idea of enslaving human beings was not acceptable to many people and
so the Underground Railroad came into being.
This was network of abolitionists who helped slaves escape to
Ohio and Canada. Safe
houses, hopefully no farther than 10-11 miles apart, were called
“stations”, those who guided the escapees were known as
“conductors” and the runaways themselves were called
a “station” in the North meant food, clothing, and a place to hide
if capture seemed imminent. Estimates
are that as many as 100,000 people escaped slavery between the
American Revolution and the Civil War.
blacks were not allowed to learn to read and write so the
abolitionists had to devise a way to silently communicate directions
to escapees, thus the idea of quilt patterns with meanings for those
wanting freedom came into being.
These quilts with special patterns could be hung on a line, out
an open window or other places and not arouse any suspicions.
They looked simply like a housewife airing her bedding.
have put together 15 different quilt blocks each with its own meaning
to show how this plan worked. Of
course, the slaves had to learn the meanings ahead of time.
is Jacob’s Ladder – It has
an alternating path of dark and light that can be used to show a
direction. The slaves
could know which way to go by the angle at which the quilt was placed
outside the home of the abolitionist.
is the Monkey Wrench – It was heavy metal tool used by the
blacksmith. As a rule,
the blacksmith was the most knowledgeable person on the plantation and
was known as the “Monkey Wrench”.
He could travel around without anyone thinking anything
suspicious and therefore pass any information needed.
In other words, the Monkey Wrench was the person or a group of
people who got things moving, or - turned the wagon wheel.
this quilt was displayed it meant it was time collect tools needed on
the journey north to freedom. There
were physical tools needed – for constructing shelter, for defending
themselves, and determining direction.
Along with food, and a few coins, they were to wrap these tools
in a bandanna bundle.
is the Wagon Wheel – Not only was the wagon wheel symbolic of a
“chariot that was to carry them home”, but wagons with hidden
compartments were one of the primary means of transporting escaping
runaways. The quilt was a
message to pack provisions as if packing a wagon, keeping in mind
packing only what was essential.
is the Carpenter’s Wheel – This was a secondary code pattern.
To the slave, the master carpenter in their lives was Jesus.
They would sing the “Swing Low Sweet Chariot” and the
plantation owner thought they were singing about going to Heaven, but
actually it was message to follow the directions to the west northwest
– to Ohio.
is the Bear Paw – With this quilt the runaways were directed to
follow an actual trail of a bear’s footprints.
The animal footprints would indicate the best path, just like a
road map. Most escapes
took place in the spring and with the spring rains it would be easy to
follow a bear’s paw trail to food and safety.
is the Basket – Symbol of
provisions needed for the long journey north.
One of the most difficult things faced by the escaping slaves
was feeding themselves along the way.
They took what they could carry and then had to depend on safe
houses or friends to help. Abolitionists
would give them baskets of provisions and tools such as flint and
compasses. So one of
these quilts hung outside a house would mean a basket of provisions
could be had there.
is Crossroads– Once escapees
made it safely through the Appalachian Mountains, they were to travel
to the “crossroads” meaning a city where they would find
protection and refuge. The
main crossroad, or terminal, was Cleveland, Ohio.
There were four or five overland trails connected with
Cleveland, and numerous water routes, crossing Lake Erie into Canada
is the Log Cabin – The block may
have indicated there was a specific log cabin in Cleveland that was a
safe house, or it may have directed the runaway to build a log cabin
to weather out winter and perhaps establish a permanent residence in a
usual center color of the block was red, representing the hearth or
fire of the cabin. If the
center block was black it indicated the home it hung in front of was a
safe house. If the center
block was yellow it meant to watch for a light, or lantern.
is Shoo-Fly – This pattern
represents an actual person who would help escaping slaves.
His responsibility was to secretly aid and harbor fugitives.
Sometimes the slaves hid out in churches, or caves referred to
as cathedrals. Graveyards
were frequently the hiding place, especially if they were located on
the outskirts of town, or were close to rivers.
is Bow Tie – A quilt of this
pattern was a directive for them to dress in a conventional manner. When they first escaped their clothes were those of the
slaves under a master. On
the journey they became tattered and torn, so free blacks would often
meet them in a safe place and give them fresh clothing so they
wouldn’t stand out among the city folks.
This way they could walk through town undetected to ships
waiting to take them across the Great Lakes to Canada and freedom.
#11 is Flying Geese –
With this quilt the slaves learned they were to take their direction,
timing, and behavior from the migrating geese.
Since geese fly north in the spring, it was also the best time
for slaves to escape. Geese
have to stop at waterways along their journey in order to rest and
eat. Especially since
geese make loud honking noises it was easy for runaways to follow
their flight pattern.
is Birds in the Air – This
quilt is also symbolic of flight or migration.
The clever quilter would make one block with one color dominant
so it gave the direction in which to travel depending on the direction
the quilt was displayed.
is the Drunkard’s Path –
This is known by a number of different names depending on whether or
not the owner was a teetotaler. No
matter what it was called, in the Underground Railroad, it meant that
the escapees should travel in a staggering fashion to confuse any
slave hunters who might be following them.
is the Sailboat – This pattern
was the symbol of safe water passage to freedom.
Free black sailors and ship owners helped many slaves escape
directly, hiding them on board ships and spiriting them away to
is the North Star –This is
also known as the drinking gourd (the Big Dipper). The North Star was the guiding light because it always points
to the north. It was an
important navigational tool for the ship owners who took the slaves
from Cleveland or Detroit to Canada.
North Star is the last block in the Underground Railroad Sampler
quilt. The quilt top was
finished into a light-weight quilt, raffled off for the benefit of the
Edwards Historical Association and won by an appreciative teacher at
Edwards-Knox Central School, Chris Backus, who plans to use it in her
12 July 2005