The Underground Railroad was a movement in the United States between the end of the eighteenth century through 1865 to help escaping slaves leave their owners and find freedom in either Canada where slavery was abolished in 1834 when England passed the Slavery Abolition Act throughout its territories, or establish life in free states which did not practice restitution of slaves. For great information and teacher resources, visit this site.
Quilts and the Underground Railroad
Most quilt and historical experts vehemently deny that quilts were used as a signaling device in the Underground Railroad. (http://historiccamdencounty.com/ccnews11.shtml) While a quilt could have been used to signal a safe house, so could any other common household object. Since most runaways traveled at night, however, it would not have been wise to tell them or the conductor to look for something like a quilt with a certain pattern hanging on a line overnight. More likely, escaping slaves were led or “conducted” by a person familiar with the route and knew the safe houses.
What do I believe about Map Quilts? Anything’s possible. I don’t doubt that were certain truths in certain areas. Certainly blankets and quilts were given to people who had nothing, and these could have contained messages.
“Is there no such thing as an Underground Railroad Quilt, then? Well, this is a trick question. In the late 1800s, 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 assignation and the ‘Underground Railroad’ block (also known as ‘Jacob's Ladder’) which honored the brave conductors and passengers of the Underground Railroad.”
See also the article, “Deepening Mystery,” here.
In my research, I visited the Octagon House in Fort Atkinson and referred to several books, including:
Freedom Train North: Stories of the Underground Railroad in Wisconsin, by Juliea Pferdehirt
Hidden in Plain View: The Secret Code Story of Quilts and the Underground Railroad, J. Tobin and R. Dobard, PhD, 1998
Stitched from the Soul, Gladys-Marie Fry, 1989