Harriett Tubman with Friends

" 'Twant me, 'twas the Lord. I always told him, 'I trust you. I don't know where to go or what to do, but I expect you to lead me,' and he always did." Harriet Tubman

Runaway slaves relied on knowledge of geography, clever disguises, tips from Conductors and their own "motherwit" to evade hunters and catchers. Scholars continue to debate the means fugitives used to navigate their way. There is no doubt, however, that personal ingenuity enabled people to survive and, in some cases, escape to freedom.

Songs like "Swing Low, Sweet Chariot," and "Go Down Moses" may have contained secret messages detailing escape routes for runways. Another popular song was "Follow the Drinking Gourd," which was a term that referred to the shape of the Big Dipper.

In addition to the obvious northward direction that "the drinking gourd," the Big Dipper, suggests taking, the song makes several other significant suggestions. The banks of the Tombigbee River were lined with dead trees marked by drawings of a left foot and a peg foot in order to distinguish the Tombigbee from its tributaries. The song suggests that a fugitive should flee the South during the winter months: "when the first quail calls," because it is during this time of year that the Ohio River, a usual obstacle for fugitives, is frozen and could therefore be walked upon.

"Follow The Drinking Gourd"
(song lyrics)

The riverbank makes a very good road
The dead trees show you the way
Left foot, peg foot, traveling on
Follow the drinking gourd

When the sun comes back and the first quail calls
Follow the drinking gourd
For the old man is waiting to carry you to freedom
If you follow the drinking gourd

Disguises and Clever Camouflage
The use of a disguise was a clever and effective means of outwitting a slave hunter. Frederick Douglass once posed as a sailor. Males dressed as females and vice versa.

Not all hiding places were cramped, dark basements or barns--some of the best hiding spots were those right under a hunter's nose. Some slaves pretended to conduct errands or deliver messages and goods on behalf of their masters. Others dressed as laborers, carried tools and passed through town as if they were going to work. One unsubstantiated report claims that a conductor arranged a line of wagons and carriages, which all contained fugitives, and had it proceed through town as if a funeral were taking place.

Frederick Douglass
Frederick Douglass
Patrick Holland, who ran a stable at 200 West Front Street in Wilmington, transported slaves across the Christina River underneath products he pretended to be delivering. On at least nineteen trips to the South, Harriet Tubman employed similarly clever tactics. When attempting to cross the Christina River, Tubman, three of her brothers and several other slaves were hidden in a straw-covered wagon pulled by bricklayers. When they spotted slavecatchers on the other end of the bridge, the bricklayers pretended to be boisterous drunkards returning from a binge. The slavecatchers dismissed them.

Henry "Box" Brown's Escape
Henry "Box" Brown
Perhaps the most oft-repeated account during the period before the Civil War was the one about Henry Brown. Brown had his friend Samuel A. Smith, a white shoe dealer from Richmond, Virginia, send him off in a wooden shipping crate. Three feet deep, two feet wide and three feet long, the box became Brown's home for 26 hours while it was shipped from Richmond to Philadelphia's Anti-Slavery offices. The rumor that spread through the ranks of abolitionists suggested that, upon the opening of the crate, Brown popped out, wet from the travel, and jubilantly declared "How do you do, gentlemen?" As word of Brown's creative choice of transportation spread, it quickly inspired other runaways to follow the same idea. Shortly thereafter, an eighteen-year old girl and a pregnant woman arrived as freight from Baltimore at William Still's house.

Samuel Burris
The narrowest of escapes was that of Samuel Burris. When Burris, a free black man, was caught and convicted of aiding in the flight of fugitive slaves to the north, he was almost sold into slavery himself! The punishment, in Delaware, for any black person who was found guilty of smuggling slaves was not incarceration, but sale into slavery. Friends who were active in the abolitionist cause arranged for a "slave buyer" to purchase Burris at auction and set him free. They collected money, chose one from among them who could impersonate a slave buyer at auction and sent him to Dover on the day of Burris' sale. The false abolitionist buyer won the auction and purchased Burris with "abolition gold". Burris was, of course, set free and never ventured south again.
Samuel Burris
Samuel Burris

William Craft
William Craft

The Crafts
William and Ellen Craft, a couple from Macon, Georgia, successfully disguised themselves as dutiful slave and elderly master. Ellen, a light-skinned daughter of her former master, was able to "pass" for white. She did so by dressing as an elderly man with an ailment which required him to breathe through a medicated cloth thereby concealing many of Ellen's feminine features. Her husband played the role of obedient man-servant on the train to the north. In spite of several close calls, the Crafts received word from a knowing abolitionist passenger on the train whom to call upon at their destination for help. After getting that help, the Crafts moved on and eventually settled in Boston.

Ellen Craft
Ellen Craft


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