Historian Timothy D. Walker helps tell story of Underground Railroad’s maritime route

With “Sailing to Freedom: Maritime Dimensions of the Underground Railroad,” a collection of illuminating essays, historian Dr. Timothy D. Walker and his colleagues shed light on a lesser-known and unappreciated facet of the self-emancipation story.

“Sailing to Freedom,” which has a companion exhibition opening May 20 at the New Bedford Whaling Museum, examines the critical role that coastal water routes played in enslaved persons’ successful escapes from the South.

Walker, who earned a Bachelor of Arts degree from Hiram College in Ohio in 1986, followed by Master of Arts and Doctor of Philosophy degrees from Boston University, has been a professor of history at University of Massachusetts Dartmouth since 2004.

The historian serves as Fulbright Scholar Program adviser and on the executive board of the Center for Portuguese Studies and Culture. He is a member of the graduate faculty of the department of Portuguese and an affiliated faculty member of department of Women’s and Gender Studies.

At first glance, Dr. Walker’s academic interests appear wide-ranging. His teaching focuses on Early Modern Europe, the Atlantic World, the Portuguese and their empire, maritime history, and European global colonial expansion. His research delves into the adoption of colonial Indigenous medicines by Europeans; slave trading in the Atlantic and Indian oceans; and commercial and cultural links between the Portuguese overseas colonies in Asia, Africa, and the Americas. He is a guest investigator at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, drawing historical climate data from archived whaling logbooks, Portuguese colonial, and other maritime documentation. 

Asked if there is a common thread in his scholarship, Walker answers without hesitation: the sea.

An Ohio native who crewed aboard tall ships as a way of experiencing and learning about the maritime world, Walker has taught history aboard numerous traditionally rigged sailing vessels, including the schooners Ernestina-Morrissey and Lettie G. Howard, the brig Niagara, and the ship “H.M.S.” Rose. A veteran of three circumnavigations with the Semester at Sea program, he serves on the state’s Schooner Ernestina-Morrissey Advisory Board.

Walker was quick to point out that while he is editor of and a contributor to “Sailing to Freedom,” “There are nine other authors besides myself, and everyone contributed a chapter, and I couldn’t have done the project without them. I had the great privilege to work with a number of really profoundly skilled and knowledgeable historians.”

New Bedford Light: What is the central mission of “Sailing to Freedom: Maritime Dimensions of the Underground Railroad”?

Timothy D. Walker, PhD: I would say that the real mission of the project is to change people’s minds and get them to think more broadly about the Underground Railroad. We’re taught that the Underground Railroad is largely a terrestrial phenomenon, that people were escaping over land, and that is certainly true — there are a lot of folks who did.

But the Underground Railroad as an institution functioned mainly in the North, and most of the people who escaped over land only escaped a very short distance. They started their bids for freedom just a couple of days’ walk at most from the border of a free state. It was almost impossible to escape over land from the far South because the logistical problems were just too difficult. But what was relatively easy to do if you lived on the southern coast of the United States, you could escape by water aboard a northbound ship.

And so, our mission for the book — myself and the other contributing authors — was to create an understanding that the ocean and maritime commercial seaways were extremely important for enslaved African Americans as escape routes to get them safely to the North without the danger and the added complications of escaping over land.

NBL: What were the advantages of escaping bondage by sea compared to over land?

TW: The advantages of escaping by sea compared to overland have much to do with simple logistics. If you get aboard a vessel and you succeed, either with the help of the crew or working on your own as a stowaway, once you’re aboard that vessel and you’re 3 miles out to sea — up until the Civil War, the U.S. only recognized coastal waters out to 3 miles, and that’s how far jurisdiction extended. So, once you’re 3 miles offshore, you’re pretty much beyond the arm of any legal authorities that can immediately reach out and try to apprehend you. You’re in danger when you go back to port.

But the real advantage was that you could travel great distances quickly. Overland, you’re walking and you’re trying to remain hidden and you’re trying to not be obvious as a fugitive. That means you’re probably going to travel only during restricted hours at night. …. It’s dangerous. There are constant threats to your liberty: People will be checking your papers or your permission to be moving northward as a fugitive and so the likelihood of being recaptured if you’re escaping over land was very, very high.

