A Celebration of Women Writers

"Part VII, Chapter 79." by Henrietta Elizabeth Marshall (1876-)
From: This country of ours; the story of the United States by Henrietta Elizabeth Marshall (1876-) New York, George H. Doran company, 1917.

Editor: Mary Mark Ockerbloom


CHAPTER 79
FILLMORE–THE UNDERGROUND RAILROAD

THE Vice-President, Millard Fillmore, now became President. He was the son of very poor parents; he had picked up an education how he could, and he was nineteen before he saw a history, or a map of his own country. But he was determined to become a lawyer. And after a hard struggle he succeeded. Then from step to step he rose, till he had now reached the highest office in the land.

 

Under the new President the debate over California still went on. But at length the matter was settled, and California was admitted as a free state. This was on the 9th of September, but the news did not reach California until October. For months the people had been waiting for an answer to their petition. And as the days went past they grew more and more impatient. But at last one morning San Francisco was filled with excitement for the Oregon was seen coming into harbour gaily decorated with flags.

California admitted to the Union, 1850

With shouts of joy the people ran down to the wharf for they knew the Oregon would never come in with flags flying in such a way if she were not bringing good news.

 

And when they heard the news they laughed, and cried, and kissed each other in joy. Cannon were fired and bells rung, shops were shut, and every one went holidaying.

The news reaches California

Messengers too were sent in every direction. Stage coaches with six-horse teams ran races to be the first to bring the news to outlying towns and villages. As the coaches dashed through villages men on them shouted the news, and the villagers would shout and laugh in return. Then, leaping on their horses, they would ride off to tell some neighbour. So throughout the land the news was carried.

 

By the admission of California to the Union as a free state the non-slave states were greatly strengthened. But in some degree to make up for this, a very strict law about the arrest of runaway slaves was passed. This was called the Fugitive Slave Law and it was bad and cruel. For, by it, if a negro were caught even by some one who had no right to him, he had no chance of freedom. A negro was not allowed to speak for himself, and he was not allowed the benefit of a jury. Also any person who helped a slave to run away, or protected him when he had run away, might be fined.

Fugitive Slave Law, 1850

The North hated the Bill but it was passed. Many people, however, made up their minds not to obey it. For conscience told them that slavery was wrong and conscience was a "higher law." So when men came to the free states to catch runaway slaves they were received with anger, and everything was done to hinder them in their man-catching work. The Underground Railroad, too, became more active than ever.

Conscience a higher law

This Underground Railroad was not a railroad, and it was not underground. It was simply a chain of houses about twenty miles or so apart where escaped slaves might be sure of a kindly welcome. The railroad was managed by men who felt pity for the slaves and helped them to escape. It went in direct roads across the States to Canada. The escaping slaves moved so secretly from one house to another that it almost seemed as if they must have gone underground. So the system came to be called the Underground Railroad, and the friendly houses were the stations.

The underground railway;

Once a runaway slave reached one of these friendly houses or stations he would be hidden in the attic or cellar or some safe place. There he would be fed and cared for until night came again. Then the password would be given to him, and directions how to reach the next underground station. And, with the pole star for his guide, he would set out.

stations;

Arriving at the house in the dusk of early morning, before any one was astir he would knock softly at the door.

 

"Who's there?" would be asked.

 

Then the runaway would give the password in answer. Perhaps it would be "William Penn," or "a friend of friends," or sometimes the signal would be the hoot of an owl. And hearing it the master of the underground station would rise and let the "passenger" in.

signals

Sometimes the slavers would come alone, sometimes in twos and threes or even more. As many as seventeen were hidden one day at one of the stations.

 

Thousands of slaves were in this way helped to escape every year. It was a dangerous employment for the station-masters, and many were found out and fined. They paid the fines, they did not care for that; and went on helping the poor slaves.

 

Most of the people connected with the underground railroad were white, but some were coloured. One of the most daring of these was Harriet Tubman. She helped so many of her countrymen to escape that they called her "Moses" because she had led them out of the land of bondage. She was nearly white, but had been a slave herself. And having escaped from that fearful bondage she now spent her life in trying to free others.

Harriet Tubman;

Again and again, in spite of the danger in being caught, she ventured into the Southern States to bring back a band of runaway slaves. And she was so clever and so full of resource that she always brought them safely away. More than once when she saw she was being tracked, she put herself and her little company into a train, taking tickets for them southwards. For she knew that no one would suspect them to be runaway slaves if they were travelling south. Then, when their track was covered, and danger of pursuit over, they all turned north again.

 

Harriet was both brave and clever, and when the Civil War broke out, she served as a scout for the Northern Army, earning the praise of those who employed her. She lived to be very old, and died not many years ago, happy to know that all her countrymen were free.

she serves as a scout

But although many slaves tried to run away, all slaves were not unhappy. When they had a kind master they were well taken care of, and lived in far greater comfort that if they had been free. In the more northerly of the slave states, such as Virginia, the slaves were generally household servants, and were treated in the most affectionate manner. It was farther south in the cotton growing districts, where slaves worked in gangs under the whip of the overseer who was often brutal, that the real misery was.

 

But even with the kindest of masters a slave could never feel safe. For that master might die or lose his money, and have to sell his slaves. Then husband and wife, parents and children might be sold to different masters, and never see each other again. The one would never know whether the other was happy or miserable, alive or dead. Or they might be sold down South to work in the rice swamps or the cotton fields. It was this that the happy, careless slave from the North most dreaded.

 

It was just at this time when the Fugitive Slave Law was being enforced, and the Underground Railroad was working nightly that "Uncle Tom's Cabin" was written and published. You all know the story of poor old Tom, of funny, naughty Topsy and all the other interesting people of the book. We look upon it now as merely a story-book. But it was much more than that. It was a great sermon and did more to make people hate slavery than any other book ever written.

"Uncle Tom's Cabin" by Harriet Beecher Stowe

It was read by hundreds and thousands of people, and soon the fame of it spread to every country in Europe, and it was translated into at least twenty languages. And even to-day when the work it was meant to do is done, hundreds of boys and girls still laugh at Topsy and feel very choky indeed over the fate of poor old Uncle Tom.

 

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Editor: Mary Mark Ockerbloom

This book has been put on-line as part of the BUILD-A-BOOK Initiative at the
Celebration of Women Writers.
Initial text entry and proof-reading of this book were the work of volunteers at
Ambleside Online.

Editor: Mary Mark Ockerbloom