Underground Railroad Quilt Code



(Adapted from Owen Sound Tourism Office, 1155 First Avenue West Owen Sound, Ontario, N4K 4K8)

      Secret messages in the form of quilt patterns aided slaves escaping the bonds of captivity in the Southern states before and during the American Civil War.

      Slaves could not read or write; it was illegal to teach a slave to do so. Codes, therefore, were part and parcel of the slaves’ existence and their route to freedom, which eventually became known as the Underground Railroad. Some forms of dance, spirituals, code words and phrases, and memorized symbols all allowed the slaves to communicate with each other on a level their white owners could not interpret. Codes were created by both whites aiding the slaves, and by Blacks aiding the slaves. The Blacks included other slaves, former slaves or free men and women. In slavery, secrecy was one way the blacks could protect themselves from the whites; even the youngest child was taught to effectively keep a secret from anyone outside of the family.

      Most quilt patterns had their roots in the African traditions the slaves brought with them to North America when they were captured and forced to leave their homeland. The Africans’ method of recording their history and stories was by committing it to memory and passing it on orally to following generations. Quilt patterns were passed down the same way. It is interesting to note that, in Africa, the making of textiles was done by males; it was not until the slaves’ arrival in North America that this task fell to the females.

      The quilt patterns, used in a certain order, relayed messages to slaves preparing to escape. Each pattern represented a different meaning. Some of the most common were “Monkey Wrench”, “Star”, “Crossroads”, and “Wagon Wheel”. Quilts slung over a fence or windowsill, seemingly to air, passed on the necessary information to knowing slaves. As quilts hung out to air was a common sight on a plantation, neither the plantation owner nor the overseer would notice anything suspicious. It was all part of a day’s work for the slaves.

      Characteristic of African culture is the communication of secrets through the use of common, everyday objects; the objects are seen so often they are no longer noticeable. This applied to the quilts and their patterns, stitching and knotting. It has been suggested that the stitching and the knotting on slave quilts contained secret information, too, as map routes and the distances between safe houses. Using the quilts, spirituals and code words, the slaves could effectively communicate nonverbally with each other and aid each other to escape.

      There is still controversy among historians and scholars over the quilt code theory, and whether or not escaping slaves actually used codes concealed within quilt patterns to follow the escape routes of the Underground Railroad. As oral histories leave no written record, there is no written proof that the codes in the quilt patterns actually existed. What remains are the stories passed down through the generations from the slaves themselves, and, following the code of secrecy, many of the stories were never told.



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Autumn Harvest Farm and Quilt Studio

77 Johnson Lane

Grafton, NH  03240


603-632-9144

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