Snow Camp & The Underground Railroad – Beyond Mythmaking

At Snow Camp we’re working at broadening the vision that created our acclaimed historical drama, Pathway to Freedom, to bring out more awareness of our practical connections to the actual Underground Railroad.

I admit, though, that sometimes I’m tempted to believe, as one prominent historian has argued, that the “Underground Railroad” (UGRR) is mainly a myth, spun into heroic proportions on legends, that serve mainly to puff up self-serving white people’s memories.

Salem Chapel, St. Catharines, Ontario CANADA: a terminus for successful UGRR journeys.

And surely there has been a lot of myth-making about it, feeding white rescue fantasies, which has deservedly been deflated by recent revisionist research.

But even after discounting the expansionist folklore, I haven’t been able to dismiss this saga — not since I visited this church, the Salem Chapel in St. Catharine’s, Ontario, only a few miles beyond the U.S. border at Niagara Falls.

The modest people of Salem Chapel are the descendants of many intrepid men and women who made this long and often terrifying  journey and succeeded. More than twenty such settlements of freed peoples’ were planted along the southern end of Ontario, stretching 250-plus miles from Buffalo to the lakeside city of Windsor, just a short ferry (or clandestine canoe) ride from Detroit. Many thousands of enslaved people showed the grit and stamina to start and finish their incredible journeys. (Many thousands more, truth be told, tried and failed, and usually paid a terrible price.)

Harriet Tubman statue, outside the St. Catharines school named for her.

Among the early worshipers at Salem Chapel was Harriett Tubman,. She led several parties there, and stayed on for most of the 1850s, when she was being hunted below the border. She returned south when the Civil War began, to undertake more exploits for the Union war effort.

Moreover, alternatives to the white savior UGRR plotline have been around for a long time, if too-long neglected. One of the best was also the earliest, by William Still of Philadelphia.

He had been a key figure in that city’s Vigilance Committee, which aided a great many successful slave escapes, and in 1872 he published the first detailed, documented account of his work and that of the Philadelphia underground.

Still’s  book is a landmark, and available free online, in full.) Further, Still’s view of the struggle was proudly Black-centered, as is evident right from his book’s title page:

Title page, “The Underground Rail Road,” by William Still, 1872.

Yet he was also forthright and even generous in acknowledging the active and sustained assistance his committee had from numerous activist whites, many of whom also took substantial risks. Among the white supporters, none outnumbered Quakers or former Quakers.

So William Still’s Underground Railroad was a Black initiative, built on and energized by the desire and action of the enslaved to break from bondage, but many were not entirely alone in the effort. And as Still’s 780 pages of dense text showed, there was plenty of joint initiative to recount.

The most complete recent history of the UGRR, Bound for Canaan by Fergus Bordewich, reflects a similar pattern, only painted on a much broader canvas: where William Still focused on Philadelphia; Burdewich points out that what was then called the “Northwest” (now the Midwest), was criss-crossed by an equally, if not more important group of UGRR pathways, particularly in Ohio, Indiana and Michigan, routes ultimately terminating in Canada.

These are rough reconstructions of the major eastern routes; many more went across the midwest to Detroit, at the western edge of southwest Ontario.

It’s about 700 miles from Salem Chapel in Ontario to Snow Camp, North Carolina —  as the Canada geese flocks fly; on the ground it’s many more. Hard miles, through forests, winding through mountains and crossing rivers, in all kinds of weather, hungry and hunted.  Here in Snow Camp, what we know of the UGRR is mostly folklore, but still it fits with these big-picture accounts, though with plenty of local twists.

For one thing, it’s right in the thick of a “Quaker hotbed” that was almost a century old in the years leading up to the Civil War, and which survived the fighting, despite losing many members in treks west, to Indiana and other non-slave states.

The big red area is our “Quaker hotbed” in the Carolina Piedmont. Snow Camp is at the tip of the yellow arrow. Greensbro, at the blue arrow, was the main “transfer point” for journeys to the north, toward Philadelphia, New York and Canada. Many escapees had to do much of the trek on foot.

