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 The Underground Railroad in Action: Communication and Codes

The very nature of the Underground Railroad, however, transcended regional boundaries and sectional differences. The freedom seekers took freedom wherever it could be found, whether a maroon society in Spanish Florida, a whaling ship cruising the Alaskan coast, a mining claim in California’s Sierra Nevada Mountains, or Boston in 1850. Liberty could be found in any number of directions.

Map of Underground Railroad routes to northern states and Canada, compiled by Professor Wilber H. Seibert of Ohio State UniversityThis 1898 map of Underground Railroad routes, created by Professor Wilber H. Seibert of Ohio State University, highlights some of the hundreds of routes freedom seekers used to reach Northern states and Canada. However, any map can only demonstrate the routes which historical evidence, both oral and textual, can corroborate. In the case of the Underground Railroad, no amount of research will ever uncover the multitude of ravines, back roads, trails, creek beds, canyons, rivers and valleys that freedom seekers used as passages to liberty.

The secretive nature of the Underground Railroad, the very reason for its success, precludes researchers generations later from reconstructing every route. Seibert himself realized the shortcomings of such a map, but as he himself pointed out, "However much the map may fall short of showing the system in its completeness, it will be found to help the reader materially in his attempt to realize the extent and importance of this movement."

The vast majority of individual acts of bravery and resilience, which make up the fabric of the Underground Railroad, will likely remain secrets of history. What exploits are known continue to fascinate and inspire modern Americans. These success stories, however, are forever framed against family left behind, children sold away from parents and acts of horrible brutality scarcely imaginable to modern sensibilities. The freedom seekers that were chased down by slavers, perhaps just moments from freedom, will never be known, but all of these events make up the story of the Underground Railroad.

"Helping the freedom seeker" was a subject that fascinated many Americans. Many people who did not consider themselves abolitionists aided freedom seekers from spontaneous impulse, perhaps thinking of the Biblical pronouncement that aid to the "least of these" was aid to the divine. No maps with arrows pointed out trails, or favored river or sea routes. The freedom seeker could not depend on individual acts of assistance. Further, "safe" routes do not factor in the betrayal, exhaustion, or carelessness that might have occurred along the way. Indeed, the fact that there were (in many cases) no predetermined trails was chief reason for success.

In order to reduce the number freedom seekers, owners attempted to disempowered African Americans by keeping them ignorant of the country around them. That task proved impossible, as African American labor, vital to the Southern economy, was not limited to isolated plantations. Communication between enslaved African Americans flowed freely. Bondspeople knew perfectly well that freedom lay generally to the north, and they knew how to travel northward by locating the North Star. Elders often taught children how to locate the star. So, freedom seekers headed North by simply walking in the stars direction. However, freedom seekers often risked walking through dangerous or impassable terrain due to unfamiliarity with a path and the inability to plan a specific route.

By stars and songs

The North Star became a symbol of freedom to enslaved African Americans, as well as a guide. Children were taught to locate the North Star by using the stars of the Big Dipper. Of course, foul weather that obscured the stars often inhibited travel northward. On a larger scale, slaves often passed travel instructions from plantation to plantation by song, evidence of a vital oral tradition tied to roots in Africa. Much like Native American culture, African societies passed much of their history down through oral tradition and folklore. Africans brought from Africa the custom of creating songs to transmit factual information. In North America, Africans turned the songs into code that secretly transmitted information they wished to keep from whites.

"Follow the Drinking Gourd" is a coded song that provided the route for an escape from Alabama and Mississippi. Of all the routes out of the Deep South, this is the only one for which the details survive in song. A portion of the song and the translation are as follows:

When the sun comes back and the first quail calls,
Follow the drinking gourd
For the old man is waiting to carry you to freedom
If you follow the drinking gourd

"When the sun comes back" means winter when the altitude of the sun is higher each day. Quail are a migratory bird that winter in the South, and the drinking gourd is the Big Dipper. Most freedom seekers had to cross the Ohio River, a swift and powerful river difficult to cross most of the year. The song urged freedom seekers to begin their journey in winter, which would enable them to reach the Ohio when it was still frozen and easier to cross.

