The Underground Railroad: Stories of Victory from Tragedy
I've always been intrigued by the mystery of the Underground Railroad. Like the black inventors I featured earlier this week, these are stories of people who beat the odds stacked against them to reach a goal- their freedom. They all risked their lives for freedom, preferring almost certain death and a chance to be free over slavery. Some cases were more extreme than others.. traveling in shipping boxes to safe houses on the UGRR.
A lot of those travels were documented in the account of The Underground Railroad Records. These are not sad stories. They are testimonies of triumph written sometimes in their own word in letters to "The Father of the UGRR(Underground Railroad) William Still.
Still often used his Philadelphia home to help hundreds of slaves to escape. He kept detailed records and maintained stayed in contact with man of them.. becoming a contact between escaped slaves and those left behind.
These people exhibited tremendous courage escaping a long life of use and abuse terror and rape along with the uncertainty of when and if you'd be sold on the auction block. It's impossible to post the whole book although I wish I could. Here's a few snippets including a run in with Harriet Tubman "Moses".
Before we go to the book, though. There was a code used on The Underground Railroad, based on the metaphor of the railway-- to confuse anyone trying to track them.
-People who helped slaves find the railroad were "agents" (or "shepherds")
-Guides were "conductors"
-Hiding places were "stations"
-Abolitionists would fix the "tracks"
-"Stationmasters" hid slaves in their homes
-Escaped slaves were referred to as "passengers" or "cargo"
-Slaves would obtain a "ticket."
-Financial benefactors of the Railroad were known as "stockholders".
-The Big Dipper asterism (whose "bowl" points to the North Star) was known as the drinkin' gourd.
The Underground Railroad was used during the 9th-century to help slaves escape to free states and Canada. Other routes led to Mexico or overseas.
Hundreds of thousands of slaves got on the railroad, but the number of those who escaped slavery still did not outpace the number of slaves brought into the country. So, here's a some snippets from the book taken from google books.
WILLIAM PEEL, Alias WILLIAM BOX PEEL JONES.ARRIVED PER ERRICSON LINE OF STEAMERS, WRAPPED IN STRAW AND BOXED UP,APRIL, 1859.William is twenty-five years of age, unmistakably colored, good-looking, rather under the medium size, and of pleasing manners. William had himself boxed up by a near relative and forwarded by the Erricson line of steamers. He gave the slip to Robert H. Carr, his owner (a grocer and commission merchant), after this wise, and for the following reasons: For some time previous his master had been selling off his slaves every now and then, the same as other groceries, and this admonished William that he was liable to be in the market any day; consequently, he preferred the box to the auction-block.He did not complain of having been treated very badly by Carr. but felt that no man was safe while owned by another. In fact, he "hated the very name of slaveholder." The limit of the box not admitting of straightening himself out he was taken with the cramp on the road, suffered indescribable misery, and had his faith taxed to the utmost,—indeed was brought to the very verge of "screaming aloud" ere relief came. However, he controlled himself, though only for a short season, for before a great while an excessive faintness came over him. Here nature became quite exhausted. He thought he must "die;" but his time had not yet come. After a severe struggle he revived, but only to encounter a third ordeal no less painful than the one through which he had just passed. Next a very "cold chill " came over him, which seemed almost to freeze the very blood in his veins and gave him intense agony, from which he only found relief on awaking, having actually fallen asleep in that condition. Finally, however, he arrived at Philadelphia, on a steamer, Sabbath morning. A devoted friend of his, expecting him, engaged a carriage and repaired to the wharf for the box. The bill of lading and the receipt he had with him, and likewise knew where the box was located on the boat. Although he well knew freight was not usually delivered on Sunday, yet his deep solicitude for the safety of his friend determined him to do all that lay in his power to rescue him from his perilous situation. Handing his bill of lading to the proper officer of the boat, he asked if he could get the freight that it called for. The officer looked at the bill and said, "No, we do not deliver freight on Sunday;" but, noticing the anxiety of the man, he asked him if he would know it if he were to see it. Slowly—fearing that too much interest manifested micht excite suspicion—he replied: "I think I should." Deliberately looking around amongst all the "freight," he discovered the box, and said, "I think that is it there." Said officer stepped to it, looked at the directions