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The Little-Known Underground Railroad That Ran South to Mexico

October 24, 2018 in History

By Becky Little

The Fugitive Slave, painted by John Adam Houston.

The Underground Railroad ran south as well as north. For slaves in Texas, refuge in Canada must have seemed impossibly far away. Fortunately, slavery was also illegal in Mexico.

Researchers estimate 5,000 to 10,000 people escaped from bondage into Mexico, says Maria Hammack, who is writing her dissertation about this topic at the University of Texas at Austin. But she thinks the actual number could be even higher.

“These were clandestine routes and if you got caught you would be killed and lynched, so most people didn’t leave a lot of records,” says Hammack.

There’s some evidence that tejanos, or Mexicans in Texas, acted as “conductors” on the southern route by helping people get to Mexico. In addition, Hammack has also identified a black woman and two white men who helped enslaved workers escape and tried to find a home for them in Mexico.

A slave auction in Austin, Texas.

Mexico abolished slavery in 1829 when Texas was still part of the country, prompting white, slave-holding immigrants to fight for independence in the Texas Revolution. Once they formed the Republic of Texas in 1836, they made slavery legal again, and it continued to be legal when Texas joined the U.S. as a state in 1845.

Enslaved people in Texas were aware that there was a country to the south where they could find different levels of freedom (though indentured servitude existed in Mexico, it was not the same as chattel slavery). Hammack has discovered one runaway named Tom who had been enslaved by Sam Houston. Houston was a president of the Republic of Texas who’d fought in the Texas Revolution. Once Tom got across the border, he joined the Mexican military that Houston had fought against.

Enslaved people got to Mexico in many different ways. Some went on foot, while others rode horses or snuck aboard ferries bound for Mexican ports. Stories spread about enslaved people who crossed the Rio Grande river dividing Texas from Mexico by floating on bales of cotton, and several Texas newspapers reported in July 1863 that three enslaved people had escaped this way. Even if this wasn’t logistically possible, the imagery of floating to freedom on a symbol of slavery was strong.

Fugitive Slave Acts (TV-PG; 1:57)

But it wasn’t only enslaved people in Texas who found freedom in Mexico. …read more


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