Putting it in Perspective:
  The Symbolism of Underground Railroad quilts

by Kris Driessen

To understand the special role quilts may have played in the Underground Railroad, we first have to understand the life and times of the people who lived during the years the railroad was running, approximately 1830-1862. These times were politically turbulent and impossible to summarize in a few brief paragraphs. This article should be considered an overview only.

In the first year of the US Census, 1790, the United States of America consisted of 3.8 million people including 694,000 slaves scattered along the 16 states of the east coast. The issue of slavery was a thorny one for the new government. The 40,000 slaves in the northern states of CT, NJ, NY, PA and RI worked alongside free white men in cutting, burning, and clearing bush for cultivation. Southern slaves were vitally important to the economy of the southern states, which depended on the production of labor-intensive crops such as sugar, coffee, cacao, tobacco and rice. Southern states agreed to join the United States of America only on the provision that they were allowed to keep their slaves.

Congress was well aware of the both the importance of southern crops to the economy of the United States and the importance of slave labor to the production of these crops. As the country expanded westward, provisions were made for slavery to continue. Yet as each new area was opened to slavery, the voices of abolitionists (anti-slavery proponents) got louder. As a compromise, An Act to Prohibit the Importation of Slaves into any Port or Place Within the Jurisdiction of the United States was passed in 1807. At that time there were approximately 1.1 million slaves in 18 states. 

Anti-slavery sentiment in the North continued to grow in the early 1800's. The Missouri Compromise established a boundary between the slave states of the south and the free states of the north at the state line between Pennsylvania and Maryland, the Mason-Dixon line. Included in this compromise was a prohibition of slavery north of this line. At the same time, abolitionists were having an effect in the northern states. By 1810, the northern slave population in the North had dwindled to roughly 27,000.

The invention and distribution of the cotton gin in the late 1700's and early 1800's allowed 50 pounds of cotton to be processed each day, making the crop profitable for the first time.   After the invention of the cotton gin, the yield of raw cotton doubled each decade.  1815 marked the beginning of the Industrial Revolution. Cotton mills were opened in and around Lowell MA which could process this southern cotton into cloth. The invention of the steamboat and the opening of the complete Erie Canal in 1825 ensured this cloth could be made widely available to all Americans including those that were beginning the trek west. 

Not everyone in the north was anti-slavery. Most either didn't care or recognized the importance of free labor to southern industry. Slaves were not recognized in society as being potentially equal. They were seen as children who must be protected even while they were being exploited. In 1820, the Missouri Compromise was declared unconstitutional in the Dred Scott Decision as it violated the Fifth Amendment of the Constitution, which prohibits Congress from depriving persons of their property without due process of law. This reopened parts of the Louisiana Purchase to slavery.

In 1829, transportation by railroad began in the United States. The term "Underground Railroad" was coined shortly thereafter to refer to the organization of people who helped slaves escape. According to legend, it was named after a comment a slave owner made after his escaping slave swam a river and disappeared on the other side by way of an Underground Railroad.

Escape from slavery was not easy. Most slaves were uneducated and ill prepared for a long journey. Escapes were generally not planned; they were spur-of-the moment decisions made to take advantage of a favorable circumstance. Few took advantage of the Underground Railroad from Maryland, Virginia and the Carolinas. In fact, of the 4 million slaves that escaped during the period 1830 - 1862, less than 1% fled north. Most melted into local black communities passing themselves off as free men or headed south to the parts of Florida and Mexico which had been settled by the Spanish to pass as having Spanish ancestry. Slaves that did travel north found themselves facing professional slave catchers patrolling the borders between slave states and free states. Free blacks traveling by train or steamboat had to carry official papers listing their name, age, height, skin color, and other distinguishing features.

