The Underground Railroad was a pre-Civil War movement which combined clandestine action to aid men and women fleeing slavery with political efforts to make enslavement of human beings illegal throughout the United States. Taking advantage of increasingly available primary and secondary materials on the Underground Railroad and its role in the abolition movement, Fergus M. Bordewich in Bound for Canaan chronicles the numerous routes by which African American slaves fled their masters and credits numerous persons who made the system work.
Bordewich takes the title for his history of the Underground Railroad from the words of Frederick Douglass, former slave and fervent abolitionist:We [slaves] were at times remarkably buoyant, singing hymns, and making joyous exclamations, almost as triumphant in their tone as if we had reached a land of freedom and safety. A keen observer might have detected in our repeated singing of
O Canaan, sweet CanaanI am bound for the land of Canaan,
something more than a hope of reaching heaven. We meant to reach the North, and the North was our Canaan.
Bordewich’s title also seems a deliberate echo of that of Kate Larsen’s acclaimed Bound for the Promised Land (2003), a biography of Underground Railroad heroine Harriet Tubman.
This study of the Underground Railroad is important because Bordewich brings together in one comprehensive narrative the myriad and diverse strands of a complex and significant historic movement. He acknowledges earlier studies important in his work, including Wilbur H. Seibert’s The Underground Railroad from Slavery to Freedom (1898) and Larry Gara’s The Liberty Line: The Legend of the Underground Railroad (1961). The former is the first comprehensive study of the Underground Railroad; the latter is important for disproving a prevailing “myth . . . that overemphasized the role of white Northerners” in the movement. Gara argues, and Bordewich substantiates Gara’s view, that “the central figures in the history of the underground were the fugitive slaves themselves.”
Bordewich’s study also relies on numerous local histories of the Underground movement and biographies of heretofore unknown heroes and heroines of the movement, most published in the last decades of the twentieth century A final important antecedent to Bordewich’s book is Julie Ray Jeffrey’s The Great Silent Army of Abolitionism: Ordinary Women in the Anti-Slavery Movement (1998). Feeding and clothing fugitive slaves in the middle of the night were regular tasks for which Bordewich gives appropriate attribution in his effort to make his account of the Underground Railroad truly inclusive of all who contributed to the work of aiding fugitive slaves. Finally, Bordewich’s extensive travels and research add to his broad and deep study. A bibliography acknowledges all sources.
The overall narrative is structured in two basic patterns, geographical and chronological. First, the text moves from slaveholding Southern states and territories to nonslaveholding Northern states and territories and Canada. Four maps accompany Bordewich’s narrative. These are necessary tools for following the Underground Railroad’s wide and ever-growing range of starting and ending points across settled areas of the United States and in Canada. A full-page map covers all geographic regions covered by the Underground Railroad from 1800 to 1850. Smaller maps detail areas of highest activity: the Philadelphia region, sites of African American settlements in Canada, and the intersecting border regions of northern Kentucky and Virginia and southern Indiana and Ohio. Second, the narrative moves chronologically, from 1800 through the Civil War, tracing the growth of the Underground Railroad against the rapid changes of a fast-growing and spreading people moving from agriculture to commerce and industrial revolution. The text records an ever-increasing numbers of slaves fleeing bondage after 1830 via the Underground Railroad as well as the heightening political debate and violent exchanges between pro- and antislavery advocates. There is no doubt that the Underground Railroad was a major cause of the growth in abolitionist sentiment which culminated in John Brown’s violent attack at Harpers Ferry, Virginia, and the American Civil War....
(The entire section is 1825 words.)