This meant there were many potential UGRR sympathizers around Snow Camp– though they kept a low profile. After all, while the UGRR was controversial in the North, it was criminally illegal in the South: a number of white sympathizers were caught at it in the South and served long prison terms; more than one died in jail.

In this tense atmosphere, UGRR work was kept both secret and carefully compartmentalized: most participants only knew where the next stopping place was, and often were unaware of who operated it. The renowned UGRR tree near the Guilford College campus is a good example: nestled in a thick woods, which tree was it?

The woods near Guilford College. Now, let’s see: was it THIS big tree, or maybe THAT one over there? Or the one we passed awhile back?

Thus, if seized by the patrollers or the sheriff, “conductors” could give truthful (or nearly truthful), yet minimally informative answers.

So there are very few concrete records. (Levi Coffin, originally from Greensboro, described some of his forays in his memoirs– online here in full — many years after the Civil War ended and slavery was abolished.) Yet local historians at the Friends meetings near Snow Camp have long asserted that area Quakers were active in UGRR efforts.

Characters from the abolitionist novel “UncleTom’s Cabin” were adapted to fit larger social images. Here is a playbill, featuring runaway Eliza from the story, with her baby, crossing a frozen river pursued by hounds.
Here is Eliza in another period illustration, crossing the river carefully garbed as a proper Victorian lady, and so fair of hue that who would suspect her of being “black”?

Even so, Quakers were a suspect minority as far as local authorities were concerned, on a subject which frequently evoked actual violence.  Thus habits of concealment, and what spies call “cut-outs” and “drops” were key tools for UGRR work in this area.

In addition to preparing the 25th season of Pathway to Freedom, the only ongoing play about the UGRR, we hope to soon be able to make use of our historic buildings and artifacts to illustrate the day-to-day reality of life in a seemingly quiet but inwardly turbulent slave society. Watch this space for more details as they develop, And we ask again that our supporters send donations soon, so we can meet the high expenses of season preparation. 

Donations are welcome via a secure online link here:

http://bit.ly/2klVgpy
For regular mail, make checks to:
Snow Camp Outdoor Theatre
P. O. Box 535
Snow Camp NC 27349

PS. A reminder: our local auditions will take place at the Drama site [301 drama Rd., Snow Camp] on  Wednesday March 14, noon to 5 PM, and Thursday March 15, 3PM to 8 PM. Make appointments by email at: info@nullsnowcampoutdoortheatre.com

 

 

 

 

5 thoughts on “Snow Camp & The Underground Railroad – Beyond Mythmaking”

  1. Thanks for the post, Chuck. Just wanted to let you know that the program planning committee for North Carolina Yearly Meeting (Conservative – or is it no longer necessary to include this qualifier?) intends to include a trip to Snow Camp for the play this year. The annual sessions will be held at Guilford College, 7/12/18 – 7/15/18.

  2. Thank you for this post, Chuck. It is important to not limit our understanding of the Underground Railroad work to liberal white Quakers and allies. I appreciate the link to William Still’s book.
    As the coordinator of Underground Railroad Tours and guides at Guilford College, I want to assure you and your readers that we stress the interracial cooperation which was vital to the success of the “railroad,” and never give the impression that all white Quakers were on board with this risky business. Also, we are very clear that “the Underground Railroad Tree,” the focus of our tour, may not have been involved at all in the nuts and bolts of the passage by enslaved freedom seekers (such as bearing a nail to show the way); however, it was in these woods and a SILENT WITNESS to the activity. That was proven when we had it cored and learned its age – present before 1800. We use this tree as an opportunity for visitors to reflect on these questions:
    What can we learn from our shared histories and life stories?
    Do we seek to create justice and places of refuge in our own community and in the world at large?
    I invite your readers to visit our website to learn more: http://library.guilford.edu/undergroundrr There is information there on scheduling tours. I hope to hear from folks who want a tour!
    And please support Pathway to Freedom and the Snow Camp Outdoor Theatre!

  3. Thanks, Chuck. Responding gave me a good opportunity to let folks know about the nature of our program, as well as to echo your support for Snow Camp’s outdoor theatre. My best to thee.

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