In 1833 the American Anti-Slavery Society was formed, publishing a newspaper called the Liberator. Consisting primarily of white people, their goal was to convince slave owners of the evils of the system they supported through moral persuasion. Noted authors and lecturers such as William Lloyd Garrison, Frederick Douglass and Sojourner Truth began to travel the country lecturing on the evils of slavery. They found many supporters both in the northern states, where slavery had been abolished by 1827, and in England, where all slaves had been given a gradual emancipation in 1838. While these abolitionists were writing and publishing their articles, newspapers and magazines, the South released a flood of proslavery propaganda. Tensions were high and the political pot was beginning to heat up.

By 1850, the United States consisted of 32 states stretching from coast to coast. Total population was 23 million, of which 3.2 million were slaves and 424,000 were free blacks according to the US Census that year. The South provided three-fifths of America's exports, most of it in cotton, while the North continued to expand its manufacturing base. 

Pressure increased on southern slave owners as the country expanded westward.  Territories were governed by Congress which maintained the status quo until the territory became a state.  Since Mexico had abolished slavery in 1822, this meant that any territory created from land formerly governed by Mexico (right) had to remain a non-slave area.  No slave holder would settle in a free territory, so when the territory became a state, it naturally became a free state, which tipped the balance of power in Congress.  

The southern dependence on free slave labor pressured the legislature to pass The Fugitive Slave Act of 1850 which allowed slave hunters to cross into free states and bring escaping slaves back to their masters. At the same time, laws were enacted heavily fining anyone caught helping these escaping slaves. This was a tremendous concern for free blacks in the North, since the slave catchers often kidnapped legally free blacks as well as fugitives. The Underground Railroad continued to function, albeit under a heavy veil of secrecy. Between 1850 and 1860 the Railroad doubled the number of passengers it carried to freedom.

The Fugitive Slave act prompted Harriet Beecher Stowe to write Uncle Tom's Cabin in 1851 as a serial in the abolitionist newspaper, The National Era. Her goal was to show the physical, sexual, and emotional abuse endured by enslaved people and the terrible impact of slavery on families. Her book quickly became a controversial best seller. Uncle Tom's Cabin was both praised as a tremendous achievement by abolitionists and attacked as biased and inaccurate by slavery proponents.

About 300,000 slaves had fled to Canada by this time. Benjamin Drew, a Boston abolitionist acting in cooperation with officers of the Canadian Anti-Slavery Society, visited various towns in Canada, interviewing slaves who had made good their escape and established new lives. His book The Refugee: Narratives of Fugitive Slaves in Canada Related by Themselves published in 1856 corroborated the abuses named in the Uncle Tom's Cabin.

The political pot began to simmer in the late 1850's as the southern states continued to protest what they saw as unequal representation in Congress. They demanded more rights for their states, feeling strongly that the right to govern themselves was guaranteed by the US Constitution. They felt they were being unfairly taxed by the northern controlled congress and that efforts to prevent slavery in the growing country were designed to destroy their economy. Ironically, no matter how much it abhorred slavery, the North never disagreed with the South that the issue of slavery was one which the Constitution gave each state the right to decide for itself. Congress had determined that the issue was one of property rights and the definition of "property" was a state issue, not a federal one.

The election of Abraham Lincoln in 1860 and the southern fear of his abolitionist tendencies brought the political pot to a boil. On December 24, 1860, South Carolina seceded from the Union, followed in short succession by Mississippi, Florida, Alabama, Louisiana, Texas and Georgia, forming the Confederate States of America. The US House hastily passed a resolution promising non-interference with slavery in any state in February to no avail. On April 12, 1861 Confederate batteries opened fire on the union troops at Ft Sumter SC. The bombardment of Fort Sumter was the opening engagement of the American Civil War.

It is inaccurate to state that the cause of the Civil War was solely slavery. Over 80% of Confederate soldiers did not own slaves. They were fighting for the right of their state to govern itself. Likewise, few Union soldiers fought strictly to free the slaves. They were fighting to preserve the Union. However, the issue of slavery quickly became the politically correct spin used by Northern politicians. 

