Sesquicentennial Underground Railroad and Civil War Era Quilt
Exhibit, from Aug. 21 through Aug. 24, offered more than intricate
patterns and detailed stitches. It revealed a secret code that sent
messages to slaves who were trying to escape to the North during the
Civil War era.
Each pattern was a
code that told the slaves and their helpers to go a certain
direction along the Underground Railroad. Among these paths were
routes throughout Illinois. Though Lincoln is not specifically
mentioned in the historic writings on the subject, it is believed
that Lincoln was on the Quincy path to Chicago.
Below is a list of
the patterns and their meanings. According to event director Toni
Leoman, because many slaves could not read or write English,
original African symbols were used to send a specific message. This
message was given only to trusted slaves who were planning an
escape. These quilts were then hung on clotheslines or windows along
This meant the slaves were to gather all the tools they might need
on the journey to freedom. Tools meant something with which to build
shelters, compasses for determining direction, or tools to serve as
weapons for defending themselves.
This was the second pattern to be displayed, which signaled the
slaves to pack all the things that would go in a wagon or that would
be used during the journey. This was signal for the slaves to think
about what essentials they needed to survive the trip.
(Wagon Wheel variation)
This pattern would have particular significance to slaves skilled in
a craft, such as carpentry. (Other patterns might be an Anvil,
Circular Saw, Square and Compass) It was also a symbol to "steal
away" -- a visual equivalent to the popular spiritual "Steal Away,"
which many slaves knew and sang. The pattern told slaves to "run
with faith" to the West-Northwest territories.
It is believed that this pattern was sometimes used to help
fugitives follow the path of the bear and to identify landmarks on
the edge of the plantation.
Once through the mountains, slaves were to travel the crossroads.
The main crossroad was Cleveland, Ohio. Any quilt hung before this
one would have given directions to Ohio.
This pattern was used to let the slaves know where safe houses were.
People who helped the Underground Railroad may have identified
themselves as friends to slaves on the run by tracing this pattern
in dirt as a signal. This quilt told slaves to look for this symbol
on their journey to freedom. It was also a symbol to set up a "home"
in a free state.
Little is known about this pattern. It is believed that Shoofly
refers to an actual person who might have aided escaping slaves.
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