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The Underground Railroad: Secret Codes

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Frederick Douglass

Frederick Douglass

Secret Code of the Underground Railroad

The battle over slavery led to a human divide in America. While abolitionists in the North called for an immediate end to slavery, Southern slave owners, determined to hold on to a lucrative institution, refused to compromise.

The Underground Railroad was established as a result of this long-enduring, acrimonious struggle.

It required an unknown language or “secret code,” known only to those who were trusted with the knowledge of its existence, and this “underground” language was used to maintain the secrecy that was absolutely essential to increase the likelihood of success for slaves who escaped the plantation in pursuit of their freedom.

Other Forms of Secret Communication

The covert code or terms used to describe the participants and places was one form of secrecy, but there were others. One such method used song.

During the early days of slavery, the black church was a place where concerns were voiced and projects were planned “right under the nose of the plantation owner.”

Since slaves were forced to attend Christian Christmas services, where they learned the story of Mary and Jesus and the three wise men who followed the Star of Bethlehem to find the Christ child, was it an epiphany for these same slaves to later learn that their own freedom was also connected to a star, the North Star, and passage on the Underground Railroad?

Frederick Douglass documents in My Bondage and My Freedom that singing was a necessity on the plantation, and although the loud sounds were interpreted by plantation owners as “a joyful noise unto the lord,” they were actually “sorrowful songs of sorrow” sung by slaves in bondage, some of which encouraged them to flee.

Rarely were these songs identified as a “sophisticated system of communication,” but published research has documented the double meaning.

According to Douglass, slaves would enhance what he called hymns with “improvised jargon” that had no discernible meaning to others, therefore, not every slave understood. Only those who proved trustworthy and were taken into “the confidence of the plantation grapevine” would have understood the “secret code” they were hearing.

Spirituals and the Underground Railroad

Originally called slave songs, the term "spirituals" was first adopted in the South, and subsequently spread across the country. The sounds within these hymns communicated secrets, “while arming those who were about to escape with courage, freedom, and faith.”

They were used to instruct on everything: when to leave the plantation, where to go, and what to look for along the journey to “the promised land.”

Douglass writes that he and his five male companions repeatedly sang:

"O Canaan sweet Canaan

I am bound for the land of Canaan"

They were singing about the freedom that existed in the North.

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Follow the Drinking Gourd

One popular spiritual made reference to “follow the drinking gourd.” A gourd was a hollowed out squash or pumpkin that people used to scoop up water.

For passengers on the Underground Railroad, the drinking gourd was a reference to the Big Dipper, “one of the most recognizable constellations in the Northern Hemisphere.” The two stars at the edge of the “cup” of the dipper point towards the North Star, Polaris. This helped runaway slaves navigate in a northern direction.

The “old man” in the song was none other than Peg Leg Joe, a one-legged sailor who made several trips to the South and taught the slaves he met a trail to follow to freedom in Canada.

The Big Dipper

The Big Dipper

Dobie describes the path in "Foller de Drinkin’ Gou’d":

"The trail would be marked by the outline of a human left

foot and a round spot in place of the right foot.

In the song, the “grea’ big un” is the Ohio River where

the fugitive slaves would finally be met

by Peg Leg Joe, who would take them the rest of

the way to Canada."

A portion of the spiritual reads:

"When the sun comes back and the first quail calls,

Follow the Drinking Gourd.

(The Big Dipper)

For the old man is waiting for to carry you to freedom,

(Peg Leg Joe)

If you follow the Drinking Gourd."

Harriet Tubman

Harriet Tubman

Wade in the Water

Spirituals were also used to warn of imminent danger. "Wade in the Water" was sung on the plantation as a warning to alert slaves who had escaped that bloodhounds were released to find them, and that they should go to the water, whether a stream or a river, and travel along its banks so that the dogs could not follow their scent.

Underground Railroad conductors also frequently communicated through song. One of the most famous, Harriet Tubman, used songs on her many journeys from Canada back to the South to indicate when it was safe for fugitives to move from one place to another. She led hundreds to freedom and her success was aided by the use of spirituals.