on it, then at the bill of lading, and said, "That is right, take it along." Here the interest in these two bosoms was thrilling in the highest degree. But the size of the box was too large for the carriage, and the driver refused to take it Nearly an hour and a half was spent in looking for a furniture car. Finally one was procured, and again the box was laid hold of by the occupant's particular friend, when, to his dread alarm, the poor fellow within gave a sudden cough. At this startling circumstance he dropped the box; equally as quick, although dreadfully frightened, and, as if helped by some invisible agency, he commenced singing, "Hush, my babe, lie still and slumber," with the most apparent indifference, at the same time slowly making his way from the box. Soon his fears subsided, and it was presumed that no one was any the wiser on account of the accident, or coughing. Thus, after summoning courage, he laid hold of the box a third time, and the Rubicon was passed. The car driver, totally ignorant of the contents of the box, drove to the number to which he was directed to take it—left it and went about his business. Now is a moment of intense interest—now of inexpressible delight. The box is opened, the straw removed, and the poor fellow is loosed; and is rejoicing, I will venture to say, as mortal never did rejoice, who had not been in similar peril. This particular friend was scarcely less overjoyed, however, and their joy did not abate for several hours; nor was it confined to themselves, for two invited members of the Vigilance Committee also partook of a full share. This box man was named Wm, Jones. He was boxed up in Baltimore by the friend who received him at the wharf, who did not come in the boat with him, but came in the cars and met him at the wharf.The trial in the box lasted just seventeen hours before victory was achieved. Jones was well cared for by the Vigilance Committee and sent on his way rejoicing, feeling that Resolution, Underground Rail Road, and Liberty were invaluable.On his way to Canada, he stopped at Albany, and the subjoined letter gives his view of things from that stand-point—Mb. Still :—I take this opportunity of writing a few lines to you hoping that tha may find you in good health and femaly. i am well at present and doing well at present i am now in a store and getting sixteen dollars a month at the present, i feel very much o blige to you and your family for your kindnes to me while i was with you i have got a long without any trub le a tal. i am now in albany City, give my lov to mrs and rar miller and tel them i am very much a blige to them for there kind ns. give my lov to my Brother nore Jones tel him i should like to here from him very much and he must write, tel him to give my love to all of my perticular frends and tel them i should like to see them very much, tel him that he must come to see me for i want to see him for sum thing very perticler. please ansure this letter as soon as posabul and excuse me for not writting sooner as i dont write myself, no more at the present. William Jones.derect to one hundred 125 lydus. stt
His good friend returned to Baltimore the same day the box man started for the North, and immediately dispatched through the post the following brief letter, worded in Underground Rail Road parables:Baltimo April 16,1859. W. Still :—Dear brother i have taken the opportunity of writing yon these few lines to inform you that i am well an hoping these few lines may find you enjoying the same good blessing please to write me word at what time was it when isreal went to Jerico i am very anxious to hear forthare is a mighty host will pass over and you and i my brother will sing hally luja i shall notify you when the great catastrophe shal take place No more at the present but remain your brother * • . N. L. J.
WESLEY HARRIS,* Alias ROBERT JACKSON, AND THE MATTERSON BROTHERS.In setting out for freedom, Wesley was the leader of this party. After two nights of fatiguing travel at a distance of about sixty miles from home, the young aspirants for liberty were betrayed, and in an attempt made to capture them a most bloody conflict ensued. Both fugitives and pursuers were the recipients of severe wounds from gun shots, and other weapons used in the contest.Wesley bravely used his fire arms until almost fatally wounded by one of the pursuers, who with a heavily loaded gun discharged the contents with deadly aim in his left arm, which raked the flesh from the bone for a space of about six inches in length. One of Wesley's companions also fought heroically and only yielded when badly wounded and quite overpowered. The two younger (brothers of C. Matterson) it seemed made no resistance.In order to recall the adventures of this struggle, and the success of Wesley Harris, it is only necessary to copy the report as then penned from the lips of this young hero, while on the Underground Rail Road, even then in a very critical state. Most fearful indeed was his condition when he was brought to the Vigilance Committee in this City.
