When I began working on my first book, Saint Maggie, I had no idea I would be learning a great deal about the Underground Railroad (UGRR). It all started because I needed a secret place in Maggie’s boarding house to move the plot along. I thought it would make sense to have it be a hiding place for runaway slaves. As I created my characters, Maggie, who is white, belonged to the Methodist Episcopal Church, her friends Nate and Emily Johnson were black and members of an African Methodist Episcopal Church (AME), and Maggie’s beau and later husband, Eli Smith, came from a Quaker background. Although I didn’t know it at the time, my characters represented part of the mix of diverse people who participated in the UGRR. I made Nate and Emily the originators of the station. When they eventually invited Maggie and Eli into it, the station’s hiding place was moved to a spot between Maggie’s house and Eli’s print shop.
For the next few posts, I thought I’d share what I have learned over the years about the Underground Railroad. But in order to talk about the UGRR, we first need some background, and that background is slavery.
Early European colonists in North America had a labor force consisting of African slaves, Native Americans slaves, and indentured servants (contract slavery). At that time, all kinds of trade in human beings existed. Most people became slaves as a result of indebtedness or conquest by another people. Slavery was not necessarily a lifetime situation, though. Once a debt was worked off, a person would be freed. And people enslaved because of conquest could stay in that condition for the rest of their life or they might be freed eventually, There were a number of variables.
But during the period in which North America was colonized by Europeans, things changed. Tobacco production was expanding in Virginia and the export of rice was increasingly important to South Carolina’s Coastal counties. This increased the need more slaves to work the land. For this, they turned more and more to people kidnapped and brought over from Africa, and these people were enslaved for life. (Note: Another reason for this was that Native American peoples could and did run away, escaping into familiar terrain, and indentured servants eventually would work of their debt and leave.)
However, this enslavement of African peoples was not confined to the Southern colonies. It also existed in the northern states and grew there as well, even though the northern states did not have an economy based on tobacco or rice. In the north, captured African people were used to work in houses, shops, and farming. And they also were enslaved for life. Freedom depended upon the largess of one's owner - and usually did not happen.
Of course, not every European living in America felt that slavery was an acceptable institution. Around the end of the 1700s, a movement grew supporting the gradual emancipation of slaves and prohibiting the import of slaves from Africa. On the other hand, other people supported the principle abolition, or the unqualified, immediate freeing of slaves. And yet, these white people too were wary of what would happen should abolition occur and large numbers of enslaved people suddenly became free.
And then there were folks, white and black, who would help a slave attempt an escape to freedom. Small networks of family and friends would shelter a runaway and attempt to have him/her resettled in another location. This locally situated effort usually moved an escaped slave a town or two away and no more than 10 or 15 miles from the slave owner. In the 1700s there was no larger organization and system for moving a self-emancipator far away from the slave owner’s reach.
Then something changed. The manufacture of textiles in England had been revolutionized by the factory system and by the industrial revolution and England became a huge market for American cotton. The good news was upland (or short-staple) cotton had a great per-acre yield. The bad news was that the seeds clung to the fiber and had to be pulled out by hand. It took one person a full day to clean one pound of seeds from harvested cotton. There was no way to fulfill the promise of selling enough cotton to satisfy English demand. Not with such a slow cleaning system for the cotton.
Enter Eli Whitney’s cotton gin in 1792. The cotton gin ("gin" is short for “engine”) was a machine that picked the cotton up on a roller studded with metal teeth. The roller carried the cotton around to a metal grill, which scraped the cotton and loosened its seeds until they dropped away. The output was amazing. When the machine was run by hand crank, one slave could do the work of 12. If the gin was powered by a water wheel, then it could do the work of hundreds of workers. This invention caused an expansion in American cotton exports from almost nothing in the early 1790s to six million pounds in 1796, and to 20 million pounds in 1801.
One would think that the cotton gin would lead to a decrease in the number of enslaved people required to farm cotton, but this was not the case. Instead, the powerful cotton economy spread slavery from the southern coastal states to other areas where it could be farmed, from the Mississippi Territory all the way to Texas. During this time of expansion, from 1800-1860, the number of enslaved people nearly quadrupled. in the United States. According to the 1860 census, the USA had 395,538 slaves, or 13% of the population, who were owned by 8% of the families. (Note: there were 476,748 free people of color in the country at that time.)
However, as the number of enslaved people increased, something new emerged for slave owners: the fear of insurrection. The horrors of the French Revolution, which began in 1789, and a successful slave insurrection in Haiti in 1791 made people who owned slaves fearful that America would be the next to have an insurrection. The fear grew in 1800 when a Virginia blacksmith named Gabriel confessed that a slave revolt had been in the works, saying that the plan was for all whites except Quakers, Methodists, and the French were to be killed.
Fear on the part of whites led to oppressive new laws throughout the states that had an impact of black people both free and enslaved, especially in the southern states. Voluntary manumission without official approval was prohibited. Newly freed blacks were forced to leave the state in which they had been freed or face re-enslavement. Free blacks who traveled without authorization papers could be arrested, fined, and possibly re-sold into slavery. They also could be re-enslaved if they defaulted on a fine or did not pay their taxes. In addition, free people were barred from starting schools and from meeting together if the meeting was perceived to be threatening to whites.
So that is what the United States looked at a time when it was permissible to own other people.
On Friday, we’ll look at slavery in the state of New Jersey.
P.S. I'd love to give you my resources for the above information, but I'm having trouble finding it! This comes from a talk I had given on the Underground Railroad a few years ago. With any luck, I'll have some references for you on Friday. I'm such a geek, I know they're somewhere in that particular file.
Janet Stafford, Squeaking Pips Founder