman and Tilly would not have been able to travel directly from Baltimore to Philadelphia without proof that they were free women. In addition, local slave traders would have recognized strangers. Tubman sought to evade capture by going south, before heading north, and using different modes of transportation over water and land.

Black Canadians in Ontario

Black Canadians migrated north in the 18th and 19th centuries from the United States, many of them through the Underground Railroad, into Southwestern Ontario, Toronto, and Owen Sound. Black Canadians fought in the War of 1812 and Rebellions of 1837–1838 for the British. Some returned to the United States during the American Civil War or during the Reconstruction era.

The Dover Eight refers to a group of eight black people who escaped their slaveholders of the Bucktown, Maryland area around March 8, 1857. They were helped along the way by a number of people from the Underground Railroad, except for Thomas Otwell, who turned them in once they had made it north to Dover, Delaware. There, they were lured to the Dover jail with the intention of getting the $3,000 reward for the eight men. The Dover Eight escaped the jail and made it to Canada.

William Brinkley was a conductor on the Underground Railroad who helped more than 100 people achieve freedom by traveling through the "notoriously dangerous" town of Camden north to or towards Wilmington, which was also very dangerous for runaway enslaved people. Some of his key rescues include The Tilly Escape of 1856, the Dover Eight in the spring of 1857, and the rescue of 28 people, more than half of which were children, from Dorchester County, Maryland. He had a number of pathways that he would take to various destinations, aided by his brother Nathaniel and Abraham Gibbs, other conductors on the railroad.

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Further reading

Folklore and myth