THE OTHER SOUTHERN QUILT TRAIL: Southern Railroad Codes

THE UNDERGROUND RAILROAD

The Underground Railroad was a network of secret routes and safe houses established in the United States during the late 1700’s to mid 19th century (into the Civil War years). It was used by enslaved African Americans to escape into free states and Canada. However, it was not literally a railroad nor ran underground, but served the same purpose of transporting people long distances. The safe houses ran through homes, barns, churches and businesses, etc. and consisted of meeting points, secret routes, and various modes of transportation, usually by foot.

The term “Underground Railroad” was used because those who took passage on it disappeared from public view as if they had literally gone into the ground. (Actual underground railroads did not exist until 1863). It was known as a railroad and used rail terminology mainly because that was the transportation system in use at the time. The Railroad was often known as the ”Freedom Train” or “Gospel Train”.

Information about the routes and safe havens was passed along by word of mouth, signals and signs. Most messages were encoded so that they could be understood only by those active in the railroad. One such way was thought to be with old lanterns placed in certain places indicating the house/building was safe and able to accept these visitors. Another was with quilt designs displayed on fences, railings, bushes, trees, etc.

These quilt designs indicated how and where to travel, what was safe and what was not.

Examples of these designs and meanings;

Monkey Wrench – meant for them to gather tools needed for a long journey.

Wagon Wheel – meant to load the wagon or prepare to board the wagon to begin the escape.

Carpenter Block – meaning help from “Jesus”, would guide them through

Bear Paw – meant to take a mountain trail, out of view and follow the path made by bear tracks. The tracks would lead them to water and food.

Basket – meant for them to bring enough food and supplies to get to the crossroads.

Crossroad Block – referred to Cleveland, Ohio, an area offering several routes to freedom. It also signifies reaching a point where a person’s life will change, so one must be willing to go on.

Log Cabin Block – a secret symbol that would be drawn on the ground to indicate that a person is safe to talk to. It also advises seeking shelter.

Shoo-Fly Block – It may have identified a friendly guide who is nearby and can help.

Bow Tie Block – meant for them to dress in disguise, or put on a change of clothes.

Flying Geese Block – The points were meant to follow that direction, such as where geese would fly during their spring migration.

Birds in the Air Block – meant for them to follow the birds in the air.

Drunkard’s Path Block – meant for them to create a zig-zag path and not to walk in a straight line so to avoid pursuers in this area.

Sailboat Block – meant for them to take the sailboat across the Great Lakes.

North Star – mean to follow the north star.

The information about the Railroad was taken from Wikipedia web site. More information can be found there about the Railroad and the people involved in the movement during those times.

The quilt designs information was from research done by Julia Kilgore, Assistant at the Seven Springs Museum, for a display at the Museum located in the Black History Room.

Author: curator