Railroad of Courage is a work of fiction. The events described in Rebecca’s flight to freedom are based on imagination, with inspiration from historical records. Many of the characters were real heroes on the Underground Railroad- Harriet Tubman, the Birdman and others. Historical references in the book are based on historical fact, for example, the Fugitive Slave Act.
Click on each name to read about these real historical figures who are in the book.Harriet Tubman
Harriet Tubman was born a slave in Maryland’s Dorchester County. Because there were no birth certificates for slaves, we do not know her birthdate but it is thought that she was born around 1820. At the age of five or six, she began to work as a house servant and seven years later she was sent to work in the fields. While she was still in her early teens, she suffered an injury that would trouble her for the rest of her life. Harriet blocked a doorway to protect another field hand from an angry overseer. The overseer picked up and threw a two-pound weight at the field hand but it fell short, striking Harriet on the head. She never fully recovered from the blow. From time to time, she would suddenly fall into a deep sleep and not awaken for some hours.
Harriet married a freed black man named John Tubman and took his last name. In 1849, she ran away, fearing that she was to be sold to another owner. She set out on foot. She followed the North Star by night, making her way to Philadelphia where she found work. Harriet returned to the South again and again to help others escape slavery. In time, people called her Moses after the Biblical character who led his people to freedom.
To learn more see the PBS site on the Underground Railroad.
In 1849, Henry “Box” Brown escaped slavery in Virginia by arranging to have himself mailed in a wooden crate to abolitionists in Philadelphia. The box was 3 feet long, 2 feet 8 inches deep and 2 feet wide – not a large space for a 33 year old man. The box was labelled “dry goods.” It was lined with baize, a coarse woolen cloth. There was a single hole cut in the wood for air and the box was nailed shut and tied with straps. Brown carried only a small portion of water and a few biscuits. During the trip, the box was transported by railroad, steamboat, ferry and delivery wagon. The journey took 27 hours, more than a day. Despite instructions on the box “Handle with Care” and “This Side Up,” the box was sometimes handled roughly and Brown found himself lying face-down. He remained still and avoided detection. After his arrival, he was nicknamed “Box” Brown.
For more information see Henry “Box” Brown.
The Crafts were slaves from Macon, Georgia, who escaped to the North in December 1848 by traveling openly by train and steamboat. They arrived in Philadelphia on Christmas Day. Ellen pretended to be a plantation owner, a man, and William pretended to be the man’s personal servant. Their daring escape was widely publicized, making them among the most famous of fugitive slaves. Abolitionists featured them in public lectures to gain support in the struggle to end the institution. With the passage of the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850, the Crafts were threatened by slave catchers in Boston so they emigrated to England. They lived there for nearly two decades and raised five children.
For more information see Ellen and William Craft.
Alexander Milton Ross was a doctor, an abolitionist, an author, a naturalist, and a reformer. He was born in 1832 in Belleville, Upper Canada. Ross studied medicine but he had many other interests. Upon completing his medical studies, he became active in the abolitionist movement, a cause he pursued with great energy. He travelled through the United States and Canada to study birds but, wherever he went, he found ways to help fugitive slaves. In his wanderings through the South, he held secret meetings with slaves to whom he gave information and supplies to enable them to find their way to Canada.
Ross knew many famous people such as the United States President Abraham Lincoln, for whom he acted as a secret agent to uncover Confederate activities in Canada. He also was a friend to famous authors, including Ralph Waldo Emerson, and William Lloyd Garrison, a leader of the abolitionist movement and editor of the Liberator. .
For more information visit the Dictionary of Canadian Biography.
Alton Illinois, was an active site for the Underground Railroad. Many freed blacks in Alton were part of the Underground Railroad. One conductor, James P. Thomas, was a freed black who lived on Belle Street, the site of the current Post Office in Alton.
For more information see Alton and the Underground Railroad.
“Mother” Priscilla Baltimore led a group of eleven families, composed of both fugitive and freed slaves. To flee slavery in St. Louis, Missouri, they crossed the Mississippi River to the free state of Illinois, where they established a “Freedom Village” near Alton. The official name for Freedom Village is Brooklyn, Illinois, but most people called it Freedom Village. Brooklyn is the oldest town incorporated by African Americans in the United States.
For more information see Priscilla Baltimore.
Elijah Parish Lovejoy was a minister, a journalist, a newspaper editor and an abolitionist. In 1836, Lovejoy left St. Louis, Missouri, and moved across the river to Alton in the free state of Illinois. In 1837 he started the Alton Observer, an abolitionist paper. Later that year, a pro-slavery mob attacked the warehouse where Lovejoy had his printing press. Lovejoy and his supporters exchanged gunfire with the mob and he was fatally shot. He was hailed as a hero by abolitionists across the country.
