5 Myths about the Underground Railroad

Tubman image.jpg

One common myth is that the Underground Railroad began with Harriet Tubman, shown here in a portrait published in Wilbur H. Siebert's The Underground Railroad from Slavery to Freedom.

The following essays explore five common myths about the Underground Railroad. Scroll down to read all five myths, using the "next" button to move from page to page. Or use the links below to go directly to each myth:

1. The Underground Railroad relied on codes in quilts and songs.

2. The Underground Railroad was operated by white Quakers.

3. The Underground Railroad began with Harriet Tubman in the 1850s.

4. The Underground Railroad helped funnel escaped slaves from the southern United States to Canada.

5. Most fugitives from slavery were young black men.

 

1. The Underground Railroad relied on codes in quilts and songs.

By Judith Wellman

People are enthralled with finding codes for the Underground Railroad. Believing that the Underground Railroad was always a secret movement, they look everywhere for secret passwords. One of the most persistent—and least defensible—stories is that quilts were used as codes. No evidence has ever been found, however, to support this belief. No one who used the Underground Railroad ever mentioned a quilt code. Many stories about the code make little sense, in terms of what historians actually do know about the way the Underground Railroad operated. And many quilt patterns supposedly used on the Underground Railroad were not developed until the 20th century.

Simple codes may have been used in other ways, however. Harriet Tubman, for example, sometimes used songs as clues. In the 1860s, Tubman told Sarah Bradford that she had sung “Bound for the Promised Land” to tell her friends that she was leaving slavery. In 1854, Tubman indicated in a letter to Jacob Jackson, Underground Railroad agent in Maryland, that Jackson should tell her brothers that the “Old Ship of Zion” was coming. This may have been a reference to the title of a widely known song. As recorded by Bradford, Tubman sang a song “Moses Go Down” to fugitives to warn them that it was not safe to come out. If she sang “Hail, oh hail, ye happy spirits” twice, then her charges knew they could safely emerge.[1]

Some supposed Underground Railroad songs still lack good documentation. For example, despite more than 200 recordings and dozens of books identifying it as an Underground Railroad song, the origins of Follow the Drinking Gourd remain unclear. It was first published in 1928.

Much work remains to be done to document potential Underground Railroad codes.

 

[1] Kate Clifford Larson, Bound for the Promised Land: Harriet Tubman, American Hero (New York: Ballantine, 2003); Sarah Bradford, Scenes in the Life of Harriet Tubman (Auburn: W.J Moses, 1869), 26-27.