Swing Low Sweet Chariot

The spiritual that Tubman enjoyed the most was sung by her friends in tribute to her on the evening of her death, on March 10, 1913. She was 91 years old.

The words of the song are attributed to the Old Testament accounts of Elijah, the prophet Ezekiel, and the chariots that waited for Tubman and for all “champions of God” and the oppressed. “In the spiritual, the chariot, symbolizes a means of transportation, a wagon, or a conductor on the Underground Railroad.”

The well-known spiritual reads:


Swing low sweet chariot,

Comin’ for to carry me home.

Swing low sweet chariot,

Comin’ for to carry me home.

(Someone’s getting ready to run.)

I looked over Jordan and what did I see?

(Jordan was a metaphor for the Ohio River.)

Comin’ for to carry me home.

A band of angels comin’ after me.

(Conductors were coming to help.)

Comin’ for to carry me home.

The next day, two or three people were gone.

The Use of Quilts as Visual Maps

There was another form of unknown communication designed by slaves, and first used before the more popular dates of the railroad. This undisclosed code also contained dual meanings and, more importantly, it was “hidden in plain view.”

This story began in Africa and crossed the Atlantic to the Carolinas where enslaved Africans first set foot on American soil. Back in their homeland, there was a person who was assigned a very important role.

This person, called a “griot,” mentally recorded the history of his tribe or community, and recited the “flow of events” back to his people, in a creative, story-like, fashion. In America, he would, otherwise, be called a historian.

Like this “living repository of history” in Africa, the African-American quilt was considered to be a “fabric griot.” Today, it may be labeled a bedcover or a sentimental keepsake, but as a fabric griot, the African American quilt conveys heritage and, once, also displayed a veiled code that assisted fugitive slaves to escape their bondage on the plantation.

The Underground Railroad Quilt Code

Mrs. Ozella McDaniel Williams was a “modern-day griot” from South Carolina, who reveals a story told to her mother and grandmother before her, in Hidden in Plain View: A Secret Story of Quilts and the Underground Railroad.”

Her story is about “coded quilts” that contained geometric patterns that were given names and unknown meanings, and how these different patterns, sewn into quilts, were used “as metaphors and signs” for those slaves who planned to escape.

“The Underground Railroad Quilt Code pulls back the curtain and reveals some of the secrets still remaining about the early years of escape from the plantation and confirms the use of quilts as visual maps.”

Mrs. Ozella’s quilt code consisted of ten primary quilt patterns with the following names: Monkey Wrench, Wagon Wheel, Bear’s Paw, Crossroads, Log Cabin, Shoofly, Bow Tie, Flying Geese, Drunkard’s Path and Star (Evening Star/North Star).

Although the Tumbling Blocks (or Boxes) was not a part of Mrs. Ozella’s quilt code, this quilt was displayed last, in order to complete the code.

Hidden in Plain View

The quilts were placed, one at a time, on a fence, or in the window of a slave’s cabin. Since it was common for quilts to be frequently aired out “the master and mistress would not be suspicious when seeing the quilts displayed in this fashion.”

The strategic placement of quilt patterns that provided directions, with those that identified landmarks, created a map in the minds of those who planned to escape. To aid in the code’s memorization, a sampler quilt, exhibiting a sample of all the different patterns, was displayed first.


How Long Was a Quilt Pattern Displayed?

The length of time each quilt remained on a fence or in the window of a slave’s cabin before being replaced is not known. It is suggested that a quilt would remain up until all those who planned to escape had completed the “signaled task.”

The African Tradition of Knotting

Quilters used ties, left visible on the front of a quilt, which was part of an African tradition. To a plantation mistress, the quilt would appear to be “the result of shoddy and hasty workmanship,” but the slaves knew better.

The ties that were used on each quilt had from one to five square knots on top, which created a grid-like pattern on the back, from which the distance between safehouses could be measured.

