Coded Quilts and the Underground Railroad

By Madison Petrella

quiltThis week we’re taking a look at “Freedom quilts.” Quilts were often created to send a message, each uniquely embroidered to tell a story. Before and during the Civil War, people aiding runaway slaves in the Underground Railroad used quilt patterns to help.

Quilt patterns pointed to the safest route to take to freedom. Runaway slaves were taught the symbolism behind each pattern. Using quilts was a rather ingenious idea as the sight of one hanging out to dry was so common a sight it was easily overlooked.1 It is a general consensus among historians that there were ten different patterns. “Monkey Wrench” told slaves to start preparing the tools they would need for a long journey, whether these be physical, mental, or spiritual ones, and “Wagon Wheel” indicated that their journey was about to begin. If a slave saw the “Bear’s Paw” pattern, then they knew they were supposed to head towards the mountains and follow the tracks of the bears, which would lead them to water and food. “Crossroads” directed slaves towards Cleveland, Ohio. “Log Cabin” let those know there was a safe house nearby. Likewise, “Shoofly” directed a people towards a nearby guide. If a runaway saw the “Bowtie” symbol, they needed to disguise themselves with new clothing. Slaves knew not to take a direct route if they saw the “Drunkard’s Path” and to follow the North Star if they saw the “Star.” The last design is the “Flying Geese” where slaves were directed to follow a goose migration pattern.

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The HHS Permanent Collection holds several quilts with these patterns. The quilt pictured was donated in 1990 by Mr. Kenneth E. Hasbrouck as part of the Estate of Ruth Laws Lauder. It is believed to have been hand sewn by Jane Crispell around 1850 and has no provenance associated with the Underground Railroad. However, it is an example of what could be considered a Freedom quilt with the “Flying Geese” design.

The idea of coded quilts became popular due to a 1999 book entitled Hidden in Plain View: A Secret Story of Quilts and the Underground Railroad, published by historian Jacqueline Tobin and scholar Raymond Dobard. The book is the oral testimony of a South Carolina quilt vendor named Ozella McDaniel Williams who recounted a song to Tobin and Dobard over a period of three years. The song works as a mnemonic to aid slaves in remembering the meanings of various symbols. Williams claimed that this song and the accompanying story of quilts used as signals to aid runaways was one passed down within her family for generations, her ancestors having been slaves on a southern plantation.

Since its publication, Hidden in Plain View has met significant controversy among historians, particularly those specializing in quilts and the Underground Railroad. The biggest issues have been the lack of any quilts that have survived to the present and the lack of any mention of the quilts from other sources. Perhaps the most vocal opponent of the theory of coded quilts is Giles R. Wright, who was a historian and director of the Afro-American History Program at the New Jersey Historical Commission. He pointed to the mention of quilt codes being absent in both the 19th century slave narratives and the oral testimonies of former slaves given in the 1930s.2 Tobin later said that her claims were taken out of context. She says she and Dobard made it clear that they were recounting Williams’ story and the oral history of her family and of one planation in the south;3 however, critics point out that they allege that these quilts were used by members of the Underground Railroad, for which no corroborating evidence has been found.

Today, the general consensus among historians is that Freedom quilts are a myth due to the lack of any written evidence of the contrary. So, were quilts sewn with specific patterns to relay delicate messages to runaway slaves? Probably not, as there is more evidence to argue that Freedom quilts are part of an American folklore. The idea of quilts created to relay information hasn’t died out in the American imagination. On the contrary, it has been added to the long list of heroic stories forever associated with the Civil War and the Underground Railroad.

Myths in history are equally important as fact. Some claim that mythologized stories are a detriment because they disrupt the preservation of history, but I maintain that sometimes it’s the heroic myths that are remembered best because they inspire us to do more than we think we’re capable of. We take them to heart and remember them for the future.

Sources:

1 “Underground Railroad Quilt Code.” Owen Sound. Ontario: Owen Sound City Hall. Web. 9 August 2016.

Ives, Sarah. “Did Quilts Hold Codes to the Underground Railroad?” National Geographic News. New York: National Geography Society, 5 February 2004. Web. 9 August 2016.

3 Cole, Diane. “Were Quilts Used as Underground Railroad Maps?” U.S. News & World Report. U.S. News & World Report, L.P., 24 June 2007. Web. 9 August 2016.

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