Sailing to Freedom

Sailing to Freedom

Given the strong popular and scholarly interest focused on both maritime history

and slavery in the United States, including the extraordinary means that enslaved individuals used to escape bondage,

what explains the surprising lack of historical investigation into the maritime dimensions of the Underground Railroad?

Maritime escape episodes figure prominently in the majority of published North American fugitive slave accounts written prior to 1865;

of 103 extant pre-Emancipation slave narratives, more than seventy percent recount the use of oceangoing vessels as a means of fleeing slavery.

1 In William Still’s 1872 account of his activities as an Underground Railroad “Station Master”

in Philadelphia during the mid-nineteenth century, many of the most striking engravings

that accompany the text illustrate dramatic waterborne, maritime escapes.

2 Clearly, the sea should rightly constitute a central component of the full Underground Railroad story.

Yet the topic remains surprisingly under-studied: maritime fugitives have drawn minimal attention in the historiography of the field,

and the specific nautical circumstances of their flight garners little discussion in classrooms when the Underground Railroad is taught.

3 Pedagogical materials focus almost exclusively on overland routes and interior river crossings—people travelling clandestinely on foot, often at night, seeking to flee enslavement in the antebellum South.

The historical record, however, amply demonstrates that, because of the myriad practical difficulties consequent to being a northbound

African American fugitive travelling through hostile slave-holding territory, where vigilante patrols for escapees were an ever-present danger, successful escapes overland almost never originated in the Deep South.

4 In fact, as prominent Underground Railroad historian Fergus M.

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