Conversely, if you’re on a ship … you’re going to be traveling very quickly — more than 100 miles a day, typically — and you’ll be in a northern port … in a matter of days. And you wouldn’t have to expend much effort. You would just be there for the ride. If you had a few days’ food with you, that would be enough, and water. And if you were escaping with the help of the crew, then your passage would likely be quite comfortable and you’d only have to be out of sight whenever there were any authorities around: coming into a port, having any contact with a pilot schooner, or with a customs vessel of some kind.

It was just simply a lot safer, a lot more efficient, and a lot more likely to succeed if you’re escaping by water. So almost all of the escapes from the Deep South, from the Carolinas, from Georgia, maybe from northern Florida — almost all of those successful documented escapes that we know about happen by water, whereas the overland escapes, almost all of them happened over very short distances.


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NBL: How did the maritime skills that enslaved men learned aid them in their escape?

TW: Another key point of the book and one of the main arguments we tried to make is that escape by water depended on knowledge and skills that potential escapees gathered over time. They did this by working on the waterfronts of the South and also as watermen out on the water in coastal trades and in waterborne shipping trades in the South.

So, it turns out that almost all of the labor prior to the Civil War and even probably after the Civil War along the southern U.S. seaboard was [done by] either enslaved or free Black mariners and watermen and waterfront workers. The great majority of them are enslaved, and what they’re learning is the rhythms of how ports work. They’re learning important knowledge that they can leverage to get out of bondage.

They know when ships are about to clear harbor. They’re often loading and unloading those vessels. They become familiar with crews from the North who may have abolitionist sentiments who would be willing to help them, and captains who might be willing to help them. They know when the law enforcement authorities make their rounds. They know how to hide aboard a vessel because they are the ones loading and unloading.

So, there are lots of reasons why someone with waterfront knowledge would have a huge advantage over someone, say, working as an agricultural plantation worker, or as someone working in one of the great houses of the South who’s a domestic … even if you’re just a few miles away from a port or a waterway, you’re not going to know how to use that [knowledge] to your advantage.

NBL: The coastal waterways and the Atlantic Ocean played an outsized but now overlooked role in the escape of enslaved persons. Why did the importance of these routes lose the spotlight?

TW: Most [historians and educators] didn’t have a close connection to the sea and at least in the latter half of the 20th century, most people trained as historians in American universities and colleges didn’t have a real maritime component to their training. So, they don’t work in maritime archives, they don’t pay much attention to how coastal trades work. They don’t have an understanding of just how important to the economy of the United States coastal shipping was prior to the Civil War and really even up to World War I.

There were always clouds of vessels, you know, thousands of them, going up and down the coast, every day, bringing goods northward and southward … because we didn’t have a system of interstate highways. We didn’t have bridges going over many of the main rivers and river arteries that that cut the eastern coast all the way up and down it. So, the most efficient way to move bulk goods was by sea. And that provided, of course, an opportunity for people escaping from the South.

But most historians weren’t aware of that in the 20th century because as we as a nation moved inland and moved westward, most people forget about the importance of the ocean. … I grew up in Ohio; I was born in Detroit, Michigan; and half my family’s there. Detroit was a major crossover point for people leaving the U.S. to go into Canada. So as a pass-through point for the Underground Railroad, it was extremely important. And where I grew up in Ohio, it was simply crisscrossed by Underground Railroad routes from the Ohio River up to the Great Lakes and then on into Canada.

And so, it was quite natural that as I grew up, I was aware of the Underground Railroad as an overland story. But when I moved to the East Coast, first to Boston to go to grad school and then to New Bedford to teach at UMass Dartmouth, and I started sailing on large sailing vessels, it really drove home to me that this maritime story was really underappreciated in American scholarship. And that’s no more clear than in the whole story of the Underground Railroad, where historians for a few generations have missed this really key part of the story. Curiously though, historians in the 19th century who were writing about the Underground Railroad were very much aware of [the maritime escape routes]. 

NBL: Between the mid-1700s and the middle of the Civil War, more than 200,000 advertisements were placed by owners seeking to recover escaped slaves. How are these illuminating for historical researchers?

