Timothy D. Walker
This volume of curated essays focuses exclusively on the maritime dimension of the Underground Railroad, as antebellum pathways to freedom for enslaved African Americans have collectively become known.1 The contributors examine and contextualize the experiences of many enslaved persons in the United States who, prior to the Civil War, fled to freedom by sea and of the people who facilitated those escapes. Maritime escape episodes figure prominently in the majority of published North American fugitive slave accounts written before 1865: of 103 extant pre-Emancipation slave narratives, more than 70 percent recount the use of oceangoing vessels as a means of fleeing slavery.2 Similarly, in William Still’s classic, widely read account of his activities as an Underground Railroad “Station Master” in Philadelphia during the mid-nineteenth century, many of the most striking engravings that accompany the text illustrate dramatic descriptions of waterborne, maritime escapes.3 Clearly, the sea should rightly constitute a central component of the full Underground Railroad story. But the topic remains surprisingly understudied. Maritime fugitives have drawn minimal attention in the historiography of the field, and the specific nautical circumstances of their flight garner little discussion in classrooms when the Underground Railroad is taught.4
To date, public scholarship, academic research, and pedagogical materials examining the Underground Railroad have focused almost exclusively on inland, landlocked regions of the United States. Such publications highlight and prioritize persons who used overland routes and interior river crossings, often traveling clandestinely by night, as they sought to escape enslavement in the Antebellum South. However, recent academic historiography and public history research for museum exhibitions amply demonstrate that, because of the myriad practical difficulties consequent to being a northbound African American fugitive fleeing through hostile slaveholding territory, where vigilante patrols for escapees were an ever-present danger, successful escapes overland almost never originated in the Deep South.5 In fact, prominent Underground Railroad historian Fergus M. Bordewich states flatly, “Escape by land from the Deep South was close to impossible.”6 Instead, the extant scholarship shows that the overwhelming majority of successful overland escapes were relatively short journeys that began in slave states (Virginia, Maryland, Kentucky, Missouri) sharing a border with a free state (Pennsylvania, Ohio, Indiana, Illinois, Iowa).7
What has been largely overlooked, however, is the great number of enslaved persons who made their way to freedom by using coastal water routes (and sometimes inland waterways), mainly along the Atlantic seaboard but also by fleeing southward from regions adjacent to the Gulf of Mexico. Because most historians of the Underground Railroad typically have not cultivated a maritime dimension to their research, they have generally neglected this essential component of the Underground Railroad, leaving the sea out of the various means employed to convey enslaved persons to the northern free states and Canada. Such neglect is deeply unfortunate; the absence of a detailed assessment and understanding of the maritime dimension of the Underground Railroad distorts the broader historical picture and hinders the formation of a more-accurate and -comprehensive knowledge of how this secretive, decentralized “system” operated. A revision of the traditional land-bound view of the Underground Railroad is therefore long overdue. This volume is intended to address this lacuna.
Research undertaken and presented for a series of “Landmarks in American History” workshops was sponsored by the National Endowment for the Humanities and realized through the University of Massachusetts, Dartmouth. The series, titled “Sailing to Freedom: New Bedford and the Underground Railroad” and running from 2011–2015, demonstrated that a far larger number of fugitives than previously supposed actually escaped bondage by sea—especially those fleeing from coastal areas in the far South, where the employment of slaves in diverse maritime industries was ubiquitous. (The far South was any slave region that lay beyond a relatively close journey by foot to the permeable border zones where slave states lay adjacent to free states.) Enslaved laborers worked as shipyard artisans, quayside stevedores and longshoremen, river boatmen and ferrymen, coastwise cargo-vessel crewmen, and estuary or near-coastal fishermen, among many other occupations connected to the water. Such work allowed enslaved persons to develop expert seafaring skills and knowledge in myriad areas: handling watercraft; gaining a detailed knowledge of coastal geography and hydrography (currents, tides, channels, navigation hazards); and establishing direct or indirect contacts with ocean-going ships’ crews from northern free states. Equally valuable was their ready access to vessels heading out to sea. For enslaved persons in the southern Virginia and Maryland tidewater areas, the Carolina Low Country, and the Georgia and Florida seaboard, or along the coast of the Gulf of Mexico, escape by water was the logical option and, in reality, the only viable way to achieve an exit from their enslaved circumstances.