But they also contained a deeper meaning. “Those heading out on a long and uncertain journey would know that they were ‘spiritually tied’ to the many loved ones they’d have to leave behind—with very little expectation of seeing them again…”

The Monkey Wrench

A quilt made of monkey wrench patterned blocks was the first to be displayed. A monkey wrench was a tool used on the plantation, primarily by a blacksmith, since there were no plumbers during slavery. This quilt pattern was used as a signal to slaves to begin their escape preparations by collecting the “tools” they would need on their journey.

Monkey Wrench quilt code

Monkey Wrench quilt code

The word “tools” may have inferred several kinds of implements: some for constructing physical shelters, some for determining directions, like compasses, or others for defending oneself, such as the “mental tools”: cunning, alertness, the ability to discern the motives of strangers, and knowledge.

It is also believed that the "Monkey Wrench" was the most knowledgeable person on the plantation who had access to free blacks and whites, and who was in a position to aid fugitives.

Frederick Douglass, like the many black preachers who served the black community, had access to a network of people from the cabin steps of slaves in the South, to the ports of freedom in the North. “Was Frederick Douglass, an orator, writer, and abolitionist, a free-black monkey wrench?”

Professor W. Jeffrey Bolster, of the University of New Hampshire, documents examples of black seamen, and their role in assisting escaped slaves. “Was the monkey wrench a black sailor who knew how to turn the wagon or ship’s wheel, able to navigate by looking at the sky and following the stars?”

“The monkey wrench turns the wagon wheel towards

Canada, on a bear’s paw trail to the crossroads.”

Dobard explains in Hidden in Plain View:

The pattern name conjures up images of a heavy tool, a craft,

and strong knowledgeable hands. The monkey wrench turning

the wagon wheel implies that the wrench, whoever or whatever

it might have been, exercised authority over the wagon wheel.

The monkey wrench had to be a person or group of people, an

organization, perhaps, who had access to the plantation, was

familiar with its daily operation, and knew its physical layout,

as well as the layout of the surrounding land.

The Wagon Wheel

The Wagon Wheel quilt was the second displayed, and was a sign alerting slaves to pack provisions for their journey, as if they were packing a wagon, meaning that they should think about what was essential for survival.

Wagon wheel quilt code

Wagon wheel quilt code

“The wagon wheel seems an obvious code name for the fugitive slave party,” since wagons were one of the primary means for transporting runaways. “Writers from former slaves to Wilbur Siebert, an Underground Railroad scholar, have recorded numerous stories of escapes in wagons with hidden compartments.” The wagon was for many “the chariot that was to carry them home.”

The Bear's Paw Trail

The Bear’s Paw quilt pattern was the third used in the Quilt code. Because most escapes took place during the springtime, when bears were roaming through the mountains where they lived searching for food after their long winter’s nap, the bear’s paw trail was a visual reference.

The bears’ trails formed a map, and the quilt pattern reminded fugitives that these trails would, undoubtedly, be the best paths to follow in order to find food and water.

Bear's paw quilt code

Bear's paw quilt code

The sun assisted them by casting shadows, “turning trees into compass needles and sundials.” With the sun moving from east to west and the bears’ trails moving in many different directions, the fugitives were able to choose which bear trail they wanted to follow in order to move in a northern direction.

Frequently, quilt patterns were given regionally relevant names. In Ohio, where bears were in abundance, during the early 1800s, the pattern was called Bear’s Paw. In locations where bears were scarce, the Bear’s Paw pattern was given other names.

The Crossroads

Once a slave party made it through the mountains, they were to travel to the crossroads, a code name for Cleveland, Ohio. Thus far, the Underground Railroad Quilt code led fugitives on an uncertain journey, guided by a knowledgeable, but mysterious, person or persons, through the mountains, where they followed the trail of a bear, until they crossed over into Ohio, in route to Cleveland.

Crossroads quilt code

Crossroads quilt code

“Once they got to the crossroads, they dug a log cabin on the ground.”

