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In this hour of the show we will explore a chapter in American history that really seems to have captured the imagination of a lot of people and we'll be talking this morning about the underground railroad that system that emerged before the Civil War to help fugitive slaves. And our guest for the program is Fergus Bordewich. We'll be talking about his newly published book which is titled bound for Cain in the Underground Railroad and the war for the soul of America. As the publisher it's an imprint of Harper Collins and the book he notes that while as I say a lot of people have been fascinated by it has captured the imagination a lot of people the Underground Railroad he writes. It's true history however and its lasting significance are surprisingly little known because the Underground Railroad was secretive and because much of its story has been forgotten or deliberately suppressed its memory has shared a way into myth and legend like no other piece in our history. He goes on to note however that what began as a small loosely organized effort by a few people to help fugitive slaves
evolved by the 1830s into a system that in his words became the greatest movement of civil disobedience since the American Revolution. Engaging thousands of citizens in the act of subversion federal. Law while the numbers of slaves that were raided by the system may be small compared to the number of slaves it was something that he argues certainly loomed large in the imagination of southerners in the period before the war. And he argues was a significant contributing factor contributing cause to the Civil War. As we talk in this hour of focus we certainly would welcome questions and comments from people who are listening to participate all you have to do is pick up the telephone and call us. The number here in Champaign Urbana 3 3 3 9 4 5 5. We do also have a toll free line that means it would be a long distance call for you. Use that number and that is eight hundred to 2 2 9 4 5 5 again 4 Champaign-Urbana listeners 3 3 3 9 4 5 5 4 anybody else
around Illinois Indiana even people listening on the internet as long as you're in the United States. You may also use the toll free line that's eight hundred to 2 2 9 4 5 5. Our guest Fergus Bordewich has written for The New York Times Smithsonian American heritage the Atlantic Monthly the Reader's Digest. Also author of two other books killing the White Man's Indian and my mother's ghost. And he is joining us this morning by telephone just more awake. Hello hello David. Thank you for having me on. Well thank you very much for being with us we appreciate. Was there something in particular that got you interested in exploring this in depth and took you all the way to writing a book on this. Well there are there are a couple of things that combined to do that. One was that I grew up in a neighborhood in New York State that had joined a community that was said to have been founded by fugitive slaves who came north and the Underground Railroad. And their story was part of the warp and woof of my childhood and they were
often cited these nameless folks were often cited as models of people who defied injustice and run for freedom. In addition to that more or more more recently back in 1988 I was up in Ontario on the site of a place known as the dawn Institute which was founded by a man named Desire Anson a fugitive slave who fled from Kentucky in 1830. One made his way successfully to Canada and set up a school and it is a kind of training center for other fugitives. All fugitives wanted three things when they ran for freedom which was safety work and education. And at any rate the dawn Institute in southern Ontario was one of those places that provided that for
people. And I stood there trying to imagine who the people were who had come there in the antebellum period and not just that it's a generality of fugitive slaves but as individuals as particular people who were they how they got in there what had they left behind and whom had they left behind and who helped them get there and those questions were the ones that generated the book. I should also say that there hadn't been a national history of the Underground Railroad since 1898. Believe it or not many many books for juveniles but but never a comprehensive history. Well one of the things that you note in the book and I just hinted at it with the few lines that I read is that it's not an easy story to piece together. We don't know precisely. We just make guesses about how many slaves were helped about how many people there were that were involved in the system. How difficult is this as a story to
research and to get the pieces and actually put some people's names to the story. Well certainly it is a challenge. I spent about five years working on the book well-told. I think there's a there is a perception that because the Underground Railroad was nominally clandestine secret underground therefore the details are unknowable. That's not accurate. What the underground was was disused and highly localized there was never any president of the Underground Railroad no board of directors and there was never any central archive or for that matter any real archive at all but records are indeed plentiful in American localities. There was also quite a bit written or recorded by the participants in the underground back in the 19th century and the decades after the Civil War. Books often which were
totally forgotten because as you said in the introduction that. That the true story the depth of the Underground Railroad really was kind of aggressively forgotten by Americans I think because of its racial radicalism highly integrated. African-Americans often lead branches of the Underground Railroad organized and participated equally with whites whites had no special privilege owing to their color. And those truths about the Underground were really not palatable to Americans in the post-Civil War era when this country abandoned African-Americans generally and embraced segregation and racist institutions. So in short there's a lot more material out there than people think there is. But it's in local archives local libraries local historical societies and it's in books many of which deserve to be brought back into you know our national literature but which has been forgotten.
