"When the sun comes back and the first quail calls,
Follow the drinking gourd.
For the old man is awaiting for to carry you to freedom,
If you follow the drinking gourd..."
The words are from the song "Follow the Drinking Gourd."
William Still, 1872, The Underground Railroad, courtesy of Toronto Public Library
In the early and middle 1800s, runaway slaves from the southern United States followed the "Drinking Gourd," or that small cluster of stars called the "Big Dipper" positioned in the northern sky.
It was the final stage in a long inhumane journey which had begun in the mid-fifteen hundreds on a small island off Senegal, West Africa. The journey reached its closing stages on September 22, 1862, when the "Emancipation Proclamation" was issued by Abraham Lincoln setting in motion the abolition of slavery upon ratification of the 13th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution on December 6, 1865. Lincoln never saw the end of slavery in the United States as he was shot by John Wilkes Booth eight months earlier at 10:15 p.m. on April 14, 1865, while he was attending a play at Ford's Theatre in Washington, D. C. Lincoln died the following morning at 7:22 a.m.
One can scarcely imagine the desperation of the runaway slaves who secretly escaped north in pursuit of freedom. Their courage and terror are beyond measure. The price of failure was often death or physical dismemberment if they were caught and returned to the slave owners.
Their ordeal can be described as one the most horrific crimes against humanity in history. Kidnapped from their homes, chained about their ankles, branded by hot irons or otherwise marked, the innocents were forced to march to Goree Island, Senegal, on the west coast of Africa, or other ports of departure. From there, they were sold before being shipped across the Atlantic Ocean to the Caribbean and North America where they would toil as slaves for their remaining days in the sugar plantations and cotton fields.
The process was called The Middle Passage signifying the middle stage of trade regarding the sale and transfer of human cargo between the abductors in Africa and the future "owners" across the ocean.
On Goree Island, they were forced through the "door of no return" onto the slave vessels conveying them to the Americas on the other side of the Atlantic Ocean. Their cries of anguish from the crowded bowels of the slave ships went unheard.
The slave quarters of the ships were purposely crammed with human cargo with the awareness that only the strong would survive at voyage end ensuring delivery of maximum value to future slave owners.
On voyage, the Africans were governed by terror, brutality, rape, the flesh penetrating lash of the overseer's whip and execution. Families were torn asunder, children were separated from their mothers, the weak were condemned. Those who perished from malnourishment or mistreatment were cast into the ocean without ceremony or care. Since a low sale value was placed on infirm slaves, the ship crews chained these Africans together and threw them overboard to drown helplessly in the ocean's water.
Although we cannot be certain, at least fifteen to twenty million Africans were kidnapped during the approximated three centuries involving the slave trade. Half of those did not survive to reach the destinations awaiting them.
Slavery was practiced everywhere throughout the United States. In the national census, taken in 1790, Massachusetts was the only state in the Union to record the number of its slave population as zero. Gradually, other northern states followed Massachusetts but this offered little respite or hope for those Africans still enslaved in the southern United States. If, somehow, they were able to escape to the north, their liberty was short lived.
In the United States, the Fugitive Slave Act of September 18, 1850, allowed for the forced return of captured runaway slaves in the northern "free states" to their southern "owners." The Africans were considered to be the private property of the slave owners and if, somehow, they did escape, they were brutally hunted down for the finders fee paid to slave hunters. In the United States, there was nowhere runaway slaves could flee.
Photograph by Michael J. Christopher, California, U.S.A
"AM I NOT A MAN AND A BROTHER.."
Reproduction taken from an abolitionist pamphlet, circa 1837.
The Dred Scott Decision issued by the U.S. Supreme Court in 1857 decreed that slavery was legal in all the areas of the United States and that only a federal state could make slavery illegal within its borders...not Federal Congress. Slaves were deemed to be property and slave owners were guaranteed their property rights under the Fifth Amendment of the Constitution. Bounty and slave hunters relentlessly pursued runaway slaves everywhere throughout the United States. Consequently tens of thousands of former slaves fled to Canada for safe haven
John Graves Simcoe, the first Lieutenant-Governor of Upper Canada, proposed The Anti-Slavery Act which became law on July 9, 1793, ending the importation of slaves into Upper Canada by decreeing that all slaves, upon their arrival to Upper Canada, would be considered free.
This bill was opposed by the thousands of British Loyalists who brought "their" slaves with them to Canada from the United Sates after the American Revolutionary War. Despite enraged opposition, the Act provided that future children born to female
slaves after 1793 would be legally free at the age of twenty-five years. Those who were born slaves prior to 1793 would continue to be so for life.