The riverbank makes a very good road
The dead trees show you the way
Left foot, peg foot, traveling on
Follow the drinking gourd

This verse taught freedom seekers to follow the bank of the Tombigbee River north looking for dead trees that were marked with drawings of a left foot and a peg foot. The markings distinguished the Tombigbee from other rivers that flowed into it.

Quilts: the fabric of freedom

Other methods of communication might have aided freedom seekers in the journey northward. According to oral tradition, enslaved African Americans, free African Americans and white abolitionists used quilts made of familiar patterns to communicate the location of safe houses, dictate escape routes and convey other information vital to escape and survival. Various symbols on quilts, which would have been displayed outside the homes of those aiding freedom seekers, passed on different messages.

A "monkey wrench" quilt—such as the type owned by the Frederick Douglass family -- may have been a symbolic representation of a home belonging to and individual belonging to someone who would be a "tool" in the escape process. Another type of design was the "drunkards path" which might have instructed freedom seekers to travel in a zigzag pattern to elude pursuers, or was perhaps a reference to the staggered placement of the homes of Underground Railroad stations. The North Star was another popular symbol to place on quilts.

Of course, quilt code speculation remains a theory because such codes have never been textually documented, and possibly never will. As with other aspects of the Underground Railroad, such as specific routes, absolute evidence is shrouded by covert nature of the Underground Railroad.

Grape-vine telegraphs

Virtually all freedom seekers preferred traveling at night, and much of the communication freedom seekers used on organized segments of the Underground Railroad existed in coded language. These modes of communication have been referred to as the "grape-vine telegraph," and often consisted of signals, whispered conversations, passwords, and messages colored with figurative phrases were the common ways of conveying information about freedom seekers, or about parties in pursuit of African Americans.

The safety of freedom seekers while lay mainly in their ability to conceal themselves while on the move. For example, when freedom seekers traveled overland or on waterways, these wagons or vessels were often covered or closed, or had deep beds which concealed the freedom seeker from onlookers. Conductors often took various precautions to conceal the real reason behind their travels, often using business commitments as a reason for travel. A conductor might load a wagon with produce or grain bound for market; that product would conceal the fugitive on their way to the next station. Some methods were more unorthodox. One conductor arranged for a parade of wagons and carriages, in a mock funeral procession, which actually carried freedom seekers to their next rendezvous.

Sometimes, freedom seekers were hidden in plain site using disguises, demonstrated most spectacularly by William and Ellen Craft. African American men were provided with tools and the apparel of a laborer, and walked through a settlement as if simply heading to work. Freedom seeking women were sometimes outfitted with expensive clothing to avoid detection by slavers who would have a different description of the freedom seeker. Disguise also took many forms. In the Hunt-Phelan home, enslaved African American children were secretly taught to read and write. In public or around slaveowners, the children pretended to be illiterate.

Map of Underground Railroad routes in Ohio - Greene, Warren and Clinton CountiesFreedom seekers and their conductors often traveled zigzag or circuitous routes designed to confuse pursuit. The goal was always freedom, whether that lay in a free territory to the west, a ship bound for Mexico, a northern city or Canada, but a safe path was always preferable to a predictable straight route. Conductors often had a choice of lines to the next station, thus the intricacy of the network and the difficulty for later generations in identifying the whole of the Underground Railroad. This map of Greene, Warren and Clinton Counties in Ohio demonstrate the web of routes available to the freedom seeker. Many others that occurred in the same area will never be known.

Once at a station, the freedom seeker was often provided with food, clothing if required, and a hiding place, which they usually remained in for the duration of their stay. Caves, barns, cellars, haystacks, hidden rooms, attics, forest thickets, remote cabins, church belfries and galleries, crates on seagoing vessels all qualify as only some of the hiding places on the Underground Railroad. Hideouts were located wherever ingenuity and necessity emerged.

While unsung escapes by freedom seekers guiding themselves by the stars made up the majority of Underground Railroad escapes, there were many other celebrated escapes which demonstrated the ingenuity and determination of those held in bondage, as well as those dedicated to securing freedom for all.

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