Unique Maps: Quilts Guided the Underground Railroad 

Unique Maps: Quilts Guided the Underground Railroad to enable runaway slaves to escape to Canada and freedom from the shackles that enslaved them.


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The Great Lakes Raconteur

When we travel for the first time to a new destination, we often depend upon directions given to us by travel agents or friends. Sometimes we rely upon a map. Others of us prefer to find our way as we go. 

The early settlers of this region relied upon blazed trails and rudimentary maps, but one group which arrived here very early in our history used a unique method to find their way. 

The first settlers to arrive in the region traveled via the Garafraxa Road, the Elora Road, the Durham road and the Toronto Sydenham Road. Although they were called roads, that word should be considered in the context of the era. 

The Garafraxa Road was a rough-hewn trail, originally surveyed and marked by Charles Rankin. For many years afterwards, the Garafraxa resembled a road at its southern and northern extremities but in the middle, it was swampy, the streams and rivers were unforded and, in general, it was barely passable. 

Before many of the settlers from England, Ireland and Scotland arrived in Grey and Bruce, another group had made their way to our region. 

Runaway slaves, desperate for freedom from the shackles of ruthless slave owners envisaged the Canadian colonies as a virtual paradise where they would be free from the fetters of slavery and able to guide their own destiny. Their flight to freedom was fraught with danger. 

A black person caught away from his plantation could be beaten or killed by the ruthless men who tracked runaway slaves. 

If a slave was caught and returned to his owner, his fate could be severe punishment, even death. People caught harbouring or assisting runaway slaves could also receive severe treatment. Yet the desire for freedom burned so deeply, many were willing to take the risk. 

The runaway slave could not travel during the daylight or in heavily populated areas for fear of being captured. Therefore, they had to follow forest trails and wade across rivers and streams during the dark of night. 

The route they followed came to be known as the Underground Railway. 

When we travel, the route is well marked by road signs. The Underground Railway had road signs as well. But those signs could not be overt because then the men sent to capture the runaways would know the route as well. 

The signs along the Underground Railway were quilts. Yes, quilts — quilts just like the ones our grandmothers made to keep us warm on cold winter nights. 

Ironically, quilting has a tradition that is centuries long in Africa. The men and women who were captured and brought to America to be sold into slavery brought with them this tradition. 

Each stitch, border, and design had a meaning. Creative women made quilts which acted as maps for stretches of the. Underground Railway. The quilts were hung on tree branches, clotheslines and out of windows. A white passerby, if he or she even noticed the quilts, might marvel at the artistry, but would not realize their hidden meaning. But a runaway slave looking at the quilt would gather information about the path which he should follow. 

This ingenious method helped hundreds of escaped slaves find their way to freedom in places like Grey County. 

The information used in this article came from books and documents held in the Grey County Archives.

A version of this article first appeared in my Local History column in the Owen Sound Sun Times on March 1, 2002.

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