Patrick D. Weadon

Cryptography is protection. It is what the carapace is to the turtle, camouflage to a bat. The objective is self-preservation. David Kahn, Author of The Codebreakers

Contents:

Cryptology and The Slave Quilts
Background
The Fugitive Slave Laws and the Underground Railroad
How the System Worked
"Follow the Drinking Gourd"

 

Cryptology and The Slave Quilts
Cryptology or secret writing is an ancient art that has been used in innumerable ways by countless cultures and empires since the dawn of time. From an American perspective, cryptology has always been part of the fight to preserve freedom. The history of America and of secret communications includes many examples of enterprising men and women who, with little in the way of resources, developed innovative devices and systems that have become a part of this cryptologic legacy of freedom. One of the most inspiring stories is the creation of slave quilts in the early and mid-1800s. The secret messages embedded in the quilts, some say, assisted slaves from the South in their efforts to escape to freedom in the North. Each quilt contained a specific code or message that conveyed important information to those who were attempting the dangerous journey from the southern regions of the nation to the free states and Canada.

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Background
Most of the source information regarding these quilts comes to us from the research of Dr. Raymond G. Dobard and Jacqueline L. Tobin, whose book, Hidden in Plain View, explores all aspects of the story. Much of their research on the quilts is based on information provided by the late Ozella McDaniel Williams, an African-American girot, or keeper of stories.

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The Fugitive Slave Laws and the Underground Railroad

Image: Fugitive slaves escaping to freedom on the Underground Railroad

Fugitive slaves escaping to freedom on the Underground Railroad
Photograph courtesy of the New York Public Library

Almost from our republic's inception, those who held slaves were concerned with protecting what they perceived as their "property." Those in bondage were subjected to a harsh and cruel existence. As one would expect, many who found themselves in this situation quickly determined that their only hope was escape. In an effort to assist the slave owners in the protection of their "property," Congress passed fugitive slave laws in 1793 and 1850. These directives were specifically designed to put a stop to "runaway slaves" and to make it easier for slave owners to pursue slaves who had fled to the free states. The fugitive slave laws made the prospect of fleeing to the North a difficult process. In order to be successful, it was necessary to utilize stealth and deception. In short, individuals trying to escape would have a difficult time trying to go it alone. The loose network formed to meet these challenges was termed "the Underground Railroad." Quakers began the "railroad" in 1780, and by 1830 it had achieved legendary status among those who sought to escape slavery. "Conductors" would see to it that the "passengers" made it to border points such as Cincinnati, Ohio, and Wilmington, Delaware, or to Great Lake ports such as Detroit, Michigan, or Buffalo, New York, for quick passage to Canada.

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How the System Worked

Image: Underground RailroadUnderground Railroad
Cincinnati Art Museum, Subscription fund purpose 1927.26

In order for the Underground Railroad to work effectively, it was necessary to relay information to those attempting to make the trip to freedom. Direct communication, however, was not an option. Any overt signal would be quickly discovered. In order to overcome this problem, the principals involved created a system based on designs sewn into quilts that could be conspicuously displayed in appropriate places. Like any good system of subterfuge, the quilts appeared as commonplace items to the adversaries of fugitive slaves. However, to those in flight, the quilts were an encouraging symbol that advised them of the who, what, when, and how of their journey to freedom. Many of the symbols sewn into the patterns are obvious in their meanings, such as the monkey wrench, which denoted that it was time to gather the tools required to make the journey, or sailboats, which indicated the availability of boats for the crossing of crucial bodies of water. Other symbols were more cryptic, such as the star pattern, which had several variations but whose purpose was to point to the North Star. The Drunkard's Path pattern served to remind those on the run to move east to west (in much the way a drunken man staggers) during their journey. In short, the quilts were an invaluable aid in finding safe houses and in providing instructions, warnings, or reminders to those who were desperately trying to avoid capture.

Image: Picture of the Crossroads pattern of the Slave Quilt Image: Picture of the Wagon Wheel pattern of the Slave Quilt Image: Picture of the North Star pattern of the Slave Quilt Image: Picture of the Log Cabin pattern of the Slave Quilt
Crossroads Wagon Wheel North Star Log Cabin

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"Follow the Drinking Gourd"
In retrospect, one can truly admire the intellectual effort put into the design of the system. History records that over 60,000 individuals were able to make it to freedom due to the existence of the Underground Railroad. How many of these intrepid travelers made it north due to the secret messages displayed in the quilts will never be known. What can be said is that the quilt system, like the array of codemaking and codebreaking devices used throughout our nation's history to preserve freedom, serves as a testament to human innovation and accomplishment in the face of adversity. One can imagine the comfort these inventive designs provided to those who had made the dangerous, but ultimately worthwhile, decision to "follow the drinking gourd." The term "drinking gourd" is from a popular song of the time: It refers to the North Star, which served a major navigation guide to those pursuing liberty and freedom.

"Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere."
Martin Luther King,
Birmingham Alabama, 1963