Well let me just pick up and underscore a point that you. Just made that I think for you seems to be an important one. When you talk about the significance of this movement and that is that it was something that brought black and white Americans together and in the way that you write about in the book is that it was the country's first racially integrated civil rights movement. Absolutely and I think that's one of the most exciting aspects of the Underground Railroad. I say exciting not only because it's true but because it was something that as I dug deeper and deeper into the history of the underground and extended its history backwards in time incidentally to the 1790s revealed itself as as one of the defining characteristics of the underground. I think part of the underground river of legend as opposed to the history certainly casts it in a rather monochromatic
fashion as kindly white folks helping terrified confused black folks on the road to freedom and that's that's one that flatters white Americans. But it's not particularly accurate. In some parts of the country the underground was primarily African-American and other areas there were more whites reflecting the demographics of the given area. But by and large it was it was quite integrated and in some areas the creators and the leadership were always African-American in. Detroit for example in New York City the founder of the underground was a remarkable guy named David Ruggles a free black in. And in Detroit one of the several founders was a very courageous individual George to baptise to it also led the underground in on the Ohio
River in southern Indiana. You could go on and on. There are many stories of people like this book. And just before going too much further I expect that there are a lot of people who at least have some idea what it is we're talking about but for anybody who might not I guess we should make the point that the railroad is a metaphor. We're not talking about something literal although a lot of terminology from railroad things like conductors and roots and things like that were were borrowed to give some kind of structure to give people a way to talk about what it was they were doing but indeed where the realm where we're talking about is metaphorical. Well yeah underground as I said had its roots back in the late 70s 90s and the City of Philadelphia and more or less expanded outward from there. But the underground period of greatest growth. Which is which with from the 1830s through the 1850s
was exactly contemporaneous with the spread of fire and railroads around the United States particularly in the north and that the the lingo of fire and railroads just lent itself perfectly to what the underground had already been doing for decades. As you said conductors stations are set safe out of the station master so the people who live there are trains for farm wagons in which fugitives might be carried and engines for the teams that pull the wagons now. Of course you know we always talking about the subject of the Underground Railroad. I want to underscore that qualifier that it's a metaphor for say the underground railroad wasn't really a railroad except when it was and what I mean by that is that the people of the underground like all Americans always embraced new technology when it was available. Our archetypal image of the underground is usually of a fugitive making his way through the woods following the North Star or perhaps
carried in a farm wagon by a guy from one station to another. But when the steam boats were available they were used and when iron railroads were available they were also used. Harriet Tubman for exam. Lead her passengers up out of Maryland to Philadelphia usually by land but then from Philadelphia she took the train to New York and in New York City she bought them tickets at Grand Central Station from Albany New York. So and indeed in the state of Illinois and Indiana railroads were used when they were available. And there were some places where railroad officials who were abolitionists actively systematically collaborated by providing tickets for fugitives. I should introduce Again our guest and we have a caller we'll bring into the conversation we're talking this morning with Fergus
Bordewich. He's the author of a recently published book that looks at the history of the Underground Railroad. The book is titled bound for Cain and it's published by. He also by the way has a website that has some interesting material on it about the book and about the Underground Railroad. And that's easy to get to. It's basically his name. W w w Fergus Bordewich dot com. His name's last name spelled a b o r d e w i c h. And so you can look at that if you. Have internet access and of course you're interested in looking at the book you can head out to your favorite bookstore. And if you'd like to be involved in the conversation you can call us. 3 3 3 9 4 5 5 toll free 800 to 2 2 9 4 5 5. We do have color here to talk with in Aurora and that would be on our toll free line line for. Hello. Yeah I'm running again. I just returned
from Des Moines Iowa. I'm very university from a graduation and on the way back we stopped at a rest stop on route. I'm sorry that I don't know if that counted but the rest stop building has a quilt pattern on the front of it. They have squares about I would say two feet by two feet. Well padded. And when you approach them. Building it has a plaque that describes the quilt pattern and then when you go inside the quilt patterns are on the foil floor at the foyer there are about eight quilt padded quite large blocks and then you go into the main part of the building and on the flaw is a great razzle flaw with black showing the
different farm houses that were available and where are the underground railroad to free the slaves. And I wish I could remember the names of the Psalmist but I can't. There were about 10 bombs in that area that people could go to to escape. Are you familiar with that at all. Well I'm not sure precisely where that might be. But. A station on the Underground Railroad Well from what is really a community and it's typically there wasn't just one individual in a town in my hall about 10 and they had the name of the bomber I assumed it was the name of the Fama. It sounds very very plausible although I don't know the particular place you're referring to.