For more information see Elijah Parish Lovejoy.
William Still was an African-American abolitionist in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, a conductor on the Underground
Railroad, a businessman, a writer, an historian and a civil rights activist. Before the American Civil War, Still was chairman of the Vigilance Committee of the Pennsylvania Anti-Slavery Society. He directly aided fugitive slaves and kept records to help families reunite. After the war, Still wrote an account of the Underground Railroad entitled The Underground Railroad Records (1872).
For more information see William Still.
David Hull ran a small relay station for runaway slaves in Gibson County, Illinois, south of Chicago.
Seth Concklin sacrificed his life to aid the wife and family of Peter Still, a slave who bought his own freedom, but whose family remained in bondage. Concklin devised a plan to free Still’s family. The plan was a hazardous one, and he decided to act alone. The plan failed. He and the runaways were captured and Concklin died under mysterious circumstances.
For more information see The Underground Railroad in Gibson County, Illinois.
Although Illinois was a free state, state laws imposed a severe penalty upon anyone aiding a fugitive slave. But Reverend Deacon (Samuel) Cushing was not afraid of being arrested. Cushing assisted hundreds of fugitive slaves along the route to freedom. In 1843, after complaints from slave hunters in Missouri, Cushing was arrested, jailed and then released on bond. The prosecutor delayed going to trial but Cushing was entitled under law, to a speedy trial. When the prosecutor failed to prepare and present the case, the charges against Cushing were dropped.
For more information see The History of Jolliet.
Philo Carpenter was Chicago’s first pharmacist, and an outspoken abolitionist. He opened the settlement’s first drug store in a log cabin on what is now Lake Street. He travelled back East to marry his wife Ann. Shortly after, they rode into Chicago in a fancy carriage, the first pleasure vehicle to arrive in the town. Their trip in such a carriage showed that the area was safe from Indian attacks. In 1838, Carpenter helped to form and lead the Chicago chapter of the American Anti-Slavery Society. He and Ann hid runaway slaves in their large house.
For more information see Philo Carpenter.
Reverend William King was an abolitionist who was committed to helping runaway slaves make a home in Canada. Rev. King was born in Ireland in 1812 and immigrated to America in 1834. He married and raised a family in America, but later moved to Scotland. In 1846 he moved back to North America to do missionary work in Canada. When his father-in-law died, he inherited a number of slaves on a plantation in the South. In 1849, he brought all of them to Canada and established the Buxton Settlement (“Buxton”). Buxton Settlement, also known as Elgin Settlement, was one of only four settlements created solely for fugitive slaves finding refuge in Canada.
For more information see The History of Buxton.
Lucretia Mott was one of the leading voices in the abolitionist and feminist movements of her time. Raised in a Quaker community, she became a member of the Society’s ministry and adopted its anti-slavery views. Mott helped form the Philadelphia Female Anti-Slavery Society in 1833, and later was among the founders of the American women’s rights movement. Mott’s feminist philosophy was outlined in her Discourse on Women (1850), in which she argued for equal economic opportunity and voting rights. After helping to establish Swarthmore College in 1864, she served as head of the American Equal Rights Association
Elizabeth Cady Stanton was an American suffragist, social activist, abolitionist, and leading figure of the early women’s rights movement. Five women called for the Seneca Falls Convention, four of whom were Quaker social activists, including the well-known Lucretia Mott. The fifth was Elizabeth Cady Stanton, who had discussed the need to organize for women’s rights with Mott several years earlier. Stanton, who came from a family that was deeply involved in politics, became a major force in convincing the women’s movement that political pressure was crucial to its goals, and that the right to vote was a key weapon. An estimated 300 women and men attended the Seneca Falls Convention, a two-day event which was widely publicized by the press. The Convention’s Declaration of Sentiments was primarily written by Stanton. The Declaration expressed a desire to build a women’s rights movement and proposed that women be given the right to vote. It included a list of grievances aimed at the United States government and “demanded government reform and changes in male roles and behaviors that promoted inequality for women.” The Declaration of Sentiments is often credited with initiating the first organized women’s rights and women’s suffrage movements in the United States.
Click to read about some historical facts and events referenced by chapter.
The Fugitive Slave Act of 1850. The law required that all escaped slaves were, upon capture, to be returned to their masters and that officials and citizens of free states had to cooperate with this law. The Fugitive Slave Act penalized officials who did not arrest an alleged runaway slave, and made them liable to a fine of $1,000 (about $29,000 in today’s dollars). Law-enforcement officials everywhere were required to arrest people suspected of being runaway slaves. A slave owner did not have to show proof of ownership; he simply had to swear that the black men, women and children were his property. Suspected slaves could not ask for a jury trial or testify on their own behalf.
