Authors: Fergus Bordewich
This book is dedicated to the countless thousands of men and women who fled the bonds of slavery but were recaptured or died at the hands of their pursuers before they reached the safe embrace of the Underground Railroad. They are not forgotten.
e were at times remarkably buoyant, singing hymns, and making joyous exclamations, almost as triumphant in their tone as if we had reached a land of freedom and safety. A keen observer might have detected in our repeated singing of
O Canaan, sweet Canaan
I am bound for the land of Canaan,
something more than a hope of reaching heaven. We meant to reach the
and the North was our Canaan.
Many people have contributed to this book, in large ways and small, and have helped to make
Bound for Canaan
better than it would otherwise have been. I am especially indebted to Christopher Densmore, curator of the Friends Historical Library of Swarthmore College; David Levering Lewis; Kate Clifford Larson; Milton C. Sernett of Syracuse University; Jill Jonnes; and Stanley Harrold of South Carolina State University at Orangeburg. They were unfailingly generous with their time and insights during the writing of
Bound for Canaan,
and offered many valuable suggestions. Judith Wellman's knowledge of the underground in upstate New York was a resource upon which I drew many times. As always, Jack Barschi's provocative questions prompted me to rethink and clarify more than a few half-rendered ideas. What flaws remain are of course my own.
In many parts of the country, historians and local researchers generously shared the wealth of Underground Railroad lore they have collected. Diane Perrine Coon unraveled for me the intricate web of underground activity around Madison, Indiana. Betty Campbell was a rich source of information about the abolitionists of Ripley, Ohio. Caroline Miller explained the interwoven worlds of slavery and abolitionism in
Bracken County, Kentucky. Randy Mills and Les and Mark Coomer were my guides in southwestern Indiana, an exceptionally interesting area for the study of the Underground Railroad. John Creighton led me expertly through Harriet Tubman country on the Eastern Shore of Maryland. Paul and Mary Liz Stewart made the Albany, New York, underground come alive. Steve Collins took me to the poignant site that was once the town of Quindaro and filled my ears with stories of the underground in eastern Kansas. George Nagle of the Afrolumens Project, Tracey Weis and Leroy Hopkins of Millersville State College, and Matthew Pinsker of Dickinson College helped me to understand the underground in south-central Pennsylvania. Jane Williamson, curator of the Rokeby Museum, in Ferrisburgh, Vermont, introduced me to the marvelous world of the Robinson family.
Bryan Prince, curator of the Buxton National Historic Site, in Ontario, was one of the first historians I interviewed in 1998, before
Bound for Canaan
was even a proposal. He spent another long and productive session with me in 2003, discussing the remarkable story of Reverend William King and the Elgin Settlement. Also in Canada, Gwen Robinson, director of the WISH Centre, in Chatham, was a bottomless mine of information on the fugitive community there, and on John Brown's activities north of the border. John MacLeod of the Fort Malden National Historic Site, and Elise Harding-Davis, curator of the North American Black Historical Museum, provided very useful background on the black community and the British military garrison at Amherstburg. Steven Cook, supervisor of the Uncle Tom's Cabin Site near Dresden, directed me toward material on Josiah Henson's life in Canada. Wilma Morrison of the Norval Johnson Heritage Library welcomed me graciously in Niagara Falls.
In Canada, my dear friend David Lipton of Toronto contributed his time, a historian's rigor, and best of all his company as a traveling companion. The Canadian sections of
Bound for Canaan
were sharpened and deepened thanks to him.
Many librarians lightened the weight of my work by adding their own expertise to my research. Among them were Alison Gibson of the Union Township Library, in Ripley, Ohio; Thomas D. Hamm, curator of the Friends Historical Collection at Earlham College; David Poremba, manager of the Burton Historical Collection of the Detroit Public Library;
Arden Phair, curator of collections at the St. Catharines Museum; and Judith Sweets of the Watkins County Museum, in Lawrence, Kansas. Elizabeth Moger; Walker Goller of Xavier University, in Cincinnati; Jae Breitweiser, director of the Eleutherian College Historic Site, in Lancaster, Indiana; Saundra Jackson, director of the Levi Coffin House Museum, in Fountain City, Indiana; Tom Calarco of Schenectady, New York; Mary Dugan of Kennett Square, Pennsylvania; James A. McGowan, and Steve Strimer of Northampton, Massachusetts, also lent assistance or advice at important points in my research.