On January 1, 1863, President Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation which declared, "that all persons held as slaves" within the states that had seceded from the Union "are, and henceforward shall be free." Provided, of course, the Union won the war. The Confederate States of America did not feel bound by this proclamation since they planned to win the war. It applied only to states that had seceded from the Union, leaving slavery untouched in the loyal border states. It also expressly exempted parts of the Confederacy that had already come under Northern control.  Although no slaves were actually freed by Emancipation Proclamation until after the war, the speech did have the effect of adding moral force to the Union cause.

After the war, there was an explosion of published information such as diaries and autobiographies detailing the abuses of slavery. Northern women wanted to know their family members had not died in vain.  Since many former slaves could neither read nor write, they were assisted in writing their stories by white sympathizers. Memoirs of a Slave Girl, written in 1861 by the literate slave Harriet Jacobs is one such story.  More slave narratives can be found here.

While these diaries are a certainly a valuable source of information about the Underground Railroad, a more reliable source may be the thousands of interviews done in 1936 - 1938 by the Federal Writers Project which recorded firsthand reports of slave life. These interviews documented many escape routes, both on and off the Underground Railroad.

The idea of quilts being used in the Underground Railroad for purposes other than bedding was not mentioned either in the written documents of the period or in the interviews given years later.  That is not to say they could not have been used in a form not discussed.  However, care must be taken not to romanticize this possibility.   

To quote quilt historian Xenia Cord, "Quilt research and quilt history often rely heavily on the oral anecdotes and oral memories of quilters, stories that link women with common interests to a body of shared information. This information, strongly buttressed by written memoirs, documented sources, pictures, tangible artifacts, and previously published research allows the historian to contribute to the body of knowledge that is American quilt history."

"Occasionally a theory is presented that offers an engaging view of the American past; the theory may not have substance and may not be documentable in any scholarly way, but it provides a vehicle through which we believe we can understand our past. This is the case with studies that supposedly reveal hidden codes or messages in quilts. A number of popularly disseminated misunderstandings about the role of quilts prior to the Civil War in the preparation and escape of fugitive slaves, and in the Underground Railroad are at present being taught to our children."

In 1989, Stitched from the Soul by Gladys-Marie Fry was published.  In it, she offered a glimpse into the lives and creativity of African American quilters during the era of slavery. It was the first book to examine the history of quilting in the enslaved community and to place slave-made quilts into historical and cultural context.  Unfortunately, the author did not confirm any of the family stories given with the quilts, so the book is riddled with inaccuracies and misplaced dates.  She later curated an exhibit of these quilts.

Also in 1989, children's book author Deborah Hopkinson heard a story on National Public Radio about an art quilt exhibit by African-American quilters.  The interview was discussing the symbolism in the quilts, which inspired her to write a story indicating that a quilt may have been used as a signaling device in the Underground Railroad. Deborah Hopkinson was unable to find any documentation for this theory and so wrote her book Sweet Clara and the Freedom Quilt with a fictional quilt.  Her book was published in 1993.  This book was later listed as a reference for Hidden in Plain View as was Stitched from the Soul.

Ten years later, the book Hidden in Plain View was published which further explored the theory of quilts being used in the Underground Railroad.  Hidden in Plain View was written by Jacqueline Tobin, a Women's Studies professor at the University of Denver, assisted by Raymond Dobard, an Art History teacher at Howard University.  The book documented her discussions with Ozella McDaniel Williams between 1993 and 1997. 

Ozella Wiliams was an African-American quilt store owner in a Charleston SC tourist market.  Her professed goal was to ensure that her families' oral history of a quilt code, which had been passed down to her through the generations, was "written down." This code was evidentially a mnemonic device, used to help illiterate slaves memorize directions and activities they may have needed for escape.  Ironically, Ms Williams family never used this code to effect their escape.  In fact, in later interviews with some family members, they denied knowing anything at all about this "family story."  Hidden in Plain View, published after Ms Williams death, both documented the family story and created a great deal of controversy at the same time.