Still Alice out of the war are going west west of over our alley. I wish I knew the name of the town I didn't. Well it's quite a few southern Iowa communities were founded by people people coming out of New England either by first or second generation. And I mean the most famous underground operation that transited through Iowa was when John Brown just before his Harpers Ferry raid led a group of fugitives all the way ultimately from western Missouri through Kansas through corner of Nebraska across the southern Iowa finally up through Chicago and on to Detroit and it was intended to demonstrate how fugitives could be carried safely over a vast distance which was his ultimate hope in the Harpers Ferry raid. I mean that doesn't speak to the community that you were you were visiting but. But certainly there was underground
activity in southern Iowa. It was a wonderful way to visibly show 13 year old grandchildren a part of history that's very important in America. You know I mean the idea of putting a map on the floor of a rest area sounds terrific to me. Yes. Well thanks for the program. And it does. That does certainly make the point that there were roots of the underground railroad that ran through as far west as Iowa but certainly through Illinois in Indiana in Ohio around Pennsylvania and particularly from the from the south the border states I guess particularly north into the free states and ultimately the idea was if if these former slaves could get to Canada then they would be safe from slave catchers who would try to re apprehend them and take them again back south. Well far fewer people actually went all the way to Canada
than we generally think the the great majority of fugitives settled somewhere in the United States. As I said a while back people were looking fundamentally for three things safety work and an education. And when they found some combination of those they tended to settle and the largest numbers really stayed in Pennsylvania and Ohio and Central New York State which. It was sort of abolition central That's to say the Syracuse Rochester Buffalo area of New York State. And probably only 20 percent. I'm just nobody was clucking fugitive's in as they crossed across the Detroit River into Canada for example so we don't have absolute numbers but I think maybe only 20 percent perhaps 30 percent actually went on to Canada. And many actually returned to the U.S. because wages were higher.
But he made a point that I would underscore a little earlier which was that the vast majority of fugitives came from the border states really from three states from Kentucky from Virginia. There was no West Virginia until 1863. And from Maryland and far fewer far fewer made it ever made it out of states further south than that. And if you were enslaved in say central Georgia somewhere we could ever. Tempted to put ourselves in the shoes of an enslaved person. You were 500 miles perhaps from the Ohio River the nearest free state border and you've not been permitted to be educated. You have no maps. You might not even know the names of states beyond your own and you have between you and the nearest free state. Five hundred miles of towns each of which had a hired force of so-called patrollers that say armed
thugs was sole job was to ensure that you didn't go anywhere. So the object against escaping from the deep south were dreamily high. It's very rare to get at what's anybody's best guess and I know there are a number of numbers offered for the number of slaves that did successfully escape slavery. Yeah estimates generally range from around 70000 to 100000 and or a little more. The figure that I settled on in the book and it's only an estimate is about a hundred thousand spread across 60 years. That's to say from a but. But the year eighteen hundred up to the Civil War. And to put that in perspective there were four million slaves in the area 1860. So we're talking about as you said at the beginning of the show a very small percentage. And me how. How is it that one can come up with any
number at all. Well because in fact abolitionist newspapers frequently publish the numbers that it passed through were given city in a given year and and under ground vigilance committees as they were typically called in some cities regularly published annual reports talking about how many people they had helped. Now that was partly because they were receiving donations of money and they wanted to make clear to the donors that they were doing their job. So by extrapolating from numbers from different cities it is possible to get a sense of the annual flow and and to estimate from that what the total number might have been and I think 100000 is a bit on the low side. I think over 60 years it's from might be a few tens of thousands more than that but I prefer to err on the stick conservative side than not.
