The Underground Railroad: Many Paths to Freedom

Updated on February 20, 2018
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New World history is a rich field that is constantly being analyzed for new material. The complexity of these tales never fails to amaze me.

The Underground Pictured in 1893

The Underground as pictured by Charles T. Webber in 1893
The Underground as pictured by Charles T. Webber in 1893

Flight To Canada

There is a song about the Underground Railroad, called "Follow the Drinking Gourd". On the surface it is an oral history of the northward movement of slaves in the decades that preceded the Civil War. On a more specific note, the song is giving fairly specific directions on how to find one's way north to Canada, a place, where ex-slaves could live without fear of deportation back to their original plantation from which they left.

In reality, there were many different avenues of escape besides the one popularized in the song. Furthermore, the song appears to be an after-the-fact re-telling of the underground railroad story, rather than an actual guide that was used in the day, when the railroad was real and active. Nonetheless, in the two decades before the Civil War, tens of thousands of ex-slaves made their way into Canada, while many others found save haven in places like Philadelphia and Detroit.

Following the Drinking Gourd as sung by Taj Mahal

Following the Tracks of the Song

Though versions of this song had been around for many decades, the first commercial release came in 1951 by the Weavers, a legendary American folk group that included Pete Seeger. Since then, over 200 different artists have recorded this song. The long list includes such notables as John Coltrane, the New Christy Minstrels, Taj Mahal, Peter Paul and Mary and Richie Havens.

Despite the many possible routes, escaped slaves could follow, the song outlines one particular overland route that begins in the cotton country that surrounds Mobile, Alabama. From here, participants are told to follow the Tombigbee River to its headwaters in northern Mississippi. (The riva's bank am a very good road,)

Next travelers on the railroad must leave the river and cross between two hills and hook up with another river, believed to be the Tennessee. ('Nuther riva on the other side). Here, the escaped slaves would take the left bank of the Tennessee until they reached the Ohio River, as it flowed past the southern boundary of Illinois. (Wha the little riva, Meet the grea' big un,)

From this point, the journey became easier, as travelers could often journey up the Ohio by boat and then make the final crossing into Canada.

A Difficult Journey

Who Was the Old Man and What Is a Drinking Gourd?

In the song, there is a line that goes The ole man waits--. This waiting and eventual meetup occurred near Paducah, Illinois at the conjunction of the Ohio and Tennessee Rivers. The old man is often pictured as an old sailor, named Joe, with a peg leg, who was active in the railroad, and sometimes he would meet the escaped slaves, but also, it is important to remember that many people were involved in running the Underground Railroad, and so, more likely than not Peg Leg Joe is a fictional character, who is much more symbolic than real.

And then there is the drinking gourd, which in reality is two things. First of all, it is a gourd plant, whose squash-like fruit was once harvested and carved into a ladle-like device. But more importantly, the gourd is a constellation in the sky, called The Big Dipper. Within the "dipper" part of this constellation, there are two stars that point directly to "Polaris", also known as the North Star, for it's relative location in the sky is stationary at "true north".

For those traveling north on the railroad by foot, the North Star was probably more symbolic than practical, for the underground railroad tended to follow natural landmarks like rivers and mountain ridges. Still, looking at the night sky and seeing Polaris in the general direction that you were heading was most have been a good sign.

Harriet Tubman as a young woman.
Harriet Tubman as a young woman. | Source

The Life and Times of Harriet Tubman

Born as a slave in Eastern Maryland, Harriet Tubman first escaped to Philadelphia and freedom around the year 1849. However the story does not end in the City of Brotherly Love, for the strong-hearted woman made many more journeys into the plantations of the South to help others escape. So successful were her efforts that a price tag was placed on her capture.

The Railroad Nomenclature

Much of the slang associated with the "railroad" came from rail travel, which just happened to be the main form of transportation in the mid 19th century. Leaders of the small, traveling groups were called "conductors" and houses, where the travelers hid, were "stations" or "safe houses". And then there were those, who were traveling north to escape slavery. These people were most often referred to as "passengers" or sometimes just "cargo".

Other Ways of Traveling North

Though the common conception of a small group of slaves, traveling north on foot under the cover of darkness, is historically correct, there were those who made the journey by boat or even railroad (the kind that runs on iron rails). Traveling by railroad might have been risky, unless one lived near the North-South border. Meanwhile, on the Atlantic seaboard, slaves could sometimes find passage in the holds of ships heading for the Northern states.

Parliament Hill in Ottawa

The Centre Block of Canada's Parliament is dominated by the Peace Tower. Incidentally, the capital of Canada was located far from the American border to discourage invasion.
The Centre Block of Canada's Parliament is dominated by the Peace Tower. Incidentally, the capital of Canada was located far from the American border to discourage invasion.

Life In Canada

It is estimated that during the prime years of the Underground Railroad (1850-1865) some 30 to 40,000 ex slaves made the journey to Canada. Southwestern Ontario sees to have been the most common destination, but communities of American escapees can be found in many places across Eastern Canada. Some did return after the war ended, but it appears the vast majority stayed forming the basis for the million or more black Canadians that live in the country today.

Sources Underground Railroad The Underground Railroad The True Story of Follow the Drinking Gourd Follow the Drinking Gourd: A Cultural History The Story of Peg Leg Joe Harriet Tubman Biography

© 2018 Harry Nielsen


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