Delaware’s bridge to freedom — the dangerous Underground Railroad
The derivation of the term Underground Railroad (UGRR) is vague, yet by the mid-1840s it was commonly used to refer to a clandestine system for runaway slaves. The UGRR was not particularly active for Delaware’s slaves, primarily because there were so few of them and slavery in Delaware was generally not as harsh as in the Deep South states.
Delaware was the dividing line between North and South — therefore, a prime thoroughfare for conducting slaves from other Southern states. The clandestine routes to freedom generally avoided well-traveled roads and pedestrian trails, and snaked their way from the Eastern Shore of Maryland through Delaware all the way to Philadelphia and New Jersey.
An intense desire for freedom was required to sustain the travelers as they passed through swamps, marshes and forests that made travel difficult while also providing welcome cover. Runaway slaves endured fatigue, hunger and disease, and faced the hazard of poisonous snakes, wild animals and the possibility of drowning.
Attempting to escape from slavery became particularly dangerous after the U.S. Congress passed the Fugitive Slave Law in 1850. The law required officials — even in states where slavery was illegal — to aid in the capture of fugitive slaves and imposed punishments on those who abetted escape. That led many slaves who successfully made their way into the Northern states to continue on into Canada, where they were less likely to be captured and returned to slavery.
The Choptank, Nanticoke and St. Jones rivers on the Eastern Shore provided geographic orientation for the escaped slaves, with “stations” along the way where they could regroup before pressing onward. These were located in such places as Vienna, Sharptown and Federalsburg, Md., as well as Camden-Wyoming, Dover, Middletown, Odessa and Wilmington, Del.
Thomas Garrett, whose Wilmington home was the last stop on the UGRR before the Pennsylvania line, gained fame over a 40-year period by helping more than 2,700 slaves reach freedom. Known as the great “station master” and “Delaware’s greatest humanitarian,” Garrett was born in 1789 in Upper Darby, Pa. He learned tolerance from his abolitionist Quaker parents, who hid runaway slaves in their farmhouse. He later relocated to the area known as Quaker Hill in Wilmington, where he conducted his UGRR operations.
Garrett was arrested, tried and convicted in the New Castle Delaware Courthouse in 1848 of aiding fugitive slaves to escape and was fined a considerable sum of money. He defiantly told the court, “If anyone knows a fugitive who wants shelter… send him to Thomas Garrett, and he will befriend him.”
William H. Williams, in his study “Slavery and Freedom in Delaware, 1639-1865,” commented that the heroic Quaker named Simeon Holliday in Harriet Beecher Stowe’s provocative novel “Uncle Tom’s Cabin” was thought to be based on Thomas Garrett.
One of the active conductors on the UGRR prior to the Civil War was Samuel Burris, who was a free black from Willow Grove, Del., who later moved to Philadelphia. Burris made trips into Delaware and Maryland to assist slaves to escape.
Arrested and jailed in Dover in 1847 for his activities, Burris was sentenced to be auctioned into slavery for 14 years. A Quaker abolitionist from Wilmington named Isaac Flint, however, masqueraded as a slaveholder and outbid the opposition for Burris and returned him to freedom in Pennsylvania. Burris continued to work for the freedom of slaves by raising money for the cause.
Harriet “Moses” Tubman — an escaped slave from Dorchester County, Md., who, like Samuel Burris, made numerous trips back into the South to conduct slaves to freedom — worked for the Union army during the Civil War as a cook and nurse, as well as an armed scout and spy.
While serving as a conductor on the UGRR, Tubman kept her escape routes secret. Later in life, however, she revealed that one of her stops was at the home a black minister named Sam Green in East New Market, Md., about 17 miles southwest of Seaford. From there and her parents’ home in Poplar Neck, Md., she moved northeast to Sandtown and Willow Grove, Del., onto Camden before being guided northward past Dover, Smyrna and Blackbird across the Chesapeake and Delaware Canal to New Castle and Wilmington.
Thomas J. Ryan is a Civil War author and speaker and former president of the Central Delaware Civil War Round Table in Dover. He lives in Bethany Beach. Contact him at email@example.com.