My mother-in-law, Marjorie Allen Parvin, first introduced me years ago to the fascinating history of the North Carolina Quakers. Barbara Wright; her mother, Marietta Wright; and Hal Sieber directed me to sources of material on the underground there. Gwen Gosney Erickson, archivist of the Friends Historical Collection at Guilford College, made my research on the North Carolina Quaker underground a real pleasure. Richard Parvin, Ed Parvin, and John Parvin provided valuable nautical information that enabled me to describe navigation along the Florida coast.
I owe much to Carl Westmoreland of the National Underground Railroad Freedom Center, who in the course of a day's drive along the Ohio River in 1998 convinced me that there was a real need for a new general history of the Underground Railroad. Carl's vast knowledge of the underground prompted many lines of inquiry that I would not otherwise have suspected.
Bound for Canaan
might never have come into being at all without the unflagging enthusiasm of my literary agent, Elyse Cheney, and my ever-encouraging editor at Amistad Books, Dawn Davis, not to mention the support of my wife, Jean, and the forbearance of my daughter, Chloe, who has perhaps come to think of books as cosmic black holes into which her father periodically disappears.
AILROAD AND THE
The response to the hardcover edition of
Bound for Canaan
has been enthusiastic, not only in states where the far-flung lines of the Underground Railroad once operated, but also in the onetime slave states of the border country and the Deep South. In part, no doubt, this reception reflects the simple fact that it is the first national history of the underground to be published in more than a century. It also suggests that increasing numbers of Americans are now willing to look with an unflinching eye at both the history of slavery and the racial and religious radicalism of the men and women of the Underground Railroad, whose exploits were long consigned to the less threatening realm of legend.
As I traveled around the United States, I found scoresâand there may well be hundredsâof local groups busy identifying and memorializing the safe houses and routes of the Underground Railroad. The National Park Service's excellent Freedom Trails program has done much to foster this grassroots movement. But it also reflects, more deeply, the degree to which the story of the Underground Railroad continues to engage our national imagination, and the almost mystical magnetism with which that story is rooted in a sense of place.
Rather like the battlefields of the Civil War, the “stations”âsafe housesâand lines of the Underground Railroad have taken on an almost sacred quality for many of us, both black and white. The once-clandestine landscape of the underground is a kind of hidden territory whose webs of long-forgotten “lines” lie buried like a palimpsest beneath the suburbs, super highways, and malls of twenty-first-century America. Fascination with the Underground Railroad manifests itself most vividly in a persistent hunt for tunnels through which fugitive slaves were allegedly spirited to freedom. In the small community where I live in New York State, which has no documentable connection with the Underground Railroad, there is a tenacious belief that a network of Underground Railroad tunnels exists beneath the town. These “tunnels” are in fact just old coal storage areas. The abundant literature of the Underground Railroad makes virtually no reference to tunnels at all. And no more than a handful of extant tunnels can be plausibly associated with known underground activists. In most places, tunnels were neither practical nor necessary; north of the border between the slave states and the free, the success of the underground depended on the moral commitment of its members and the efficiency of its organization more than it ever did on exotic hiding places. Ironically, one of the few convincing tunnels that survives, a six-foot-long crawl space that leads to a dry cistern adjoining the Lancaster, Pennsylvania, home of abolitionist Congressman Thaddeus Stevens, is in imminent danger of destruction to make way for a new convention center.