Well let us talk with some more people who are listening next to a caller in party hack. One number one. Well yes I am wondering it is sad it came across any intimidation on the clip and the clip and Imam that really has been no evidence that's been produced at Christmas. The scene between that show clips where you used to direct people on the Underground have outs as a MANPAD many of the crew blacks shun. I'm not even invented until after the 1860s. Did you come across any credible information on this. Oh you're caller is exactly right. There is no documentary evidence of any kind to suggest that quotes were used by people travelling on the Underground Railroad. And it's also absolutely accurate based on what I've read that the
patterns often cited are in fact comparatively modern ones. So I think that's in the order of a modern legend. But the only mention of a quilt in any context that I've come across is actually an interesting one. And it does have to do of all people with Harriet Tubman I mean the one person who is if anything the ultimate icon of the Underground Railroad and this was done Tubman's own escape from Maryland in 1849 when in fact she gave a quilt to the edge to a white woman who had helped her because Harriet Tubman always paid her way. My point is that she was using a quote because the one thing that she had to give to somebody that was of value. I mean she wasn't using it as a map. Harriet Tubman always paid with money or she paid with a garment on one occasion. Because she had nothing
else she she paid someone who had sheltered her and some of her passengers overnight with with her underwear. But but quilters maps I don't think it happens less than and it's I mean it's in the school it is a big time and. It fits with the tide of history and I think there's just been nothing that's come up to prove it and that's kind of frustrating as a grantor. You're right you're right. I mean the other side of the coin insofar as there is one is that well there were a lot of people making very beautiful quilts that are inspired by by the idea of the Underground Railroad and and although it I don't think it's anything to do with with with real or no. I think you are I want to thank you for the call worried about our midpoint here and again our guest in this hour of focus 580 is Fergus Bordewich. He's the author of a recently published book that looks at the history of the Underground Railroad the bow of the book is
titled bound for Canaan and is published by Amistad and questions are welcome 3 3 3 9 4 5 5 toll free 800 2 2 2 9 4 5 5 1 as you question obviously this is something that a lot of the book is devoted to discussion of but maybe you can talk some about it in and how and the question is how it is that something that started out as a something that that isolated groups of people were doing in an informal kind of way managed to get from that to a much more organized kind of system. That involved people and in a number of states separated by in some cases very long distances. How did the system as it came to be evolved. Yes that's a great question. And that that pie problem was one of the naughtiest ones too to unravel and I spent a great deal of time a great deal of research time
working that out. What were the points of ignition where scattered individuals who who feel that they got to do the right thing when a fugitive turns up at their door what's the point of ignition where they're scattered individuals become a system an organized system and. Well I'm going to answer it in a couple of different ways. Now in Philadelphia as I said when the underground began in the 1790s there was there was a synergy right at the beginning between free African-Americans and some enslaved African-Americans and we should remember by the way that all our states except for Mont were were slave states until really the turn of the 19th century. At least those east of the Appalachians. So they were still enslaved
African-Americans and mental Vanya and the third component were white abolitionists and the Quakers of course were the first organized group out of the gate to call for immediate abolition and very early on Quakers for example began calling on friend friends in in the suburbs of Philadelphia and communities for the refilled to provide shelter and work for fugitives coming out of Philadelphia. So that pattern was set serially early. And often when you get further beyond Philadelphia say into the trans Appalachian State of Ohio Indiana Illinois which are settled a bit later you have isolated emigrants often from New England Vermonters manors Massachusetts people often turn up out there in the in the Ohio country as being the first
node you know of underground work at any rate. You know these individual acts or or people related by their church congregations for example in Ohio in southern Ohio the Chillicothe the Presbyterian a linked group of many Presbyterian anti-slavery churches served essentially of the original network for the Underground Railroad beginning as early as the 20s and that was through congregational relationships. The families who settled in towns not far apart but the whole system really becomes turbocharged after the early 1830s with the foundation of the American Anti-Slavery Society and the rapid establishment of local anti-slavery societies across all the northern states.