ARRIVAL FROM DELAWARE, 1858.GEORGE LAWS AND COMRADE—TIED AND HOISTED WITH BLOCK AND TACKLE, TOBE COWHIDED.George represented the ordinary young slave men of Delaware. He was of unmixed blood, medium size and of humble appearance. He was destitute of the knowledge of spelling, to say nothing of reading. Slavery had stamped him unmistakably for life. To be scantily fed and clothed, and compelled to work without hire, George did not admire, but had to submit without murmuring; indeed, he knew that his so-called master, whose name was Denny, would not be likely to hear complaints from a slave; he therefore dragged his chain and yielded to his daily task.One day, while hauling dirt with a fractious horse, the animal manifested an unwillingness to perform his duty satisfactorily. At this procedure the master charged George with provoking the beast to do wickedly, and in a rage he collared George and bade him accompany him "up stairs" (of the soap house). Not daring to resist, George went along with him. Ropes being tied around both his wrists, the block and tackle were fastened thereto, and George soon found himself hoisted on tip-toe with his feet almost clear of the floor. The "kind-hearted master" then tore all the poor fellow's old shirt off his back, and addressed him thus: "You son of a b—h, I will jrive you pouting around me; stay there till I go up town for ray cowhide."George begged piteously, but in vain. The fracas caused some excitement, and it so happened that a show was to be exhibited that day in the town, which, as is usual in the country, brought a great many .people from a distance; so, to his surprise, when the master returned with his cowhide, he found that a large number of curiosity-seekers had been attracted to the soap house to see Mr. Denny perform with his cowhide on George's back, as he was stretched up by his hands. Many had evidently made up their minds that it would be more amusing to see the cowhiding than the circus.The spectators numbered about three hundred. This was a larger number than Mr. Denny had been accustomed to perform before, consequently he was seized with embarrassment; looking confused he left the soap house and went to his office, to await the dispersion of the crowd.The throng finally retired, and left George hanging in mortal agony. Human nature here made a death-struggle; the cords which bound his wrists were unloosed, and George was then prepared to strike for freedom at the mouth of the cannon or point of the bayonet. How Denny regarded the matter when he found that George had not only cheated him out of the anticipated delight of cowhiding him, but had also cheated him out of himself is left for the imagination to picture.George fled from Kent; he was accompanied by a comrade whose name inadvertently was not recorded; he, however, was described as a dark, round, and full-faced, stout-built man, with bow legs, and bore the appearance of having been used hard and kept down, and in ignorance, &c. Hard usage constrained him to flee from his sore oppression.
By the way, I love this next story!!!
"Not Allowed To Seek A Master ;"—" Very Devilish ;"—Father " Leaves Two Little Sons ;"—" Used Hard ;"—" Feared Falling Into The Hands Of Young Heirs," Etc. John Chase, Alias Daniel Floyd; Benjamin Ross, Alias James Stewart; Henry Ross, Alias Levin Stewart; Peter Jackson, Alias Staunch Tilghman; Jane Kane, Alias Catharine Kane, And Robert Ross.The coming of these passengers was heralded by Thomas Garrett asfollows:THOMAS GARRETT'S LETTER.Wilmington, 12 mo. 29th,. 1854. Esteemed Friend, J. Miller Mckim :—We made arrangements last night, and sent away Harriet Tubman, with six men and one woman to Allen Agnew'e, to be forwarded across the country to the city. Harriet, and one of the men had worn their shoes off their feet, and I gave them two dollar", to help fit them out, and directed a carriage to be hired at my expense, to take them out, but do not yet know the expense. I now have two more from the lowest county in Maryland, on the Peninsula, upwards of one hundred miles. I will try to get one of our trusty colored men to take them to-morrow morning to the Anti-slavery office. You can then pass them on. Thomas Garrett.Harriet Tubman had been their "Moses," but not in the sense that Andrew Johnson was the "Moses of the colored people." She had faithfully gone down into Egypt, and had delivered these six bondmen by her own heroism. Harriet was a woman of no pretensions, indeed, a more ordinary specimen of humanity could hardly be found among the most unfortunate-looking farm hands of the South. Yet, in point of courage, shrewdness and disinterested exertions to rescue her fellow-men, by making personal visits to Maryland among the slaves, she was without her equal.Her success was wonderful. Time aud agaiu she made successful visits to Maryland on the Underground Rail Road, aud would be absent for weeks, at a time, running daily risks while making preparations for herself aud passengers. Great fears were entertained for her safety, but she seemed wholly devoid of personal fear. The idea of being captured by slavehunters or slave-holders, seemed never to enter her mind. She waa apparently proof against all adversaries. While she thus manifested such utter personal indifference, she was much more watchful with regard to those she was piloting. Half of her time, she had the appearance of one asleep, and would actually sit down by the road-side and go fast asleep when on her errands of mercy through the South, yet, she would not suffer one of her party to whimper once, about "giving out and going back," however wearied they might be from hard travel day and night. She had a very short and pointed rule or law of her own, which implied death to any who talked of giving out and going back. Thus, in an emergency she would give all to understand that " times were very critical and therefore no foolishness would be indulged in on the road." That several who were rather weak-kneed and faint-hearted were greatly invigorated by Harriet's blunt and positive manner and threat of extreme measures, there could be no doubt.After having once enlisted, "they had to go through or die." Of course Harriet was supreme, and her followers generally had full faith in her, and would back up any word she might utter. So when she said to them that * a live runaway could do great harm by going back, but that a dead one could tell no secrets," she was sure to have obedience. Therefore, none had to die as traitors on the "middle passage." It is obvious enough, however, that her success in going into Maryland as she did, was attributable to her adventurous spirit and utter disregard of consequences. Her like it is probable was never known before or since.