The Log Cabin

The usual color of the center square of Log Cabin quilts of this era was red, because the center square was supposed to represent the fireplace.


Researcher Gladys-Marie Fry first suggested that a Log Cabin quilt with a black center was a signal on the Underground Railroad. “Critics of Fry’s theory were quick to point out that black fabric was not commercially produced until the last decades of the nineteenth century.”

However, narratives and other nineteenth century records show that slaves were able to make the black fabric, although scarce and rarely seen, through an organic dyeing process.

It is speculated that “dug a cabin on the ground” referred to the act of drawing a symbol on the ground in order to recognize persons with whom it was safe to communicate. Some of these persons may have been Prince Hall Masons, who were members of a “secret society” that was familiar with both African and American symbols.

“Who better to aid the fugitives than free blacks in a secret society of their own?” Here, “we see a technique used that allowed for communication when it was unsafe to communicate with voice or words.”

Log cabin quilt code

Log cabin quilt code

Who or What Was "Shoofly"?

The origin of the sixth quilt code pattern is “as mysterious as its name implies.” According to quilt researchers, Shoofly, “who seems to be directing the action in this part of the code,” was a Prince Hall Mason or a free black who was familiar with a secret language.

“Shoofly told them to dress up in cotton and satin bow ties and

go to the cathedral church, get married, and exchange

double wedding rings.”

The Bow Tie (Hourglass) and the Prince Hall Masons

To visualize the Bow Tie pattern, picture an “X” placed in a square so that it touches all four corners. Darken the triangles on the sides, and a “stylized Bow Tie” appears. Turn the design on its side and an Hourglass pattern is created. This same Bow Tie pattern was also known to several African secret societies, as well as Mason members, both white and black, here in America. Both secret societies, therefore, shared a symbol, the geometric hourglass.

Bow Tie quilt code

Bow Tie quilt code


The Bow Tie pattern (Hourglass) might have been a reference to a familiar secret symbol, as well as a “signal” that fugitives were among people who could be trusted.

Dress Up in Cotton and Satin Bow Ties

Obviously, fugitives would need to disguise themselves, whenever possible, because they were clothed in “the most distinguishable of garments,” so dressing up would have been absolutely necessary, since their worn and tattered clothing would have given away their status as runaways.

Knowing this, free blacks would often meet escaped slaves and give them fresh clothing, because it was easier to hide them, if they were dressed in a similar fashion. Then, members of the fugitive party would accompany the free blacks to their homes.

So the cotton and satin bow ties could have been a direction to escaped slaves “to dress up in order not to stand out among city folks, especially, if on one of the final legs of their journey, they had to walk through town to get to the transportation awaiting them.

Go to the Cathedral Church and Get Married

Dobard documents that the Double Wedding Ring pattern was not a pre-Civil War quilt pattern. Slaves on the plantation were more accustomed to “jumping the broom,” than exchanging wedding bands. Although Mrs. Ozella suggested that exchanging double wedding rings might have symbolized getting rid of any chains runaway slaves might have been wearing, she also stated that it was imperative for the fugitives to rid themselves of the “mental bonds of slavery.”

Slave chains

Slave chains

Mrs. Ozella further explained that she thought that there was an actual church were slaves would go and be aided in taking off their chains, “as represented by the double wedding rings,” but she could not state where such a church might have been located. She noted that the stained-glass windows often found in churches “would afford cover,” so that no one might look inside and discover the runaway slaves.

Researchers also surmised that the double wedding rings were a code name for the physical and mental chains of bondage worn by slaves. In either case, “the journey to freedom would require not just a change in geography; it would also require a change in perspective of oneself, from enslaved to free.”

Did the Cathedral Church Refer to an Actual Church?

Mark Twain’s references to caves in Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn provides a clue. Twain describes several caves like “cathedrals”. Mammoth Cave in Kentucky and Carlsbad Caverns in New Mexico both have rooms labeled “cathedral," because of the “majestic stalactites and stalagmites decorating vast chambers, making them look and feel like the great cathedrals of Europe.”