The new scholarship presented in this volume convincingly establishes that a markedly high proportion of successful escapes from the slaveholding South to sanctuary in the North were achieved using coastal seaways rather than overland routes. It is tempting to argue deductively that, given the circumstantial evidence, potentially even the majority of North American escapes from enslavement may have been accomplished by sea, but absent a definitive body of statistical data that would allow for a comparison between overland and waterborne escapes, this point is nearly impossible to prove. Still, of the known and documented fugitives who made successful escapes from the far South, almost all their escapes were achieved by sea.
Unfortunately, there is no way to conclusively quantify clandestine, illegal Underground Railroad activity or to reliably count the precise numbers of fugitive escapees by land or by sea.8 Even so, the research contained in this book establishes definitively that escape by sea must be seen as a significant, indispensable component of the Underground Railroad story. Moreover, this analysis demonstrates that waterborne travel provided the only practical method of escape to a free territory from the coastal far South, because escape by long-distance overland routes would have been in most cases impractical: too slow, too dangerous, too logistically complicated, and therefore unsustainable.9 By contrast, sailing to freedom was relatively simple and less hazardous. Once the fugitive was aboard a northbound vessel, escape by sea was direct; traveling by ship, whether powered by wind or steam, proceeded far more quickly and with much less effort than undertaking any terrestrial journey of comparable distance.10
This maritime fugitive dynamic was not only present but prominent in all slaveholding regions along the U.S. Eastern Seaboard. Consider, for example, the perspective of historian Kate Clifford Larson, a specialist on Harriet Tubman and a contributing scholar of the “Sailing to Freedom” NEH workshops in 2015. Regarding her examination of Underground Railroad activity in and unassisted escapes from one distinct coastal district of antebellum Maryland along the Eastern Shore of Chesapeake Bay, Larson writes:
It is very clear that escapes from anywhere along a water route—not just ports themselves, but rivers, streams, marshes—vastly outnumbered escapes from as little as ten miles away from any shoreline. This doesn’t mean that people were grabbing canoes and small sailboats and sailing away, but rather, they were clearly getting information and making connections that would be valuable for escape. The plantations, homes, small farms, and businesses along the roads that linked villages and towns that hugged the Choptank River (which empties into the Chesapeake), for instance, witnessed hundreds of escapes over the 30-year period before the Civil War. Further inland—10 to 20 miles inland—you see just a few dozen escapes over that period.11
Although not all those hundreds of escaped slaves from along the Choptank River absconded by water—some few fled overland northward to freedom in adjacent Pennsylvania—most did. That being the case, Larson then wondered why historians have not seen “similar [elevated] escape rates from interior [slaveholding] communities?” Scholars of the Underground Railroad, she says, can provide a more nuanced understanding by “exposing the broader and more inclusive resources that maritime communities and workers could offer an escapee—those resources included more than just a vessel, but vital information and connections.”12
Providing a more nuanced understanding is precisely what this volume aims to do. By highlighting the people involved in waterborne escapes, telling their little-known stories, and describing the less understood means by which the nautical side of the Underground Railroad functioned, this work hopes to reshape the overall scholarly view of it, to assemble a more accurate, more comprehensive, and better informed perspective. Taken together, these essays will address an important gap in the scholarly literature of the Underground Railroad and serve to reorient the traditional interpretive framework of scholarship on the topic, broadening it to include little-considered seaborne routes used by fugitives from enslavement in the South prior to the American Civil War.
The primary goal of this book, then, is to build a more authentic and precise description of how two distinct historical spheres—American slavery and maritime experience—intersected, while establishing conclusively through documented cases that enslaved people frequently used waterborne means to escape to freedom. A parallel aim, however, is to reinforce the idea that maritime escapes could be and often were effected without any assistance from individuals who saw themselves as deliberate Underground Railroad operatives. In the nineteenth century, after all, there was little in the way of an organized network to assist would-be freedom seekers in the far South of the United States. The Underground Railroad, according to the prevailing scholarly conception based on available evidence, seems to have functioned as an organized, albeit a loose, network mainly in free northern states.13 Though assisted seaborne escapes from the southern states certainly happened, as indicated in several of the incidents described in the following pages, far more frequently such acts of escape were impulsive and unplanned. Any assistance provided to fugitives was the result of chance meetings, often with persons who were in no way connected to any organized resistance to slavery.
