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Underground Railroad Symbols & Secret Codes


Underground Railroad Symbols & Secret Codes:
Andrew Jackson was the 7th American President who served in office from March 4, 1829 to March 4, 1837. One of the important events during his presidency was the emergence of the Underground Railroad and the use of secret signs and codes to help help people escape from slavery.

Definition and Summary of the Underground Railroad Symbols & Secret Codes
Summary and definition:
The Underground Railroad Symbols were secret codes, words, signals and signs used by pass hidden messages to and from slaves who were escaping slavery and those who were helping them in this very dangerous activity.

The success of the Underground Railroad was dependent on complete secrecy.

Underground Railroad Symbols for kids: The Underground Railway History
There were harsh penalties for runaway slaves and their helpers - refer to the Fugitive Slave Act. Although slaves had been trying to escape from slavery for many years the name "Underground Railroad" only started to be used in 1831 following
the religious revival of the Second Great Awakening which resulted in the 1830 Abolitionist Movement which became active following Nat Turner's Rebellion leading to the establishment of the Underground Railroad.

Underground Railroad Symbols for kids: The Name "Underground Railway"
The term "Underground Railroad" was chosen in 1831 as a secret code name for the escape routes used by fugitive slaves. The reason the name was chosen was this date coincided with
the time the first railroads began to run in America - refer to American Railroads. The word "underground" was added meaning a covert group organized to hide a secret operation.

Underground Railroad Symbols for kids: Symbols and Signs
The "Underground Railroad", operating under essential secrecy, adopted many symbols and signs that were made known to the fugitive slaves:

  • Passwords were used to ensure the fugitives were genuine

  • Messages were sent by drumming stones together

  • The hoot of an owl was used to convey messages

  • Certain Songs were sung as symbols of Underground Railway members

  • "All Clear" was conveyed in safe houses using a lighted lantern in a certain place as this symbol

  • Knocks on doors used a coded series of taps as symbols of identity

  • Certain items, such as a quilt, were hung on a clothesline

Underground Railroad Symbols for kids: Quilt Codes
Unsubstantiated theories has been offered that quilts were made containing Underground Railway symbols. The use of symbols on quilts were said to be an effective way for slaves to communicate nonverbally with each other and  help each other to escape. This does make some sense in relation to quilts being hung on clotheslines. Symbols used to indicate routes:

  • Geese symbols flying North

  • Crossroads symbols that indicated Cleveland, Ohio

  • Bears Paw symbols conveying a message to take a mountain route

  • Bow tie symbols meaning it would be necessary to change from slave clothing

  • Broken dish symbols which would be used as directional symbols along the escape route

  • Symbols of log cabins told slaves to look for this symbol on their journey to freedom

  • Box symbols that indicated it was time to pack (box-up) ready to escape

  • Patterns called a monkey wrench were were symbols reminding slaves to prepare for the journey taking weapons or tools that would help on their journey

  • North Star symbols indicating the way to freedom

Underground Railroad Symbols for kids: The Secret Code Names
Once the name "Underground Railroad" had been established, it was logical to use other secret words, phrases, codes, signs and symbols that referred to the operation of a real railroad. At this time everyone was talking about the new American railroad. It was essential to keep escape plans completely secret and by using these secret codes anyone who overheard such conversations would think they were talking about the railroad, not runaway slaves.

Underground Railroad Symbols: The Secret Language of the "Underground Railway"
The meaning of words and symbols used in the "Underground Railroad" relating to railways were as follows:

Underground Railroad: The name for the secret network of organizations and operations who helped slaves to escape slavery

Railroad Line: Line referred to the route from one safe house to another

Conductor: Conductors were those who guided fugitive slaves between safe houses

Station master: The station master was the owner of a safe house

Station / Depot: Station and Depot were the secret names given to hiding places or safe houses used during escapes

Cargo / Freight: Cargo or Freight was the name given to fugitive slaves who received assistance from conductors on the Underground Railroad

Passengers: Passengers was another name give to slaves traveling the escape routes

Baggage: Baggage was another secret name for a fugitive slave

Parcels: Term to indicate that fugitive slaves were on their way to a safe house

Stockholders: The name given to abolitionists who donated money, food, shelter and clothing to the Underground Railway

Ticket Agents: Agents was the name given to those who coordinated and planned escape routes. Slaves were  given a 'ticket'

Operator or Engineer: Other names for a conductor (the guides)

Jumping off place: Place of safe shelter for fugitive slaves

Patty Rollers or Paddy Rollers: Patty Rollers, Pattyrollers or Paddy Rollers were slave catchers. Probably a derivation of patrollers but 'Roller rigs' was used for the investigation of steam locomotives

US American History
1829-1841: Jacksonian Era

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Updated 2018-01-01

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