We all know the elementary-school stories of the Underground Railroad: tales of Harriet Tubman's daring trips south to lead more slaves to freedom, of kindly white Northern abolitionists hiding fugitives in concealed cellar rooms, ushering them down secret passageways toward freedom.
But those stories, it turns out, are only the pale, one-dimensional, mythologized version of who and what made up the Underground Railroad.
The truth is a much richer epic: giant, sprawling, ever-shifting, the unwritten histories of slaves who ran and slaves who stayed behind, free blacks in the North, Native Americans in the West, and otherwise ambivalent whites moved to single acts of assistance.
The Underground Railroad was vaster and less formal than the memoirs of conductors suggest. Its routes started in the South, ushering slaves north to free states and Canada, but also west to Indian Territory and California, south to Mexico and the Spanish colony of Florida, aboard New Orleans steamships bound for the Caribbean, and onto New England whalers headed for the frigid waters off the coast of Alaska.
The National Park Service has been trying to recover and preserve this larger story since the mid-1990s. Its Network to Freedom project redefines the Underground Railroad broadly as "resistance to slavery through escape and flight" - in short, anything slaves did or used to steal away to freedom - and recognizes it as the first major chain of events in the fight for civil rights.
"This project is different from anything else the Park Service has done," said James Hill, head of the Network to Freedom region that includes Arkansas. "There's not a land base or any one particular site at this point."
The Network is set up like the National Register of Historic Places, Hill said. It includes sites connected with the Underground Railroad - homes, churches, even the Great Dismal Swamp in North Carolina and Virginia - as well as educational programs and research facilities. There are over 125 so far in 25 states and the District of Columbia.
Ferreting out Underground Railroad sites has been easy in some Northern states (Ohio alone has 24 so far), Hill said. But they tell only part of the tale.
"To tell the story accurately you have to go down South, where people were leaving from," he said.
And that means Arkansas, where the Underground Railroad is a more elusive beast. A few histories of slavery in the state mention runaways, but no one's ever really sat down and studied the subject in detail.
Enter Charles Bolton, UALR professor and Arkansas history expert. Bolton has signed on with the National Park Service to do a three-year study of the state's fugitive slave phenomenon: how many and who they were, where they ran from and where they were headed, how they traveled and who might have helped them.
"Chances are [runaway slaves] were relying on other slaves and free blacks, instead of white abolitionists, in the South," Hill said. "And the truth is, if it weren't for the desire for freedom of African-American slaves, there wouldn't have been any Underground Railroad."
Arkansas was a late bloomer as a slave state, compared with other states to the east. But when the boom came, it came big: the slave population went from about 20,000 in 1840 to 111,115 just 20 years later. That year, one of every four Arkansans was a slave.
Part of Bolton's job will be separating truth from myth.
Take the story of William Minnis, preserved in the memoirs of Calvin Fairbanks, a famous Ohio abolitionist. Minnis was a Kentucky slave whose master, according to Fairbanks, willed Minnis his freedom when he died. The man's son instead sold Minnis to a slave trader, and he eventually landed in Little Rock, working at a hotel.
Fairbanks wrote that he traveled from Ohio to rescue Minnis; with the help of a wig and fake moustache supplied by a sympathetic French barber, Fairbanks disguised Minnis, passed him off as a "Mr. Young," and spirited him back north onboard a steamboat.
It's a great but suspect story, Bolton said. Much of what the general public learns about the Underground Railroad comes from memoirs like Fairbanks', accounts written by white, Northern abolitionists in the late 19th century, often with no evidence to back them up.
"It's not that an Underground Railroad didn't exist," Bolton said. "But its activities were exaggerated very probably, and there was too much emphasis on whites in the North helping blacks escape from the South."
Bolton said he'll start instead with a survey of primary sources like newspapers and court records to develop a database on runaway slaves in Arkansas.
"My approach is to work from the bottom up and try to understand the broad nature of runaway slave activity, then go from there and try to pin down stories like that of Fairbanks'," Bolton said.
Newspaper ads for runaway slaves provide some of the best information - age, gender, physical description, possible destinations - and, Bolton said, are the most objective writing about slaves by Southern whites because they had a financial motivation to be as accurate as possible rather than perpetuate the image of slaves as lazy, slow and in need of their masters' benevolent protection. In runaway ads, they're often described as cunning, capable of disguising themselves and eluding pursuers, able to pass themselves off as preachers, even fluent in a foreign language.