Ms Williams claimed the quilt code had come from an African progenitor, presumably sold in the country before An Act to Prohibit the Importation of Slaves was passed in 1807. This means the code must have passed through nine generations of extreme societal change, a daunting task even for a culture who relied on oral history. This may account for some of the discrepancies in the book.

The code related in the book associated quilt block names with their shape, style and color as hidden messages for slaves escaping the Charleston SC area. The origin of the code and how the meaning of the code was communicated between slaves was not explored.  Each block, when made into a quilt, would pass on part of the message.  These messages were contained in a series of seventeen quilts.  Where the slaves found the time to make these quilts, or what fabric they used, was never explained.  

Many of the quilt blocks named in the book were not given their names until the early 1900's. The monkey wrench, for example, was not invented until 1858 and so could not have been the name of a block used as a mnemonic device.

Another block referenced was the "bear paw" block, meant to warn slaves of the bears in the Appalachian Mountains through which they must escape. This is problematic because slaves escaping Charleston would not normally take the longer and more dangerous route through the mountains when a shorter, easier route was available.  In addition, bears east of the Mississippi had been nearly killed off from overhunting.  In 1872, Underground Railroad conductor William Still published a book detailing his activities which indicated that slaves escaping Charleston typically took the coastal route. 

It is possible that the ancestor who passed this story on to Ms Williams referred to these blocks by their 20th century names simply as a convenience; however, this changes the story of the quilt code. 

So is the story related in Hidden in Plain View completely untrue? It's impossible to say but it is worth noting that the authors have cautioned against believing the story as fact, indicating on page 33 that their findings are "informed conjecture".  Authors Jacqueline Tobin wrote this E-mail to the Beaverton School and Raymond Dobard gave this interview both cautioning that the quilt code story was meant to be a mnemonic device, not an actual code placed in a quilt.  They admit that the blocks shown in their book were only illustrative devices and not meant to be taken literally.

According to an article in the July 2, 2007 US News and World Report, "Tobin believes her book has been misinterpreted. Numerous details ascribed to the story—like hanging quilts along the way to indicate safe houses—"simply aren't in the book," she says. Moreover, "We make it clear that this was Ozella's story only," she says, and that such codes "could have" been used in this way and only on one particular plantation. "We're not talking about hundreds or thousands of folks using this code," says Tobin. "The story has grown in ways that we had not intended.""

So, were quilts used as a signaling device in the Underground Railroad?  Certainly a quilt could have been used to signal a safe house, as could any other common household object.  Keeping in mind that most escaping slaves traveled at night, however, it is unlikely that they were told to look for something as suspicious as a quilt hanging on a line overnight or a quilt with a specific pattern of blocks.  

An Underground Railroad QuiltIs there no such thing as an Underground Railroad Quilt, then?  Well, this is a trick question.  In the late 1800's, many quilt blocks were named or renamed after political events. These were blocks such as "54-40 or fight" which referred to the boundary dispute between the US and Canada in 1846; "Burgoyne Surrounded" which referred to John Burgoyne's defeat in the Saratoga Battlefields; the "Lincoln Log Cabin" named in honor of Abraham Lincoln after his assassination and the "Underground Railroad" block Underground Railroad Doll Quilt Pattern (also known as "Jacob's Ladder") which honored the brave conductors and passengers of the Underground Railroad. An Underground Railroad quilt, then, is one made of Underground Railroad blocks like the one above.  Barb Garrett has created a pattern for an Underground Railroad doll quilt (right) which can be purchased from her directly.

Historians have to be careful not to blur American history with folktales or bend standards of truth to accommodate personal or financial agendas, which seems to have become the case with the Underground Railroad quilt code myth.  Those that continue to perpetuate this myth without regard to the mounds of evidence proving it to be questionable if not outright false, often have a financial motive for doing so. 