An important question that this volume asks, therefore, is to what extent are maritime escapes rightfully referred to as part of the Underground Railroad, as the term is commonly understood and used by historians? According to the evidence collected in this collection, many maritime escapes were achieved without organized, premeditated outside help of the kind typically provided by Underground Railroad operatives. To be sure, some of the escapes by sea recounted here did require extensive planning, with multiple persons involved; a handful of these episodes are well known to historians.14 But many other escapes were spontaneous, opportunistic, and entirely self-directed by enslaved persons using only their own maritime knowledge, skills, and resources. Such incidents happened quietly, surreptitiously, with the ingenuity and personal agency of the successful fugitive remaining largely unknown, except for tantalizing hints available in runaway slave advertisements in newspapers or until the freedom seekers themselves told their stories publicly once they were long out of danger of recapture.
Consequently, one of the contentions of this book is that, by taking ship from coastal regions far south of the Mason-Dixon line and following the Gulf Stream offshore to northern free ports, enslaved individuals in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries usually bypassed entirely much of the terrestrial infrastructure of the Underground Railroad. Their experiences rightly comprise part of the Underground Railroad story but typically entailed sailing directly to a free territory and engaging with its personnel, resources, and strategies only once safely arrived in a northern port of refuge. These fugitives escaped slave states by sea, without confronting most of the impediments and potential dangers consequent to a protracted journey along an overland escape route. Thus, seaborne escapes were potentially faster, safer, and more efficient than attempting to run away from enslavement overland. This dimension of Underground Railroad operations would have been readily apparent to anyone living near the Atlantic or Gulf coast of the southern United States during the antebellum period—but to modern readers in the twenty-first century, this dimension isn’t at all obvious, in part because we have largely forgotten the centrality of the sea to early American economic and social life. The following essays reframe the Underground Railroad story, placing the sea back in its proper place as an essential stage and backdrop for this history.
The team of scholars who contributed to this publishing project—an interdisciplinary mix of experts at varying stages of their careers—was assembled deliberately to cover key geographic regions along the Eastern Seaboard. These authors have researched and written extensively about slavery and abolitionism, the Underground Railroad, port communities, and coastal areas such as New York, New Bedford, the Chesapeake Bay, and the Carolina Low Country, and the intersection of maritime industries with the African American experience during the late eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. In their chapters, they have asked penetrating questions to create an interpretive framework that will allow casual readers and Underground Railroad scholars alike to draw distinctions between the typical characteristics of fugitives who escaped from slavery by land and those who fled by sea, and to compare their experiences. Such questions include, for example: What is the profile of a typical seaborne fugitive in terms of gender, age, occupation, skills, and marriage status? What strategies and methods did freedom seekers use to acquire a boat or to get aboard a northbound ship? What personal skills did the they carry with them—particularly maritime-related skills that may have helped in making good their escape or that helped the fugitive to find work and survive after reaching a wage-based economy in a free state? How did maritime communities in the South react to, respond to, accommodate, or try to thwart escapes via water? Insofar as available data and evidence have allowed, the featured authors have tried to answer these and other related questions.
Together, the ten essays that make up this volume create a mosaic describing the nautical routes and waterborne methods that allowed so many freedom seekers to accomplish their liberation from enslavement. The text is primarily aimed at scholars and teachers of the Underground Railroad or the experience of slavery in the United States, including museum and public history professionals. However, the structure and focus of the text makes it suitable for classroom use by undergraduate and graduate students as well as by advanced secondary school students and interested general readers.
The volume is organized geographically, with the focus of each succeeding chapter proceeding from south to north along the Atlantic Seaboard from the Carolinas to New England. The analysis thus follows the coastwise route of untold numbers of enslaved persons who sought freedom aboard northbound vessels following the Gulf Stream toward sanctuary in states and territories where human bondage was illegal. Each chapter covers a different coastal location or region wherein extensive waterborne Underground Railroad activity took place. The exceptions are the general conceptual opening chapter and the closing tenth chapter, which describes emerging digital tools that will open new pathways of research on this subject.