People go to county conventions they go to state conventions they begin reading the Liberator and other abolitionists newspapers and they begin meeting each other in very rapidly networking and precisely the way that we talk about networking today and people about opposite ends of states to discover who's who and who's going to help. So by the way to 1830s you've got a fairly efficient but a highly localized operation. One of the things I think there you touched on a little bit in your answer that I think is an important point to make as well and something that you deal with in the book is that when you look at the motivate. For the people who are involved in this that they indeed did see that they were motivated by their religious faith that this really was a religious more than being a political movement it really was a religious movement. Yeah very much so and that again is one of the most interesting and I would say generally not well understood aspect of the Underground Railroad
the underground grew as did the larger abolitionist movement directly out of the Evan Jellicoe a Christian revival of the early 19th century and the sanest majority of white activists in the underground were driven by a spiritual imperative and an typically saw their work with fugitive's as answer. This was all lawbreaking by the way which is important to recognize. You know it it took courage to break the law but they justified that by appealing to a higher law a spiritual law that transcended merely human wants. And they saw their work with fugitives as a form of prayer and action. They prefer profoundly religious about their work. Now I do make a distinction between white activists and black for this reason that. Why did virtually all of whom had grown up in a nation that took slavery for granted
had to work their way often theologically to abolitionism to the idea that that African-Americans not only were were more or less equal but that the law had to be broken to end slavery. African-Americans really didn't need to go through that process. They've either been slaves themselves had family who were slaves or were threatened with being re-enslaved if they were caught and they didn't need very you know lofty intellectual or theological architecture to be against slavery which whites typically did. And I think it's also I mean very interesting that the Evan Joel Cole movement although it wasn't all abolitionist of course was very much on the left toward end of the political spectrum at the time and a very radical racially and very radical.
And you know today more often than not it appears it finds itself on the right were not in the political spectrum but through abolitionism and the Underground Railroad it made a significant contribution to really American modern liberalism. Well let's talk with another caller here. We have someone on the line. Listening in champagne we will go there why and why. Hello hello. Have you visited the National Underground Railroad Freedom Center in Cincinnati since it opened. Yeah I have. And how is that in light of you know Blokhin the bass literature developing now in the underground where world he would you recommend one attend that to get a perspective on this social network. Oh absolutely I think it's a terrific institution. It's brand new right out of the packing crate so to speak which means that it's going to develop it's going to become and it's going to increase its collections it's going
to continue to innovate as time goes on this is just the beginning. But I think it's excellent leadership and Spencer Crew who was the director of the National Museum of American History in Washington before he went to the Freedom Center they've got a beautiful building and some really fine people additionally on staff there and I thought it was a very rich museum experience. I'm a bit of the old school as far as museums go which is to say I like to see a lot of old objects and many contemporary museum goers are drawn by a more should I say experience soul. Kind of theatrical experience. And so the the Freedom Center tries to bridge those things with some kind of sick they have a surround sound theater on one hand and they also have some very very interesting collections. OK one of the question of I have time. We always have thought about how you
know they have a bounty on Harriet Tubman's life and we always fear that if she were caught or she could be thrown merrily executed perhaps and that African-Americans who were in the network would be re insulated. What were the penalties for those white abolitionists who were outlaws as lawbreakers as you refer to them a few minutes ago did they face any criminal sanctions or punitive sanctions. Yeah that's a really good question because it was not the same incidentally. There is no documentary proof that that that bounty was actually put on Harriet Tubman's that it may well have been but it it hasn't been proven. It was if it was something that was asserted but it might be so. And that's that's just on the side. While African-Americans who are involved in the underground end and in general in the antebellum period could never count on the protection of the law. Never.
And there are innumerable documented examples of slave hunters bounty hunters writing into African-American how what. But there is no Ohio Indiana Pennsylvania shooting the place up not only recapturing fugitives but kidnapping free blacks and carrying people back across the line. So the degree of courage it took for black Americans to do underground work was really remarkable. You know now as far as whites go most whites in the underground tended to be established members of their community whether they were farmers or small business people. Clergymen other professionals and they could almost always count on the law to at least speak for them. Now there were whites who were murdered. Seth Conklin who
was killed you know after leaving a family to freedom all the way from Alabama up to Indiana. Remarkable story in the book and was recaptured because he wouldn't leave the family could have gotten away and self but he was stuck with the family when they were recaptured and he himself was murdered on the steam boat in the Ohio River by the master of the slaves. And there are other examples like that. People were were arrested fined astronomical sums of money and they in the in the currency of the time some people's property lost their property in effect. Their lives were ruined. Dolphin serial bank. Who was a Methodist minister originally from upstate New York but worked out of Ohio in Indiana served 14 years in jail as the longest sentence on record for doing underground work and wasn't actually freed until 1864