Knights of the Golden Circle. In the mid-1800’s, the Knights of the Golden Circle formed as a secret society in the United States. The original objective of the Knights was to annex a “golden circle” of territories in Mexico, Central America, northern South America, and the Caribbean for inclusion in the United States. The intent was that these territories would be slave states. George W.L. Bickley was the organization’s leading promoter and chief organizer. The Knights’ lodges were called “Castles” and they existed in several states. The Knights of the Golden Circle became one of the most powerful secret, subversive organizations in the history of the United States.
Abolitionists. Abolitionists wanted the immediate, unconditional, and total abolition of slavery in the United States. The white abolitionist movement in the North was led by social reformers such as William Lloyd Garrison, founder of the American Anti-Slavery Society. Writers like John Greenleaf Whittier and Harriet Beecher Stowe described the evil of slavery. Black activists included former slaves such as Frederick Douglass and freed blacks such as William Still.
The Religious Society of Friends (Quakers). The Religious Society of Friends (Quakers) was the first corporate body in Britain and North America to fully condemn slavery as both ethically and religiously wrong in all circumstances. Quaker records dating from the 1600s contain some of the earliest statements of anti-slavery sentiment. After the 1750s, Quakers actively engaged in attempts to sway public opinion in Britain and America against the slave trade and slavery in general. At the same time, Quakers became actively involved in the economic, educational and political well-being of former slaves.
The Mason-Dixon Line. The Mason-Dixon Line was surveyed between 1763 and 1767 by Charles Mason and Jeremiah Dixon to resolve a border dispute involving Maryland, Pennsylvania, and Delaware in Colonial America. States north of the line were free states and states south of the line were slave states.
Slavery in Canada. A small number of black slaves lived in the British regions of Canada in the 17th and 18th centuries. Many belonged to White Loyalists who fled the new American Republic. In Upper Canada, the Imperial Act of 1790 assured these new white immigrants that their slaves would remain their property. The Loyalists’ slaves were employed as domestic servants, farm hands, and skilled artisans.
By 1790, the abolition movement was becoming powerful in Upper Canada. The evil of slavery was shown by an incident where a slave woman was violently abused by her owner as he was shipping her to a new owner in the United States. In 1793 Chloe Clooey, in an act of defiance, yelled out screams of resistance. The slave owner’s abuse and Clooey’s resistance was witnessed by Peter Martin, a former slave. Martin brought the incident to the attention of Lieutenant Governor John Graves Simcoe. Under the guidance of Simcoe, the Act against Slavery of 1793 was approved. Under the Act, slaves already in the province would remain enslaved until death but no new slaves could be brought into Upper Canada. The children of female slaves would be slaves until they reached the age of 25, when they would be freed.
By 1800, the other provinces of British North America (which is now Canada) had effectively limited slavery through court decisions requiring the strict proof of ownership, which was rarely available. In 1819, the Attorney General of Upper Canada declared that by residing in Canada, black residents were set free, and that Canadian courts would protect their freedom. Slavery remained legal, however, until the British Parliament’s Slavery Abolition Act finally abolished slavery in most parts of the British Empire effective 1 August 1834.
The Dred Scott Case. In March, 1857, in one of the most controversial events preceding the American Civil War (1861-65), the U.S. Supreme Court issued a decision in the case of Dred Scott v. Sanford. The case had been brought before the court by Dred Scott, a slave who had lived with his owner in a free state before returning to the slave state of Missouri. Scott argued that his time spent in a free state entitled him to emancipation. In his decision, Chief Justice Roger B. Taney, a staunch supporter of slavery, disagreed: The court ruled that no black, free or slave, could claim U.S. citizenship, and therefore blacks were unable to petition the court for their freedom. The Dred Scott decision incensed abolitionists and heightened North-South tensions, which would erupt in war just three years later.
New England Primer. The New England Primer was the first reading primer designed for the American Colonies. It became the most successful educational textbook published in 18th century America and it became the foundation for most schooling before the 1790s.
The Suffragette Movement. Today, in Canada and the United States, a woman’s right to vote in elections is taken for granted. This was not the case in the mid-1800’s. In the story of Railroad of Courage, Lucretia Mott talks about her friendship with Elizabeth Cady Stanton. Both women helped to organize the first women’s rights convention ever held in Canada or the United States. (See Lucretia Mott and Elizabeth Cady Stanton in the list of Historical Figures above.)