Because this project was first conceived as an examination of coastal waterborne escape routes northward toward the ports and abolitionist communities of northern free states, it focuses principally on the U.S. Atlantic Seaboard, thereby leaving out southern Florida, the Gulf of Mexico coast, and New Orleans, all important slaveholding regions with strong and varied connections to the sea. Clearly, enslaved persons in these areas sought and achieved freedom through seaborne means as well, fleeing by boat or ship. Our hope is that the present volume will stimulate new scholarship to explore these southward seaborne conduits of escape from the United States, and so further expand our understanding of the operation and geographic dimensions of the saltwater Underground Railroad.
Timothy D. Walker’s essay opens the volume with a consideration of some practical and methodological issues surrounding the maritime Underground Railroad—issues that motivated him to undertake a study of this critical central theme. Walker offers a brief review of the scant historiography on the subject, then sketches a number of maritime Underground Railroad episodes as examples to contextualize the rest of the book, laying the groundwork to introduce and set up the essays that follow.
In chapter two, Michael D. Thompson provides an incisive examination of waterfront labor, coastal commerce, and the varied means of escaping enslavement by sea from Charleston, South Carolina. Thompson, a historian at the University of Tennessee, Chattanooga, shows how many runaway slaves had deliberately sought waterfront work in the Charleston seaport, which presented them with opportunities for embarking on northbound vessels. The port provided an ideal bridge on the road to freedom.
Next, David S. Cecelski’s chapter focuses on the Carolina Low Country, where local African American watermen, sometimes free but usually held in bondage, provided the labor that merchants and planters depended on to guide their vessels and land valuable cargo. Cecelski shows that enslaved dock workers, fishermen, and transport boatmen were ubiquitous in the coastal areas of the Carolinas, but they also steered fugitives toward freedom along furtive maritime routes that endured throughout the slavery era. His meticulous research provides valuable insights about practical means frequently used to escape enslavement by sea through the Carolina coasts and wetlands.
In chapter four, Cassandra Newby-Alexander, director of the Joseph Jenkins Roberts Center for the Study of the African Diaspora at Norfolk State University in Virginia, describes the maritime Underground Railroad as it functioned in the neighboring ports of Hampton Roads and Norfolk, Virginia, and the surrounding hinterland. The entire region of Hampton Roads served as the gateway and starting point for incalculable numbers of enslaved Blacks who made their way by sea to freedom in the North.
Chapter five by Cheryl Janifer LaRoche of the University of Maryland, discusses the strategies that enslaved persons employed to escape bondage through Baltimore Harbor, the Chesapeake Bay, and other key maritime locales in Maryland. Significant as a border area just across the Mason-Dixon line from free territory, Maryland nevertheless saw exceptional numbers of fugitives use waterborne means to flee their intolerable circumstances.
Mirelle Luecke, whose recent doctorate in Atlantic history from the University of Pittsburgh focuses on maritime labor in New York City, provides in the sixth chapter a detailed consideration of the metropolitan harbor and waterfront, which served as a transitional port for fugitive Blacks. For many freedom seekers recently departed from lives of bondage in the southern states, New York represented a “gateway to freedom,” a waypoint en route to other more secure destinations farther north. Maritime networks that assisted and protected such fugitives are the subject of her contribution to this volume.
Chapter seven is authored by Elysa Engelman, the director of exhibits for the Mystic Seaport Museum. She uses her experience as a public historian and museum professional in an innovative approach to analyzing research material for our volume. In her contribution, she sets about explaining how smaller shipbuilding towns such as Mystic, Connecticut, and whaling ports such as nearby Stonington and New London also proved to be destinations for fugitives escaping to the northern free states. Engelman’s analysis focuses particular attention on the case of one local abolitionist shipbuilding family, the Greenmans of Mystic, and considers their complicated role in a community where abolition was not a cause favored by a majority of elites.
Independent scholar Kathryn Grover has worked on fugitive slave documentation in Massachusetts for over two decades. Her chapter eight synthesizes and expands the corpus of her research to examine the formal and informal ties between abolitionists who assisted fugitives in Boston and New Bedford and on Cape Cod and the islands of Martha’s Vineyard and Nantucket. In so doing, her contribution explores the critical role that free African American communities in these places played in sheltering, supporting, and otherwise aiding fugitives from slavery.
