Friday, July 16, 2010




The Underground Railroad was a secret movement that consisted of a set of constantly changing trails and paths which southern slaves used to escape to freedom. In southern states, the African American slaves were pretty much on their own until they reached the northern anti-slave states. There they were assisted mainly by African Americans as well as some white abolitionists and Quakers to assimilate into the culture. Many slaves continued on to anti-slavery Canada to live. It was first and foremost a movement lead by African Americans.

The Underground Railroad is recorded as the largest Freedom Movement in North America. Its main thrust was between the years of 1840 and 1865. And, because of this distinction, there has been a certain amount of folklore spun from it.

Outdoors at the historic Rogers House near Richmond, Kentucky is a large artistic signboard*, recently erected, displaying a sampler of quilt squares. The significance of the sign is to reflect upon the folklore of quilts being used as code signals for the Underground Railroad.

Legend has it that African American slaves would hang the quilts on clothes lines, over fences, or over windowsills as if airing out the quilts -- while all the time they were really giving codes, via the quilt pattern,to escaping slaves traveling the nearby road. Each quilt pattern was delivering a communication code to the escapees on the run.

At least that is what recent accounts by a North Carolina woman tell us.No written documentation exists to validate this -- scholars and historians doubt the story. But, in the popular culture mode, the folk story has caught on and has received attention in some folklore circles.

Let us identify the quilt squares on the signboard and then look at the folklore codes associated with them.

In the above section of the signboard, reading left to right and top to bottom, are the following codes for the quilt squares:
FLYING GEESE -- time to go North.
MONKEY WRENCH -- pack up and get ready to leave
JACOBS LADDER -- an Underground Railroad symbol
SHOO-FLY -- nickname for Harriet Tubman

Again, reading left to right, top row to bottom row, the quilt squares below denote the folk Underground Railroad codes:
CARPENTERS WHEEL - fugitives to follow west to northwest
DRUNKARDS PATH - take a meandering path
BEAR PAW - bear paw in the woods would lead to fresh clothes and food.
LOG CABIN - run away slave nearby looking for passage to Canada.

First and foremost the Underground Railroad was a secret, loosely organized movement. About 1840 it seemed to gain momentum. They did use various codes, such as a lit lantern, to signal such things as, "this is a safe house."

It is estimated that as high as 100,000 slaves escaped the south between 1800 and 1865. These were mostly men and mostly from adjacent southern states of the north, such as Virginia and Kentucky.

The Library of Congress has made available on-line photographs and narratives of former slaves compiled by the Federal Writers Project during the Depression. I thought that the former slaves should have a face so I will close this post with some of the Federal Writers photographs. Although the folks in the photos are no longer young, as the photos were taken between 1936 and 1938, it provides the feeling of the inhumanness of slavery.

Photo taken at age 81
Former slave until the age of about nine.

Photo taken at the age of about 100 years old
Former slave until about the age of 28 years old.


GUS JOHNSON of Alabama
Photo taken at age of 90
Former slave until the age of 18 years of age.

Click on the above photos for enlargement


* The signboard is a project of the Kentucky Quilt Trail Project of Madison County. The group is most well-known for its quilt squares that have been placed on barns, outbuildings, and businesses around Madison County. To date they have placed 56 quilt squares in the county. All the blocks are the result of many, many hours of labor by volunteers. Designs and colors for the quilt patterns are drafted by Don Hart and each pattern is hand-painted by the volunteers at community locations. Placing the squares on structures is accomplished by donated labor and equipment by local utility companies.


  1. Wonderful photos of the ex-slaves! And a wealth of information to explore -- for which, many thanks!

  2. Thanks Vicki for the comment. Folklore abound from historical happenings. -- barbara

  3. Fascinating -- I have heard of the patterns being used as signals and thought it was fact. Good to be corrected. Pictures are wonderful, especially the former slaves.

  4. Barbara,

    This was such an enlightening and enjoyable post! I left if on my screen nearly all day, yesterday, coming back to it again and again when I could squeeze a few moments from watching pressure cookers! We had guests for dinner last evening and I shared this post with my friend Debbi, who is planning to forward your blog URL to her granddaughter who is very interested in the Underground RR. So, thank you soooooo much! What a generously illustrated and information-rich post!


  5. June -- that is right, you are a quilter and would have heard about the codes. I assume some folks take it as the truth as there has not been any media folks refuting the claim. Sometimes we just hear the first reports of a story and then the story sinks into oblivion. As was the case with the quilt codes. thanks -- barbara

  6. Elora -- Thanks for the gracious comments. And, thanks for passing the post along to your friend. Sounds like you had a busy day with friends. I bet your dinner included some of those goodies from your garden! -- barbara

  7. Thanks for a very interesting post and great photos, Barbara. Does the Rogers House have a matching quilt display inside?

  8. Barefootheart -- good question. The 1811 Rodgers House was a home to the Rodgers family until 1866. The civil war ended in 1865 leading to the freedom of the slaves. A major civil war battle was fought near the home. Therefore, the historic home today is devoted to that battle history during the civil war. No mention, so far, has been made of the quilt codes in the house. The 1960 census reflects that the Rodger's owned 20 slaves. Perhaps that tie supports the signpost? As the sign was erected only 6 months ago perhaps there will eventually be some info in the home on the quilt folklore. An interesting book is "Kentucky Slave Narratives: from Federal Writer' Project, 1936 - 1938." Other state narratives have been published from the Federal Writer's project. Good comment -- barbara

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