From an ad in the July 14, 1842 Arkansas Gazette:
"Ran away … on Sunday last, two NEGRO MEN of the following descriptions, viz. Campbell, about 30 years of age, about five feet eight inches high, black complexion, stout and well built. Reuben, about 20 years of age, rather yellow complexion, about six feet high, stout and well made, has a small scar on one of his cheeks, and is quite a sensible fellow. They both carried off rifle guns and one of them had a pistol, and… it is like[ly] they may resist any attempt to take them unless there is a show of competent force to overpower them. … It is like[ly] they will attempt to get to a free state."
Bolton's counted more than 500 runaways so far. The Arkansas Gazette alone carried ads for 483 between 1820, when it began publication, and 1863. Of those, most were men, half were in their 20s, and two-thirds were traveling alone, according to Bolton's analysis. One of every 25 was a child under 10 years old. Just over half were from Arkansas; the rest were passing through on their way north, west or south.
The ads don't cover every single slave that escaped in Arkansas, Bolton said. Many slaves used escape as a negotiating tool - disappearing for a week or two to protest a whipping or other treatment they didn't like, then coming back when they thought they'd made their point. Slaveowners wouldn't necessarily go to the trouble of advertising in the newspaper in that situation, he said.
So far, Bolton hasn't turned up any secret hideaways or underground passages, but there are some well-known Arkansas runaways, such as Nelson Hacket, whose stories could produce sites for the Network to Freedom.
Hacket, a 30-ish slave described as bold and resourceful, handsome and self-possessed, was bought by Fayetteville merchant and plantation owner Alfred Wallace in June 1840. He served a year as Wallace's trusted valet and butler before he staged a meticulously planned escape in July 1841.
Hacket stole a beaver overcoat, a gold watch, a comfortable saddle and Wallace's fastest horse when he left. He crossed the Mississippi River on a ferry tended by another black man, who helped him get transportation to Kentucky and advised him on what route to take. After six weeks of hard riding through Kentucky, Illinois, Indiana and Ohio - sometimes claiming to be a free black man, other times admitting his situation to other black people or to whites he sensed would help him - Hacket made it to Detroit, where he took a boat across Lake Erie into Canada.
Unfortunately for Hacket, his owner and an Arkansas lawman weren't far behind. They found him in a settlement of black refugees just 50 miles across the border from Detroit, and had him arrested as a thief in early September. A fierce battle of words over his extradition followed, pitting anti-slavery Canadian and British government officials against Wallace and the Arkansas governor.
By getting an indictment against Hacket in Arkansas as a thief, not as a runaway slave, Wallace had the law (the U.S./Canadian extradition treaty) on his side. Hacket was secretly brought back to the United States in February, over the protests of abolitionists in both countries. He was kept in a Detroit jail until May, when two white men arrived from Arkansas to get him.
Although he was in shackles and closely guarded, Hacket managed to escape during an overnight stop in northern Illinois. He was captured within a couple of days, however, and finally returned to Arkansas in June.
It's not clear what happened after that, but Bolton said Hacket probably faded into obscurity and spent the rest of his life as a slave.
But his story - chronicled in court papers and Canadian and British parliamentary records - may be Arkansas's best chance to add a site to the Network of Freedom. It could be the courthouse where a Washington County grand jury indicted Hacket, or the Mississippi River crossing where a fellow slave helped him on his way.
The arrival of the Civil War in Arkansas brought new opportunities for slaves who wanted to run away.
The Fugitive Slave Act of 1850, which required government officials and private citizens in Northern states to help capture and turn in runaways, meant slaves weren't really free until they were out of the country entirely.
But the Emancipation Proclamation changed that, and as the Union army marched south into Arkansas, slaves only had to slip over the line into Union territory to gain their freedom. Across the South, about 5,500 former slaves became Union soldiers - including Alfred Gales, an Arkansas slave who escaped, fought with a Minnesota regiment, and settled there after the war ended.
As Bolton's study progresses, Hill said, the National Park Service will hold several public meetings in Arkansas so people can learn about the Network to Freedom and, possibly, share their own stories handed down from their ancestors.
"I'm sure there are going to be people in Arkansas who can contribute to the story, both black and white," Hill said.
In the meantime, there are a few Network to Freedom sites within a reasonable distance.
St. Louis has the Mary Meachum Freedom Crossing, where Meachum, a black pastor's widow, helped eight or nine slaves cross the Mississippi River in 1855, and the Old Courthouse, where Dred Scott sued for his and his wife's freedom in 1847.
Natchez, Miss., has the site of the Forks in the Road slave market, once one of the largest in the South. And Dover, Tenn., has the Fort Donelson National Battlefield, location of the first major Union victory in the Civil War.
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