We have to conclude that there was no special role quilts played in the Underground Railroad.  While no one can prove a negative, it seems unlikely that quilts were used as a directional code. Worse, this type of popular myth belies the hard work and dangers faced  by the true heroes of the Underground Railroad. When myths are not dispelled and the general public is allowed to believe anything, it hurts the truth of the culture and propagates false truths.  History would be far better served if actual research was done on this topic so that we might honor the people who truly deserved it such as Harriet Tubman and Levi Coffin, rather than just endlessly repeating discredited myths and gossip.  

To quote Fergus M. Bordewich (the author of Bound for Canaan: The Underground Railroad and the War for the Soul of America), "In an age when self-interest has been elevated in our culture to a public and political virtue, the Underground Railroad still has something to teach: that every individual, no matter how humble, can make a difference in the world, and that the importance of one's life lies not in money or celebrity, but in doing the right thing, even in silence or secrecy, and without reward. This truth doesn't need to be encoded in fiction in order to be heard."

For more information:

click on the title to orderFacts and Fabrications; Unraveling the History of Quilts & Slavery by Barbara Brackman

9 Projects, 20 Blocks, First Person Accounts. Retail $27.95.  Click on the title for more information 


Leigh Fellner has prepared a one-page handout on the myth of Quilts used in the Underground Railroad.  More information is available on her website, Underground Railroad Quilt Code Myth

A Piece of My Soul: Quilts by Black Artisans
A Separate Battle: Women and the Civil War 

Always There: The African-American Presence in American Quilts 

The American Quilt - A History of Cloth and Comfort 1750-1950

Ancestry Historical Newspaper Collection
Black Culture and Black Consciousness, Afro-American Folk Thought from Slavery to Freedom by Lawrence W. Levine

Calculating the Value of the Union: Slavery, Property Rights, and the Economic Origins of the Civil War 

Center for the Study of the Underground Railroad

Crossing The "Dark Line": Fugitive Slaves and the Underground Railroad in Louisville and North Central Kentucky

Did Quilts Hold Codes to the Underground Railroad? by the National Geographic

Encyclopedia of Pieced Quilt Patterns

For Purpose and Pleasure: Quilting Together in Nineteenth-Century America", by Sandi Fox

From Slavery to Freedom, A History of Negro Americans by John Hope Franklin

Harriet Tubman: the Moses of her people

Inflation conversion factors

Lecture, “The Underground Railroad Quilt Controversy: Looking for the 'Truth'" by Laurel Horton.  Presented March 22, 2006.

List of underground railroad stations

Long Memory, The Black Experience in America Mary Frances Berry and John W. Blassingame
Louisiana Purchase

Narrative of Sojourner Truth


NY Times Editorial

Pieced by Mother: Symposium Papers, c.1988, Oral Traditions Project.

Quiltmaking in America: Beyond the Myths, Laurel Horton (Editor)

Quilts a Living Tradition, by Robert Shaw

Quilts and the Underground Railroad Revisited: Interview with Historian Giles R. Wright

Roll, Jordan, Roll, The World the Slaves Made by Eugene D. Genovese

Runaway Slaves: Rebels on the Plantation

Signs and Symbols: African Images in African-American Quilts

Summary of Population of United States During 1800's

Stitching Stars; the Story Quilts of Harriet Powers

Sweet Clara's Freedom Hidden in Plain View; A Quilted Maze of Skepticism & Controversy.
The Civil War Years - The Fight For Emancipation

The Battle Of Gettysburg Resource Collection

The Underground Railroad

The Underground Railroad Quilt "Code": Betsy Ross redux

Underground Railroad Free Press

Underground Railroad Map 

Underground Railroad American History

Women of the American Civil War Era

Questions or comments should be directed to KrisDriessenyahoo.com .