yesterday's tennessee

Yesterday's Tennessee


G. Tillman Stewart

Lexington Progress
November 19, 1986

Usually, when we think of a railroad in any form we think of a train running on steel rails. However, the Underground Railroad was a different kind. It was an informal method or system that helped slaves escape to the northern states and Canada and freedom during the 1800s to the Civil War. It was called the underground because it was so swift and secret in the manner in which slaves escaped.

Here are some of the methods used. Sometimes i would be a free slave who would make his way secretly to slave houses, and inform the slave or slaves on how to act and where to go. He had to be careful as some of the slaves were so loyal to their masters they would expose them. Also whites from the North would help them, and actually anti-slave whites from the South helped. Most all traveling was done at night. The slave would escape in the early part of the night as soon as the master had retired. He would make his way to the first place, which was given to him by the helper. When railroads came in, railroad terms were used by those who aided the fugitives. Hiding places were called stations and those who helped them were called conductors.

In the North many abolitionist, and Quakers assisted in helping the slaves escape. At first the principal routes of escape were to cross the Ohio river into Illinois, Indiana and Ohio which were free states. However a Fugitive Slave Law was passed that required the state to return the escaped slave to his master in the South. The escapee was forced to make his way into Canada, which was not too much trouble. The hiding stations provided food and clothing to the escapees.

One of the principal escape routes was through the Eastern part of Henderson County. This was especially true of the slaves from Mississippi and Alabama. They would enter Southern McNairy which had a lot of antislavery sentiment and stations. They would then proceed to Hardin County which also had a lot of antislavery sentiment. Many from Alabama simply entered Hardin County where they were also some anti-slave sentiment with stations both black and white. They then made their way to Henderson County and spent the day in a station near what is now Shady Hill and Middleburg. The next night they would make their way to the home of "Black Hawk" Hays who would hide them out sometimes for a week, and go with them to a station in Southeast Carroll County. Most of the way through West Tennessee was through hill country where the population was sparse, and few slaves. Most of the conductors were white men who opposed slavery.

As soon as it was reported that a slave or slaves had escaped the owners began a search, and many were captured before they got too far, and were severely punished. There were several instances where as many as ten or fifteen would escape at the same time. According to the late Patton Hays, son of Black Hawk, several families of escaped slaves had made their way to his house. He hid them out for a few days and put them to work as his slaves until the time was ripe for him to assist the conductor, who was a free black woman from up North to get them to the Ohio and safely across to freedom.

This fact of Little Known History first came to me when I took a course in advanced Tennessee history my senior year ,at the University of Tennessee at Knoxville under Dr. Philip Hameerhead of the history department. He later headed the history department at the University of Pennsylvania. Since then I have done some research on my own, and it is an established fact that Henderson County played an important part in the Underground Railroad System before human bondage was abolished by the carnage of a Civil War.

top · home · yesterday's · families · schools · links · what's new · memorial · about

This site was created by David Donahue and Brenda Kirk Fiddler.
This site is currently maintained by Jerry L. Butler
Copyright © 2004 - 2010, All rights reserved