Therefore, the cathedrals mentioned in the code might refer to a specific cave or cavern where fugitives could find shelter and solace.

Carlsbad Caverns

Carlsbad Caverns

Mammoth Caves

Mammoth Caves

“Flying geese stay on the drunkard’s path and follow the stars.”

Flying Geese and Fugitive Slaves

The flying geese pattern was interpreted as a direction, as well as an indication of the best season for slaves to escape. Mrs. Ozella confirmed that flying geese and fugitive slaves both moved in a northern direction.

She also mentioned that the geese would have to stop at waterways along their journey in order to rest and eat, and slaves were to take their cues on direction, timing, and behavior from the migrating geese.

The flying geese quilt pattern points in four directions, with two triangles pointing north, two pointing west, two pointing south, and two pointing east, in a counter-clockwise movement

Flying Geese quilt code

Flying Geese quilt code


“A clever quilter would be able to specify one direction by the use of fabric pieces.” For example, if a quilter wanted to indicate a northern direction, she or he would simply make one set of triangles distinct from the others.

If three sets of triangles were sewn in a two fabric combination, and the fourth set had a different fabric, that set would demonstrate a subtle difference, and stand out from the others to the discerning eye.

Stay on the Drunkard's Path

Following the drunkard’s path was a warning for fugitives to move in a staggered or zigzag fashion. By following this type of path out of Charleston, South Carolina, it may have led to several possible routes. But there is one route that is documented historically.

A “crooked line” from Charleston northward between the Piedmont and the mountains of the Carolinas and Virginia, brought the fugitives to Wheeling, Virginia (located in the state of West Virginia, today). The area near Wheeling is documented by Wilbur Siebert, as one of the major crossing places for slaves who were attempting to escape from Virginia through the mountains.


Mrs. Ozella believed that the Drunkard’s Path pattern was a warning to slaves to move in a zigzag fashion, and to even double back on their tracks, occasionally, in order to elude any slave catchers who were pursuing them.

Drunkard's path quilt code

Drunkard's path quilt code


A Map of the Heavens

Researchers hypothesized that Native American star maps may have contributed to the Underground Railroad Quilt Code. Several museum curators, skilled in Native American studies, including the Smithsonian Institute, confirmed that star maps were commonly used by Native Americans, during the nineteenth century. “While Americans mapped the land, the Native Americans mapped the heavens.”

History tells us that many escaped slaves eventually settled with Native populations, and that the culture and traditions of the Africans and Natives often overlapped. Consequently, it is possible that the Native American and African traditions of looking to the heavens might have been used by runaway slaves.

Star quilt code

Star quilt code


The Underground Quilt Code reference “to follow the stars” could have meant to follow certain constellations or specific stars taught to fugitives. While the names of the constellations that might have aided those who escaped are not certain, “the historical precedent for using the stars as guiding lights has been firmly established.”

Pack Up and Move On

When the final quilt pattern with the Tumbling Blocks, or Boxes, appeared, the slaves knew that it was time to pack or box up all their belongings, and to escape. It was chosen to be the final pattern because of the association between boxes and “packing up and moving on.”


The Gospel Train

Trains and railway tracks, eventually, came to serve the Underground Railroad and its passengers, and the “Gospel Train” quickly evolved into its code name. The “iron horse” or railroad was a chariot for the latter part of the nineteenth century and was a “bold new means” of moving across the land, at high speed.

Harriet Tubman recalled how excited she and one of her fugitive slave parties became upon crossing the upstate New York railroad suspension bridge. “In the railroad car, in the midst of strangers, Tubman and her charges broke into spontaneous song when they reached mid-bridge on the freedom line. From there they could glimpse Canada out of the train car window.”

With their sights fixed on "the promised land," and with the majestic, thunderous sounds of Niagara Falls as accompaniment, they sang:

"I’m on the way to Canada,

That cold and dreary land.

