Underground

Finding information about your ancestors can be challenging.  Record-keeping was hit-and-miss in the past.  Even if births, deaths and marriages were recorded, sometimes the records got lost or burned up in fires or eaten by mice.  Getting beyond the records to the values, ideals and actions that were most important to your ancestors is almost impossible.

Allen Jay 1831-1910

Perhaps most difficult of all is finding out about illicit activities your ancestors were involved in.  When people do things that they shouldn’t be doing, they often try to hide it.  Even if what was once illegal becomes legal, it can be hard to backtrack and find out who was doing it–the paper trail is gone.

People also bury and hide activities they’re involved in out of magnanimity.  Sometimes they don’t want their charitable, sacrificial deeds exposed to the public.  Often they hide them so well, they’re hard to find even years later.

Both of these reasons come into play with the Underground Railroad.  Thousands and thousands of slaves went from the slave-holding south to freedom in the north or Canada through a system of volunteers called the Underground Railroad.  Many of those involved were Quakers–a religious community known for its record-keeping, but also for simplicity and humility.  In most cases, they hid what they did not just for their safety, but because they needed no recognition for doing what was right.

Conductors along the Underground Railroad arranged for slaves to have food, water, shelter or transportation on their journey.  Many Quakers felt compelled to help the slaves because of their belief in the equality of all people and because of their desire to see a more just society prevail in America.

Edward Shaw

My three-times-great grandfather Edward Shaw at 91 years old

Since transporting slaves was illegal, people involved in the Underground Railroad devised subtle means of communication.  Some sent messages to the slaves and to each other by displaying quilts that contained hidden information.  One of these quilts was made by members of the Hadley and Harvey families of Clinton County, Ohio and Wayne County, Indiana–cousins of my ancestors.  You can see pictures of the Hadley Abolitionist Quilt on the Ohio Memory website.

Many homes that were used as stops along the Underground Railroad have been documented and preserved.  The Jonathan Wright House in Springboro, Ohio belonged to another cousin of mine.  The Ohio Memory digital collection contains letters and other documents related to Wright’s activities with the Underground Railroad.  These items were gathered by an Ohio State University professor named Wilbur Siebert who devoted much of his academic career to documenting the Underground Railroad at a time when some of the participants were still alive to tell their stories.

One of the most dangerous jobs on the Underground Railroad was the task of actually transporting the slaves from one stop to another.  My three-times-great grandfather, Edward Shaw, “aided fugitive slaves to escape to Canada and their liberty.  He drove one of the many celebrated covered wagons from depot to depot in the famous Underground railway, even when a price of $1,000 per head was offered for individuals engaged in this work.”  (This quote comes from his obituary following his death at age 93 in 1908.)

Even children got involved.  Eleven-year-old Allen Jay helped hide a runaway slave in the woods near his father’s farm.  Slave-chasers came and threatened Allen and his parents, but they continued to hide and feed the former slave who was on his way to freedom.  Allen himself drove the man from his father’s farm in Randolph, Ohio to his grandfather’s.  From there the fleeing slave made his way through northern Ohio and into Canada.  Allen and his parents helped many, many slaves escape in this way.  My Jay ancestors who lived in Wayne County, Indiana probably did the same.

In a talk about the Underground Railroad that I went to a few weeks ago, a historian pointed out that we really have no idea how many slaves were helped to freedom or how many operators assisted them.  Because it was dangerous and illicit to help runaway slaves, no records were kept and few stories preserved.  But there’s no question a lot of Quakers–especially in Indiana and Ohio–put themselves and their families on the line to help fellow human beings to freedom.  It’s stunning to think how many lives were changed by their strong beliefs and brave actions.

For more information about Allen Jay see the children’s book Allen Jay and the Underground Railroad.
For more information about the Underground Railroad in general visit the National Underground Railroad Freedom Center in Cincinnati.
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5 Responses to Underground

  1. mirroredImages says:

    Even though I knew this post was about the Underground Railroad, when I read your sentence about doing (and hiding) illicit things, I must confess that thoughts of other “illicit” things came to mind. And of course those types of illicit deeds would best be hidden, unless one was a politician or a celebrity.

    Great post. The Underground Railroad is a noble bit of American history that makes a person feel a little bit better about the possibility for good in people. I’m pleased that heroism runs in your family’s shared blood, that you come from stock who choose to do the right thing even when it may turn out badly for them.

    I think my family makes good baklava…? :)

    • Thanks!

      Contrary to your humble assertion about baklava (and by the way, making good baklava is nothing to sneeze at), your family has just as much heroism in it as mine. You are a first cousin (many times removed) to Levi Coffin, the “President of the Underground Railroad.” His home (first in Wayne County, Indiana, then in Cincinnati) was called “The Grand Central Station of the Underground Railroad.” You can read about him at Levi Coffin.

      • mirroredImages says:

        so i’m related, distantly yet directly, to a man who made coffins? or was a coffin? did he transport people in coffins? how many more times can i use the word “coffin” in this post? coffin.

  2. bronxboy55 says:

    If the South had won the war, would we be referring to the Underground Railroad with contempt, and its conductors as criminals? It’s hard to imagine, but I guess it could have happened that way.

    Another fascinating post, Kevin. Thank you.

    • Thanks, Charles.

      The Fugitive Slave Act of 1850 declared that anyone who helped a runaway slave was a criminal and was liable for fines and possible jail time. Southerners thought of slaves as property and anyone who helped their slaves run away as thieves, as far as I can tell. Alternative history is always challenging and it’s hard to imagine a world where slavery exists, but I think if the South had won, slavery probably would have hung on a little longer and the Underground Railroad operators would have been considered criminals. Slavery’s days were numbered, though, and I think it only would have been a matter of time.

      Thinking of things like this makes me wonder what gross injustices we are allowing in our world today that people will look back on and think totally differently about. Hindsight is 20/20, but sometimes we can’t see things that are right in front of our faces.

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