Signs, Symbols and Signals of the Underground Railroad Essay

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Signs, Symbols and Signals of the Underground Railroad

A journey of hundreds of miles lies before you, through swamp, forest and mountain pass. Your supplies are meager, only what can be comfortably carried so as not to slow your progress to the Promised Land – Canada. The stars and coded messages for guidance, you set out through the night, the path illuminated by the intermittent flash of lightning. Without a map and no real knowledge of the surrounding area, your mind races before you and behind you all at once. Was that the barking of the slavecatchers’ dogs behind you or just the pounding rain and thunder? Does each step bring you closer to freedom or failure? The Underground Railroad was an escape network of small,
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Mr. Still was unusual in that he kept careful, written records of those he assisted, including short biographies on some, which he published in 1872. Mr. Still often employed railroad metaphors in his writing. The following example illustrates the way messages were encoded so that only those active in the railroad would fully understand their meaning, even if intercepted by outsiders:
“I have sent via a two o’clock four large and two small hams,” which indicated that four adults and two children were being sent by train from Harrisburg to Philadelphia.” (Wikipedia, Underground Railroad)

The use of the word via was to indicate that they were not sent on a regular locomotive, but via Reading, PA. In this case the authorities went to the train station in Philadelphia with the hopes of intercepting the fugitives, allowing Still’s agent to meet them in Reading and escort them to safety.
Some preachers, friends of the cause, were said to have encoded their sermons to inform select parishioners of the arrival and departure of fugitives over the course of the coming week. Some wore a specific colored handkerchief in their pocket to indicate a meeting to be held or impending arrival of fugitives. As a matter of necessity, stationmasters were accustomed to knocks on their doors or windows at odd hours of the night. The response to the question of “Who’s there?” was

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