and was flogged virtually every day. So there's quite a wide gamut. But white people generally could at least go to the law if they were being if they were unjustly accused of illegal activity they could count on legal representation. We'll give you an example. You know Levi Kaufman a Quaker who did underground work for 40 years and figures prominently in my book wrote in his reminiscences written after the Civil War. I worked out of Newport Indiana In our Fountain City Indiana and he said that that well there were a lot of people there were a lot of press Lavery people in that area who would like to have stopped me in my in my work. But you know I was on the board of directors of the local bank and everybody needed a mortgage you know get it kind of tells you that you
know whites tended to be more established and a little bit safer. OK with thank you very much. You're welcome great crowd. Again let me just quickly introduce our guest Vargas board wick He's the author of bound for Canaan. It's newly published book that looks at the history of the Underground Railroad It's published by studs which is an imprint of HarperCollins you can find it in the bookstores now. Questions are also welcome 3 3 3 9 4 5 5. Toll free 800 to 2 2 9 4 5 5. As we talked a bit earlier most of the slaves that escaped with the assistance of people on the Underground Railroad did come from the border states and understandably because that meant that there was the distance to the to the free States we shorter. Most of the people we're talking about were relatively young men. And that's also understandable because. The difficulty of what it is we're talking about. And if you take a look at the total number of slaves that existed in the South before the Civil War you might say well the numbers of people who escaped by Underground Railroad were
significant in comparison with the total number of slaves. It was a small number. Having said all that though I'm interested in having a talk about how people in the South thought about the Underground Railroad because clearly at it as I said at the beginning it loomed large in their imagination and perhaps greater. It had a greater place in their imagination than it did in reality when you take took a look at the numbers that we're talking about. The Southerners especially by by the 1850s have constructed a kind of imaginary Underground Railroad in their own minds and imagined that it long tentacles of the underground reached into every corner of the South and by certainly the mid 1850s in the late 1850s they were attributing virtually every runaway slave to having been been been been snatched away by the Underground. And I mean there were just no
examples of underground activity in odd places in the south to to feed these Southern fantasies here and there. There's documentation of the fugitives being helped off onto steam boats rather at a Mississippi river port. A Connecticut minister was arrested in Vicksburg Mississippi helping people on a steam boat. I think that actually is probably a freelance you know action rather than as rather than representing a whole line of the Underground Railroad. But it should be said also that that tender ground even though the total number of people that assisted to freedom might have been around 100000 it delivered tens of thousands of former slaves into northern communities and for the first time white Americans in the north often met and heard about slavery from people who had lived it. And this had a
transformative tremendous effect on countless northerners because it made not just African-Americans well and not just slaves but African-Americans do real people and and white Northerners began to empathize with slaves and work and recognize the hollers and the pain of slavery in ways that they hadn't before. And in that sense the Underground Railroad had an impact. The Northern public opinion way beyond the simple numbers of people I delivered to freedom. But you know the Underground Railroad is a pretty different thing and the reality in the north and the fantasy in the south. I'm just I'm thinking again we're sort of bouncing around here but I find myself thinking about just what did what a difficult thing that it would have been for someone who decided they were going to leave captivity and try to get to to a free state. If you're talking about someone who might not have been able to
prepare real well for this might not have enough food or supplies or clothing and certainly didn't have a map would have to navigate by the stars would be covering territory that they were completely unfamiliar with because they maybe hadn't been all that far from the place the day they had been living. And you add on top of that the fact that they would have to be worried about people trying to apprehend them. Then to take him into custody and perhaps they could get to one place where there would be safety but then the question would be where do I go from here. Where is the next place going to be. Where is my ultimate destination going to be how. How am I going to get there how am I going to know which way to go. It seems a pretty overwhelming kind of idea. Well the sad truth is that most most people who fled were recaptured. The vast majority of slaves who fled were captured positively quickly. For all the reasons you just just just
suggested there those who succeeded in reaching the safe embrace of the Underground Railroad were certainly the minority and it should be said also that there were there were fugitives who made it into the free States and really never encountered the underground. It just didn't you know they they found someplace secure enough for themselves without ever reaching an underground line. Well you know there is no single story to stories of the underground of fugitive slaves who are as diverse as there are people as and there were there are stories of people who prepared for planned for weeks. They saved what money they could get they hoarded food they carried extra clothes they identified the route that they would have to follow when they were captured in two days. And there are others and quite a few who ran on impulse just what they snapped one day.
They just couldn't take another beating. They say you know a child with or or a parent for that matter was sold away from them. They just looked at the hoe in the field so to speak one day and said not it never again I'm not doing this anymore. And they just ran with nothing. And both types of stories you'll find in my book bound for Janet and they and many of those people ran on impulse succeeded because there was a great element of chance. Now the point of me one of the greatest points of danger of course was actually crossing over into a free state either at the Pennsylvania state line or the Ohio River and not knowing what you were going to find on the other side. Many fugitives had a notion that as soon as they reached a free state they were completely safe. Sad but sadly not true.