A year earlier, 1792, in Lower Canada (Quebec and Eastern Canada), a bill to abolish slavery had been defeated. Fortunately, in 1803, William Osgoode, the Chief Justice of Lower Canada, (also the First Chief Justice of Upper Canada, 1792-94), ruled that slavery was inconsistent with British law and that any slave who left his owner could not be forced to return. It was not until thirty years later that the British Parliament enacted the Emancipation Act of 1833 abolishing slavery throughout all British holdings.
Harriet Tubman was born a slave around 1820 (the exact date is unknown) on the plantation of Anthony Thompson, Dorchester Country, Maryland. Her given name was Araminta but she called herself Harriet, her mother's name. In 1844, Anthony Thompson arranged her marriage to John Tubman. Five years later, in 1849, she escaped north to Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.
Between 1850 and 1860, it is estimated that Harriet Tubman undertook nineteen sorties to the Southern United States freeing approximately three hundred slaves, including members of her own family. She became known as "Moses" for her exploits and missions. She timed and planned the escapes she led from the south with exact precision, often leaving the plantation with runaway slaves on a Saturday night thereby gaining an extra day of cover as it would be Monday before runaway slave notices could be printed in the newspapers.
A $40,000.00 bounty was placed on her life, dead or alive by the plantation owners whom she targeted, but somehow she miraculously evaded capture. On one occasion she was been pursued by slave hunters who were gradually catching up and would eventually capture her. Instead of panicking, she turned the horse-drawn buggy, in which she was traveling, around and headed back south toward the slave hunters. The slave hunters, pursuing Negro slaves fleeing north, rode pass her not suspecting they had been duped. Another time, she overheard a group of men reading her wanted poster when one of them noted that she could not read or write. Harriet quickly obtained a book and pretended to be reading it. The ploy worked as the men took little notice of her.
In 1851, Harriet fled to Canada so as to be beyond the reach of the Fugitive Slave Act and for the next seven years she lived in St. Catharines. A year later, 1852, the Refugee Slaves' Friends Society was founded in this city. Harriet Tubman joined the society. Since she already was a conductor in the Underground Railroad, she continued to guide runaway slaves north and then to Canada.
Harriet Tubman was a member of the African Methodist Church, 92 Geneva Street, St. Catharines, (renamed the British Methodist Episcopal Church in 1855). The church was a headquarters for the Underground Railroad, providing shelter and finding homes for former slaves who had fled the United States. There is a testament to Harriet Tubman's MEANINGFUL LIFE inscribed on a plaque rooted on the lawn at the front of the church.
If you go to St. Catharines, the "Garden City," try to attend the church service held each Sunday. Or visit inside the church to view the exhibits and experience a journey back in history when the church provided refuge to runaway slaves beyond the reach of the bounty hunters and vigilante groups marauding everywhere throughout the United States. As you walk up the church steps the following words greet you:
"All are Welcome"
"Only surviving Black Community Church in St. Catharines"
When you meet members of the congregation, you will realize that the words are as true today as they were one hundred and fifty years ago...
"All are Welcome."
During the Spring of 1858, Harriett met with John Brown, an American abolitionist, in her home on North Street in St. Catharines, where they discussed the coming raid on the federal arsenal at Harper's Ferry, Virginia. John Brown's hope was that the raid would spur general insurrection with the arming of slaves in the surrounding area near Harper's Ferry.
Illness prevented Harriet from joining the raid when John Brown and twenty-one fellow abolitionists captured the U.S. arsenal at Harper's Ferry October 16, 1859. The next day, federal troops, led by Robert E. Lee, (later to become the Confederacy's leading General in the Civil War) recaptured Harper's Ferry. Of the twenty-two abolitionists in John Brown's raiding party, five escaped, ten were killed in battle, (one of whom was Stewart Taylor of Uxbridge, Ontario), and seven, including John Brown, were later hanged.
Harriet Tubman, (far left), her husband Nelson Davis, (sitting, left),
others unknown, (circa 1885).
When the American Civil War began in April, 1861, Harriet served the Union cause in several roles including nurse and Union spy behind Confederate lines.
The Civil War ended in 1865. After the death of her husband John Tubman, Harriet Tubman married Nelson Davis and they lived in Auburn, New York State. She died in her nineties on March 10, 1913, and was given a military burial at Fort Hill Cemetery, Auburn, New York.
"For the old man is awaiting to carry you to freedom, if you follow the drinking gourd,"
Ontario is richer because Harriet Tubman followed the drinking gourd and once lived here.