Although the idea of secret passageways has an inherent appeal that perhaps no amount of scholarly research will ever fully dispel, preoccupation with tunnels and hidey holes misses the point. The essential nature of the Underground Railroad lay in the character and motivation of the people who made it work, not in bricks and mortar. After generations of relative oblivionâHarriet Tubman being the single exception to this neglectâthe towering courage of the men and women of the underground is once again gradually being revealed. In
Bound for Canaan
I have tried to bring back to life forgotten activists like the father of the Underground Railroad Isaac T. Hopper, Levi and Catherine Coffin, Rev. John Rankin, George de Baptiste, Jermain Loguen, Laura Haviland, and others, whose names may someday be as familiar to Americans as they deserve to be. I also tried hard to capture the “feel” of the world in which they lived. The physical landscape has of course radically changed: the
horse-drawn wagons, rutted roads, whale-oil lamps, and sailing ships that antebellum Americans knew have disappeared. In other ways, however, their era was not all that different from our own: it was a period of religious passion, ideological zealotry, racial tension, and vigorous debate over freedom and civil liberties.
Few veterans of the underground left detailed memoirs, and few of those who did revealed their inner lives as fully as modern readers might wish. For the historians, it is often a challenge to winkle out personality and sensibility from the top-heavy Latinate rhetoric of abolitionist discourse. When frustration set in, it often was the physical world of the underground, where it still survived, that revealed to me something of the intimacy that literature and rhetoric concealed. A country lane in rural Maryland, a farmhouse in Indiana, a Quaker meetinghouse in Pennsylvania, a Canadian chapel hinted each in its own way at the simplicity, the plain human dimension of the lives that these remarkable ancestors of ours led.
Sites associated with the Underground Railroad are, in a sense, shrines to our better selves, or at least to ancestors who we believe were capable of a degree of moral clarity and personal courage that seems to elude us. The heroes of the underground seem in some ways far more accessible than, say, the soldiers of Gettysburg and Shiloh, their contemporaries. These farmers, businessmen, housewives, preachers, and clerks are obviously civilians like ourselves: ordinary people with ordinary lives, in the ordinary landscape of antebellum America. Except for their beards and bonnets they might be us, except for one great and dramatic difference. For a few hours each week or month they burst the bonds of their ordinariness, taking risks that we can scarcely imagine. They become radicals, lawbreakers, trespassing upon the dangerous boundaries of race, and undertaking sacrifices that make us wonder if we could do the same.
There is a profound modesty to Underground Railroad sites. Almost all of them are private homes or churches. Unlike a battlefield, there are no cannons or battle maps to dramatize what took place there, no marble obelisks or statues to celebrate the dead. The activities of the underground were homely and privateâa knock on the door, a bed offered, a horse saddledâdramatic only in retrospect, when their sum total can be seen to have been a movement of epic proportions. A few sites have been preserved in ways that capture something of the ambience of antebellum America. Among those that moved me particularly are Rokeby, the farm
of Rowland G. Robinson in Ferrisburgh, Vermont, a terminus of the Underground Railroad; the red brick home of Levi and Catherine Coffin in Fountain City (formerly Newport), Indiana, through which many hundreds of fugitives safely passed; and the Longwood Progressive Friends meetinghouse in Kennet, Pennsylvania, founded by the neighborhood's hardcore underground activists when fellow Quakers pressured them to curtail their clandestine work.
More than any other single place, however, it seems to me, the spirit of the heroes of the antebellum underground resides in the home of the Reverend John Rankin and his passionately abolitionist family, where it stands proudly on a steep hill overlooking the town of Ripley, Ohio. Below it, the landscape still spreads out as majestically as it did before the Civil War. The Ohio River (narrower now) still winds westward toward the Mississippi, the ultimate watershed between freedom and slavery for countless enslaved African Americans. It is a plain, even austere house, a fitting monument to this Presbyterian minister who received and forwarded perhaps three thousand fugitive slaves between the 1820s and the Civil War. Rankin chose the site deliberately. Here, for all to see, his house was a beacon to the fugitive and a blunt, deliberate provocation to slave hunters, who more than once attacked it with armed force. Here, embodied in the Rankin home, is the real spirit of the Underground Railroadânot buried underground in a tunnel, but bold and unashamed, defiant and willing to fight. Fortunately for the historian, the Rankins also left substantial documentation of their work. But, I have often thought as I stood on that hill, as I have done many times now, that there is great magic in the spirit of American place.