Since there was over there were always fugitive slave laws on the books which required that fugitives be returned to their masters. That law wasn't the 1850 law wasn't the first one. The admin went on the books in 1793. There were always bounty hunters there were always spies watching for fugitives. Typically fugitives ask for help from other African-Americans they avoided asking for help from whites unless they were driven to the last extremity. They didn't trust whites surprise surprise guess why. Because they'd never having a reason to trust white people. But the underground the underground worked. As a long distance network thanks to the synergy between free African-Americans and and white abolitionists white abolitionists tended to have long distance connections. They had money in the underground river it costs money it cost money to hire wagons to hire hire team is to to to buy
food buy clothing things were donated but money was necessary. And whites as they said earlier in our conversation also had some protection from the law. Even even though what they were doing was illegal and more than a few areas the local authorities either turned a blind eye blind eye or were in fact friendly to the underground. I know we're going a little far afield from your question but. You know the experience is that the fugitives had a vastly diverse you know. And the one thing I learned in writing this book is is to be wary of generalizing and to try to look at each case in its own way. We're getting down the point here we're almost out of time. And one of the thing that I wanted to have you talk a least just a little about for a minute or so.
Or connections between the movement for women suffrage and the abolition movement. Sure. I mean not only was the underground the first interracial political movement in American history not only was it as you said earlier they are a first mass movement of civil disobedience since the American Revolution but it was also with the larger abolition movement the seed bed of the American women's movement all the women who organized the first women's rights conference at Seneca Falls New York in 1948. I came out of the underground every one of them. Abolitionists women's abolitionist societies began to be founded in the 1830s women themselves were encouraged to participate in anti-slavery activity. And in that process. And in that process began to discover their own voices and
began also an XOR ability to see analogies between the enslavement of African-Americans and the legal position the oppression of American women. And Elizabeth Cady Stanton the first national leader of the Americans of American women's movement. Once rather famously said woman can understand the slave far better than man ever can. And women participated in the underground and very much the same ways as men did. They also were the ones typically who provided the place to sleep to fix the food who provided the clothing. They often were guards on the underground and they found their voices as they said in speaking out against slavery. Well I think at that point we're going to have to finish with the recommendation that people look at the book it's a very rich story. It's title bound for Cain in the Underground Railroad
in the war for the soul of America. It's published by Mistah which is an imprint of HarperCollins by our guest Fergus Bordewich can his name if you go looking for the book last name spelled b o r d e w i c h and he also does have website which is Fergus Bordewich dot com that has some more information on the book. And if you have access to the Internet you can look at that Mr. Borden. Thanks very much for talking with us. Well thank you very much. David I've enjoyed the conversation. Erica.
Focus 580
Bound for Canaan: the Underground Railroad and the War for the Soul of America
Producing Organization
WILL Illinois Public Media
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WILL Illinois Public Media (Urbana, Illinois)
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With Fergus M. Bordewich (Writer)
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Talk Show
Civil Rights; Race/Ethnicity; History; Slavery; United States History; community
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Guest: Bordewich, Fergus M.
Producer: Travis,
Producer: Brighton, Jack
Producing Organization: WILL Illinois Public Media
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Illinois Public Media (WILL)
Identifier: cpb-aacip-89bce38aa3f (unknown)
Generation: Copy
Duration: 50:07
Illinois Public Media (WILL)
Identifier: cpb-aacip-619b6ddb5e4 (unknown)
Generation: Master
Duration: 50:07
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Chicago: “Focus 580; Bound for Canaan: the Underground Railroad and the War for the Soul of America,” 2005-05-17, WILL Illinois Public Media, American Archive of Public Broadcasting (GBH and the Library of Congress), Boston, MA and Washington, DC, accessed May 26, 2024,
MLA: “Focus 580; Bound for Canaan: the Underground Railroad and the War for the Soul of America.” 2005-05-17. WILL Illinois Public Media, American Archive of Public Broadcasting (GBH and the Library of Congress), Boston, MA and Washington, DC. Web. May 26, 2024. <>.
APA: Focus 580; Bound for Canaan: the Underground Railroad and the War for the Soul of America. Boston, MA: WILL Illinois Public Media, American Archive of Public Broadcasting (GBH and the Library of Congress), Boston, MA and Washington, DC. Retrieved from