CUNNINGHAM'S RACHE.BY MISS GRACE A. LEWIS.Among the many fugitives whose stories were full of interest, was that of a woman named Rachel. She was tall, muscular, slight, with an extremely sensitive nervous organization, a brain of large size, and an expression of remarkable sagacity and quickness. She was living in West Chester,. Chester county, Pa., when attempts were made to retake her to Slavery.
Willi wonderful swiftness and adroitness she eluded pursuit, and was soon hurried away. Speedily reaching our house, she hid herself away during the day, and in the evening, as a place of greater safety, she was transferred to the house of our uncle, Dr. Fussell, then residing on an adjoining farm. As was his wont, this kind-hearted man soon entered into a conversation with her, and in a few minutes discovered that she had once been a pupil of his during his residence in Maryland many years before.At the moment of recognition she sprang up, overwhelming him with her manifestations of delight, crying: "You Dr. Fussell? You Dr. Fussell? Don't you remember me? I'm Rache—Cunningham's Rache, down at Bush River Neck." Then receding to view him better, "Lord bless de child! how he is grown!"Her tongue once loosened, she poured forth her whole history, expressing in every lineament her concentrated abhorrence of her libertine master, "Mort Cunningham." Over that story, it is needful to pass lightly, simply saying, she endured all outraged nature could endure and survive. For the sake of humanity we may trust there were few such fiends even among southern masters as this monster in human shape. Cunningham finally sold her to go further South, with a master whose name cannot now be recalled. This man was in ill health, and after a time he and his wife started northward, bringing Rache with them. On the voyage the master grew worse, and one night when he was about to die, a fearful storm arose, which Rache devoutly believed was sent from Heaven. In describing this scene, she impersonated her surroundings with wonderful vividness and marvellous power. At one moment she was the howling wind; at another the tumultuous sea—then the lurching ship—the bellowing cow frightened by the storm—the devil, who came to carry away her master's soul, and finally the weak, dying man, as he passed to eternity.They proceeded on their voyage and landed at their place of destination. Rache sees the cow snuffing the land breeze and darting off through the crowd. The captain of the vessel points to the cow and motions.her to follow its example. She needs nothing more. Again she is acting—she is now the cow; but human caution, shrewdness, purpose, are lent to animal instinct. She looks around her with wary eye—scents the air—a flash, and she is hidden from the crowd which you see around her—she is free! Making her way northward, she finally arrived at the house of Emnier Kimber, Kimberton, Chester county, Pa., and proving a remarkably capable woman, she remained a considerable time in his family, as a cook. She finally married, and settled in West Chester, where the pair prospered and were soon surrounded by the comforts of a neat home. After several years of peaceful life there, she was one day alarmed, not by the heirs of her dead master, but by the loathed "Mort Cunningham," who, without the shadow of legal right, had come to carry her back to Slavery. Fear lent her wings. She darted into a hatter's shop and out through the back buildings, springing over a dye kettle in her way, and cleared a board fence at a bound. On her way to a place of safety she looked back to see, with keen enjoyment, "Mort Cunningham " falling backward from the fence she had leaped. Secure in a garret, she looked down into the streets below, to see his vacant, dazed look as he sought, unable to find her. Her rendering of the expression of his face at this time, was irresistibly ludicrous, as was that of his whole bearing while searching for her. "Mort Cunningham " did not get her, but whether or not she ever returned to the enjoyment of her happy home, in West Chester, we never knew, as this sudden flight was the last we ever heard of her. She was one of the most wide-awake of human beings, and the world cerlainly lost in the uneducated slave, an actor of great dramatic power.