In chapter nine, Len Travers of the University of Massachusetts, Dartmouth, asks to what extent did New Bedford actually encourage and develop Black participation in maritime work. His incisive analysis of the New Bedford city directory for 1838 (the year of Frederick Douglass’s escape and arrival) provides readers with detailed, nuanced data, and fresh insights concerning the size of this port town’s community of color, where they lived, and how they supported themselves mainly in waterfront trades or services in support of the whaling industry.
The tenth and final chapter describes opportunities for new research using digitized primary-source documentation collected in a cutting-edge online resource: the Freedom on the Move (FOTM) project database being compiled at Cornell University. Cornell doctoral candidate Megan Jeffreys introduces the database and guides the reader through it, demonstrating its utility for scholarly Underground Railroad investigation and providing some preliminary observations about how this tool can help historians understand the seaborne escape methods that enslaved peoples used to seek freedom.
This innovative book addresses an important gap in the scholarly literature and understanding of the Underground Railroad. Collectively, these Sailing to Freedom essays provide a fresh approach that will reframe the salient interpretive model of Underground Railroad scholarship, recasting it to be more inclusive and incorporating the historically indispensable seaborne routes and strategies that fugitives from enslavement employed during the antebellum era.
1. Underground Railroad is a term of contested meaning and some imprecision. In this volume, it is meant broadly and collectively to include all the formal and informal means, methods, strategies, and tactics by which enslaved African Americans escaped their circumstances and achieved freedom prior to 1865. Its first appearance in common usage dates to the period 1839–1842. See Eric Foner, Gateway to Freedom: The Hidden History of the Underground Railroad (New York: W. W. Norton, 2015), 6.
2. Survey of authors represented in the University of North Carolina’s “North American Slave Narratives,” Documenting the American South, https://docsouth.unc.edu/neh/. I am grateful to Professor Jonathan Schroeder of the University of Warwick for this reference.
3. William Still, The Underground Rail Road: A Record of Facts, Authentic Letters, Narratives, etc. (Philadelphia: Porter & Coates, 1872).
4. This despite the fact that the earliest systematic and widely known learned work on the Underground Railroad acknowledged manifold instances of escape by sea and plotted coastal maritime routes on an iconic, often-reproduced map of Underground Railroad networks that accompanied the volume. See William H. Siebert, The Underground Railroad from Slavery to Freedom (New York: MacMillan, 1898), 81–82, 144–45.
5. Foner, Gateway to Freedom, 5; Fergus Bordewich, Bound for Canaan: The Underground Railroad and the War for the Soul of America (New York: Amistad, 2005), 109–10; 271–72.
6. Bordewich, Bound for Canaan, 271.
7. Ibid., 115.
8. The ongoing scholarly discussion on the difficulty of obtaining quantitative Underground Railroad data and the ultimate unknowability of escape numbers is alluded to by Spencer Crew in his foreword to Passages to Freedom: The Underground Railroad in History and Memory, ed. David W. Blight (New York: Harper Collins/Smithsonian Books, 2004), x.
9. Though, to be sure, this dynamic leaves aside the estimated fifty thousand annual runaways who fled their enslaved circumstances within the South during the late antebellum period. These fugitives were usually recaptured and rarely achieved freedom. See John Hope Franklin and Loren Schweninger, Runaway Slaves: Rebels on the Plantation (New York: Oxford University Press, 1999), 282.
10. Bordewich, Bound for Canaan, 272.
11. Kate Clifford Larson, email to the author, 18 August 2015. See her Bound for the Promised Land: Harriet Tubman, Portrait of an American Hero (New York: Random House, 2004).
12. Larson, 18 August 2015.
13. Bordewich, Bound for Canaan, 197, 307–9.
14. The protracted seven-year escape effort of Harriet Ann Jacobs provides a good example. See Jean Fagan Yellin, ed., et al., “September 1810—November 1843: Slavery and Resistance,” pt. 1 of Harriet Jacobs Family Papers, (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2008), 1:1–51.