De sud effects of slavery,

I can’ no longer stand.

I’ve served my Master all my days,

Widout a dime reward.

And now I’m forced to run away,

To flee the lash abroad.

Farewell ole Master, don’t think hard of me.

I’m traveling on to Canada, where all de slaves are free."

The American Civil War

Because the issue of slavery could not be resolved, amicably, between the North and South, this division in beliefs is one of the major reasons for the American Civil War. Northern abolitionists were opposed to the practice of slavery and wanted it abolished, while Southern plantation owners saw slave ownership as “a right guaranteed to them by their states.”

One month after Abraham Lincoln took office, in March 1861, the Civil War began, and it would last for four years. In the end, more than 600,000 soldiers died. Ultimately, the North, or Union, “which was better prepared,” defeated the South, or Confederacy.

On January 1, 1863, President Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation, which immediately freed 50,000 slaves. “It sent a message all over the world that the United States would no longer tolerate slavery.”

On April 14, 1865, five days after the Civil War officially ended, President Lincoln was shot while attending a performance at Ford’s Theatre in Washington, D.C. John Wilkes Booth, a Confederate supporter, shot the president during a break in the play. Lincoln died the next day. The National News reported, “Our president’s life was taken at a time of new beginnings for him and for us…”

The 13th Amendment Abolished Slavery

The 13th Amendment to the Constitution, subsequently, abolished slavery in all U.S. states and territories, and was ratified, or officially agreed to, on December 6, 1865.

How Many Made it to Freedom?

Many runaway slaves did not make it to freedom. It is estimated that about 2.5%, or approximately 100,000 fugitive slaves, successfully escaped slavery through the Underground Railroad, during its period of operation.

New Beginnings

When the war ended, the battle over slavery ended along with it. By the end of this extended period of turmoil, the North and South had resolved their differences, and the United States became “one nation, under God, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all.” And with that, the Underground Railroad had, finally, accomplished its mission.

This concludes the story of the Underground Railroad. Thank you for reading this hub. If you enjoyed the article, or have any questions or concerns, please leave a comment below or contact me anytime. I look forward to hearing from you.



Bolster, Professor Jeffrey W. BlackJacks: African-American Seamen in the Age of Sail. Cambridge, Massachusetts: Howard University Press, 1997.

Dobie, J. Frank. Foller de Drinkin’ Gou’d. Austin, Texas: Texas Folklore Society, 1928.

Douglass, Frederick. My Bondage and My Freedom. New York: Arno Press, 1968. Originally published 1855.

Fry, Gladys-Marie. Stitched from the Sail: Slave Quilts from the Antebellum South. New York: Dalton Books, 1990.

Parrish, Lydia. Slave Songs of the Georgia Sea Islands. Athens, Georgia: University of Georgia Press, 1942.

Raatma, Lucia. The Underground Railroad. New York: Children’s Press, 2012.

Siebert, Wilbur. The Beginnings of the Underground Railroad in Ohio. Ohio, 1898.

---------------------The Underground Railroad: From Slavery to Freedom. New York: MacMillan Company, 1898.

Tobin, Jacqueline L. and Dobard, Raymond G. Hidden in Plain View: A Secret Story of Quilts and the Underground Railroad. New York: Doubleday, 1999.


Fannette Davis (author) from Birmingham, AL on January 06, 2019:

Thank you for your comment. My grandmother who passed many years ago used to quilt. I would love to see pictures of your quilts.

Angela Evans on January 06, 2019:

I love this! I was insired to make 3 druckards path quilts and not only are they nice, they have a special meaning. This will grow in the memories of my children and others when they read.

Fannette Davis (author) from Birmingham, AL on August 20, 2015:

Thank you for your comment. I was amazed at the history that is attached to the Underground Railroad. I have even greater respect for my ancestors and the struggles that America has endured and overcome.

realtalk247 on August 19, 2015:

What an amazing article. So much knowledge and information I never knew about the path and "hidden meanings" of spirituals. Great information.

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