Underground Railroad Free Press
News & views on the Underground Railroad • Volume XVI, no. 92, November 2021
Published bimonthly since 2006, we bring together organizations and people interested in the historical and the contemporary Underground Railroad. Free Press is the home of Lynx, the central registry of contemporary Underground Railroad organizations; Datebook, the community's event calendar; and the Free Press Prizes awarded annually for leadership, preservation and advancement of knowledge, the community's highest honors. Please visit urrfreepress.com for more.
On Foot . . . Or On Board
The typical image of Underground Railroad routes that come to mind is one of stealth along backwoods paths or through sheer wilderness. Indeed, this notion of Underground Railroad travel is accurate, as a high majority of flights to freedom was overland on foot.
But there are many accounts of travel by other means, for example by actual railroad. The Baltimore & Ohio Railroad under the leadership of its outspoken abolitionist President John Garrett would provide transportation to freedom seekers either as hidden "cargo" or in passenger cars. When the famous Frank Wanzer party made its was from Aldie, Virginia, where they had been enslaver to Underground Railroad author William Still's safehouse in Philadelphia in 1855, they arrived by train from Columbia, Pennsylvania, and it was train again when they were forwarded by Still to upstate New York.
But there was yet another mode of transportation and that was by water.
Underground Railroad author Fergus Bordewich relates in his Bound for Canaan the Florida conductor Jonathon Walker who would ferry freedom seekers from Pensacola to the British Bahamas. Great Britain had abolished slavery in 1833.
Perhaps the most famous escape attempt on water was that of The Pearl from Washington, DC, in 1848 when 77 enslaved people attempted to sail down the Potomac River and up the Chesapeake Bay and the Delaware Rive to New Jersey and freedom. This, the largest recorded nonviolent escape attempt by people in slavery in United States history, was foiled when doldrums in the Chesapeake stalled The Pearl which was captured.
But other most escapes by water succeeded on regular routes by regular means including scheduled sailings. Collecting these accounts is Timothy Walker's just published Sailing to Freedom: Maritime Dimensions of the Underground Railroad, an anthology of articles by ten authors who have written on the roles of states from North Carolina to Massachusetts in escapes by sea. Visit https://tinyurl.com/3vr38wpy for the book's Amazon page.
Writes Walker, "In 1858, Mary Millburn successfully made her escape from Norfolk, Virginia, to Philadelphia aboard an express steamship. Millburn's maritime route to freedom was far from uncommon. By the mid-nineteenth century, an increasing number of enslaved people had fled northward along the Atlantic seaboard. While scholarship on the Underground Railroad has focused almost exclusively on overland escape routes from the antebellum South, this groundbreaking volume expands our understanding of how freedom was achieved by sea and what the journey looked like for many African Americans."
Amazon commends the book as, "With innovative scholarship and thorough research, Sailing to Freedom highlights little-known stories and describes the less-understood maritime side of the Underground Railroad, including the impact of African Americans' paid and unpaid waterfront labor. These ten essays reconsider and contextualize how escapes were managed along the East Coast, moving from the Carolinas, Virginia, and Maryland to safe harbor in northern cities such as Philadelphia, New York, New Bedford, and Boston."
On Thursday, December 9, at noon the Maryland Center for History and Culture, formerly the Maryland Historical Society, will host a panel discussion on Sailing to Freedom moderated by Richard Bell, author of Stolen: Five Free Boys Kidnapped Into Slavery and Their Astonishing Odyssey Home.
He will be joined on the panel by Dr. Walker, editor of Sailing to Freedom, and book contributor Cheryl Janifer LaRoche of the University of Maryland as they discuss where and how enslaved Marylanders made their way to freedom using the water.
Registration is required. You may register at https://tinyurl.com/7t4j74yd .
Escape, Freedom, Capture, Trial, Freedom
Loudoun County, Virginia, has been a swing county for much of its existence. During the Civil War when Virginia's northwestern counties pealed off to form the new Union state of West Virginia, Loudoun County was with them until Robert E. Lee and the Confederacy deemed Loudoun, with its important Potomac River crossings, to be too important strategically and kept a stranglehold on the county.
During the war, the county was home to raider units of both armies. The Union outfit was an independent cavalry unit drawn from the largely Quaker and German farming communities of northern Loudoun County and led by Captain Samuel Means. The Confederate unit was Mosby's Rangers, the 43rd Virginia Cavalry Battalion, led by Colonel John Mosby. As with the mixed loyalties in the county, attitudes toward slavery were bipolar, running the gamut from staunch Quaker abolitionism to the most vile cruelties.
These days, the county is part of Virginia's blue wave that is electing mostly Democrats statewide and almost exclusively in the Washington, DC. suburbs in populous northern Virginia.
In 1854, things were just as divided in Loudoun County as they would be a few years later amidst war when that December the enslaved teenager Daniel Dangerfield made his break for freedom and made a new life for himself in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, as Daniel Webster.
Dangerfield grew up south of Leesburg in Loudoun County and frequently was hired out by his owners, French and Elizabeth Simpson. He worked as a mill boy at Aldie Mill, and later as a farm hand, before he made his successful escape to Pennsylvania. His ensuing capture and trial would lead him to become one of Loudoun County’s most well known freedom seekers.
Once Dangerfield must have always been concerned for his freedom. There was cause for his concern, because his former owner heard that Dangerfield was in Harrisburg and went searching for him in 1859. Dangerfield was caught and sent to jail, and his trial was held in Philadelphia on April 5th. African Americans and whites alike rallied around him, packing the courtroom and waiting outside. Respected Quaker abolitionist Lucretia Mott sat with Dangerfield in the courtroom during his trial, which lasted for three days and at one point stretched through the night for fourteen hours. Four white Loudoun men testified against him, while two free men of color from Harrisburg testified in his defense. Public sentiment was clearly on his side, and U.S. Commissioner Longstreth, hearing his very first case, released Dangerfield on the opinion that there was not enough proof of his identity. Public opinion, including that of his own family, may also have led the commissioner to find in favor of the defendant.
Black and white abolitionists celebrated the release of Dangerfield. He was “placed in a carriage and drawn through the streets by a thousand colored men.” This was followed by an antislavery rally in Philadelphia, which drew angry Southerners to the city. Fearing re-arrest, Dangerfield left for Canada the following week. The entire incident deepened the divide between North and South, with some white people in Loudoun County celebrating Dangerfield's freedom, while others were infuriated that black men’s testimony had been accepted over that of white men.
In Canada, Daniel Dangerfield found safety, piece and success as a farmer near Niagara Falls.
In February of this year, the Northern Virginia Parks Commission dedicated a memorial and wayfinding marker at Aldie Mill in nearby Aldie, Dangerfield's escape site.
On October 22, Dr. Deborah Lee, a research fellow at the Virginia Foundation for the Humanities, gave an illustrated slide presentation at the Balch Library in Leesburg, Virginia, near where Daniel Dangerfield escaped and began his journey to freedom. The presentation was recorded and is available for viewing at YouTube. View at https://tinyurl.com/2c49pbbt .