Robert Smalls, a wheelman who commandeered a Confederate steamer and carried himself, fellow workers, and their families to freedom in 1862. (See link at the end of the blog to access his story and those over four other people who made amazing escapes.)
You may wonder how people escaping slavery got from Point A to Point B. That is a very good thing to wonder, because travel on its own was not easy in the nineteenth century. Add to that the always-present danger that a runaway could be caught and returned to face terrible consequences.
For an enslaved person living in the southern states freedom was something that was far, far away. The northern states offered the opportunity to be free, but even if an individual managed to get there he or she ran the risk of being discovered by “slave hunters” empowered by the Fugitive Slave Acts. Not to say that some escaping people did not end their journey in northern states, but a sure-fire way to get free and remain that way was to go to someplace where the Fugitive Slave Acts had no power. The obvious place was Canada. However, two lesser-known locations were Florida and Mexico.
Florida had been under Spanish rule until it became a U.S. territory in 1822. At that point, free black people, Seminole Indians, and enslaved people escaped to Cuba. They knew what was coming and that it would have a dreadful impact on their lives. Therefore, Florida was no longer a good place to which escape to after 1822.
Mexico, on the other hand, was a nation unto itself. In 1821, after a long struggle, its colonial status with Spain ended. The Fugitive Slave Acts could not reach self-emancipators there and, in 1824, Mexico’s boundaries occupied most of what is now the American Southwest. Over the decades its territory was ceded – one way or the other – to the United States until 1867 when the national boundaries of what we now know as Mexico were settled. But in the years preceding the American Civil War, it would have been possible for an enslaved person to make the arduous journey to Mexican land and grasp freedom.
However, most self-emancipators opted to go north, either to the northern American states or to Canada, most likely because these locations were more accessible and escape routes were better established. In Canada, fugitives would find support systems comprised of communities of free blacks as well as whites connected to the Underground Railroad. In addition, and perhaps more importantly, Canada bestowed freedom upon slaves who left the United States and crossed its border.
We know that there were three main northern routes. The Western Route traveled up the Mississippi River Valley, went through the Kansas and Missouri Territories, and up to Iowa and Illinois. Once in those two states, self-emancipators would be escorted through Michigan (often traveling through Detroit) to Canada.
The Central Route took people from the heart of the South to Kentucky, West Virginia, and Western Maryland, and then to Ohio. From there they traveled either to Indiana, Pennsylvania, or western New York. Once in either of those states, self-emancipators entered Underground Railroad systems that would guide them to Canada.
Finally, there was the Eastern Route. This journey took fugitives from the southeastern South up to Maryland, Delaware, and Virginia. From there they would go to either Pennsylvania or New Jersey, and then travel to New York or New England. Again, in those last two states, fugitives would find UGRR webs that would help them make the final leg of the journey to Canada.
The routing may seem a bit roundabout to us today, but they were designed that way to move people to freedom as safely and secretly as possible.
So, now we know about the routes, but what about the nuts and bolts of actual travel? Did every self-emancipator walk? No. But some did travel overland, especially if they were leaving Delaware, Maryland, Virginia, and Kentucky. Using the North Star as their guide, they followed roads or trails by night to avoid slave catchers and hid by day in barns, outbuilding, corn fields, brush, or under a bridge. If self-emancipators happened to stumble upon a UGRR station, the station masters would hide them in their house, barn, or other outbuilding. Again, with any luck, fugitives might find an Underground Railroad conductor guide them along the next leg of their journey.
Escaping slaves also traveled by vehicles like buggies, carriages, and wagons. There are stories about runaways stealing a wagon or a horse to make their escape. If they had help from the Underground Railroad, they might be hidden in the false bottom of a wagon or under hay, straw, boxes, or bags. Self-emancipators with light skin also had the option of disguising themselves as white people.
The quickest form of travel in the nineteenth century were trains, and self-emancipators made use of them, too. They might hide on board (most likely in freight cars). If their skin was light, they might disguise themselves and board as a passenger. If accompanied by a white UGRR "conductor," a fugitive might appear to be the servant or slave of the "conductor."
Steamboats, canoes, skiffs, schooners, and other water vehicles offered another way to travel. Sometimes steamboat captains were sympathetic to the UGRR and would sneak escapees on board. Other times captains might accept a bribe to carry runaways. Again, light-skinned self-emancipators could disguise themselves as whites and openly book a northbound steamboat. Along the coastline, skiffs or schooners offered runaways the opportunity to stow away.
As if any of that were not enough, there were extreme ways to get to freedom. An intrepid, daring self-emancipator could arrange to have a container shipped north and hide in it. I’m serious! We know the name of one individual who actually did it. He was Henry “Box” Brown. If you want to read his story click here: http://www.pbs.org/black-culture/shows/list/underground-railroad/stories-freedom/henry-box-brown/. Robert Smalls, pictured above, actually commandeered a steamer to get to freedom. You can find a short version of Brown’s story, Robert Smalls’ story, and the story of three other people who made some amazingly brave escapes at https://www.history.com/news/5-daring-slave-escapes.
If all of the above looks incredibly difficult and dangerous, it was. But freedom was worth it. When faced with a life-time sentence of being someone else’s property and having no control over one’s activity and indeed one’s very life, the sweet call of freedom moved the determined few to risk all.
On Monday: specifics on the Underground Railroad in New Jersey.
Have a good weekend, everyone!
Janet Stafford, Squeaking Pips Founder