Skip to main content

The Underground Railroad: A Code of Secrecy, Part II

I am a freelance writer who is a lover of learning, and an admirer of beauty. Staying healthy is also a daily pursuit.

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, thereby increasing the likelihood of success, for slaves who escaped the plantation in pursuit of their freedom.

Frederick Douglass

Frederick Douglass

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 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 me 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.

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:

Scroll to Continue

Read More From Owlcation

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 and, 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:

Chorus:

Swing low sweet chariot,

Comin’ for to carry me home.

Swing low sweet chariot,

Comin’ for to carry me home.

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 aired out, frequently, “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.

the-underground-railroad-a-code-of-secrecy-part-ii
the-underground-railroad-a-code-of-secrecy-part-ii
the-underground-railroad-a-code-of-secrecy-part-ii

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 positon 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.

the-underground-railroad-a-code-of-secrecy-part-ii

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-underground-railroad-a-code-of-secrecy-part-ii

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.”