TW: One of the first things you should always ask when you look at a work of history is how does the historian know what they’re telling you is true. What are the documents? What are the sources? For us, one of the main sources, caches of documentation, are these runaway slave ads that are published in U.S. newspapers … going back to the 1740s, and probably before. … [These ads] tell us not only who is escaping, and what they look like, and often some biographical information. It’s often noted, for example, if someone who had escaped, an enslaved person, if they were multi-lingual, if they had spent time in the Caribbean or another colony, if they had spent time at sea and worked on a sailing vessel, if they had skills of a sailor, it would note what their jobs had been.

You often get references to people working on waterfronts if they were a skilled caulker or had experience as a fisherman or oysterman or something like that. And so that gives us some hints about how someone might escape and then even more importantly, the owner would often give some guesses about how they thought their property had absconded.

They would speculate a bit, and they would usually say, ‘I think that they’ve got aboard a ship because of factor X, Y, and Z.’ Sometimes they would say, ‘We suspect that they might be going to New Bedford because they have family there.’ So, these runaway slave ads drove home again and again and again — not in every case, of course, but in a pretty high proportion of the cases — that people were actually escaping by water. …

That’s really the main body of documentation that we have, although there are others. We find information, for example, in legislation, in laws, and in city ordinances that are passed in the South to try to restrict people from escaping, to stop the constant flow of escapees out of ports and waterfront areas. And so that shows up on the lawbooks of Southern jurisdictions.

We also find [documentation] in published slave narratives that are published sometimes before and sometimes after the Civil War. … Of the more than 100 published accounts of escaped slaves in the United States, about 70% of them mention escape by water as a means of finding freedom.

NBL: This collection of essays is intended primarily for historians and educators. Do you think it is accessible to the general reader?

TW: When one takes on the task of being an editor for a collected volume like this, you have to lay out kind of ground rules and parameters for the contributors. And one of the things I asked them to do was to write a sophisticated essay for a general audience.

We really wanted this to be something that would be interesting to non-specialists, and we also wanted to make sure that people who were educating U.S. young people in secondary schools and even primary middle schools, that they would find the book accessible. I think that anyone who picks up this book, if they’re interested and they have a keen desire to understand how this worked, then they should have no problem with the book, although it can be assigned for university and college classes.

NBL: The seed of this book was planted in a program you developed for K-12 teachers about a dozen years ago. How did that come about?

TW: It’s interesting to note that the book came out of a series of workshops for teachers. About 13 years ago or so, the president of the New Bedford Historical Society, Lee Blake, approached me and said, ‘I have this idea because New Bedford was such an important place on the Underground Railroad, and because of its abolitionist past, and it was a place where many escaped persons came to live in freedom, we’d like to do a program that would highlight that history and make it better known.’ And she suggested that we apply for … a grant that was sponsored by the National Endowment for the Humanities. The program is called Landmarks in American history, and it’s designed specifically for university teachers in the summertime to teach courses for K-through-12 teachers across the United States. And we were funded to do this by the National Endowment for the Humanities. We were fortunate to get funding in 2011, 2013, and 2015. We were funded again for 2021, but we’re doing it this summer because of COVID.

We gave one-week workshops, twice each summer that we were funded, and we had about 80 teachers come from across the U.S. to learn about New Bedford’s role in the Underground Railroad.

In the process of doing that, I got to interact with a lot of academic specialists on the Underground Railroad and on people who were escaping to New Bedford. It became very clear very quickly that, gee, there was this great story about people escaping by water that we haven’t really talked about that much and that you don’t find very much in the literature about the Underground Railroad, the historical literature.

So, we decided that it would be a good subject for a book, and I took on took it upon myself [in 2015] to be the editor of this project, even though my academic training wasn’t previously focused specifically on Underground Railroad studies. I’ve done a lot of work on transatlantic and trans-Indian Ocean slave trading in the context of the Portuguese overseas Empire, and also the English, and the French, and the Dutch. But I hadn’t done much with the story that was in my own backyard.

I had been looking for a project that I could do something with the incredible records at the Whaling Museum and the New Bedford Free Public Library, and, you know, these great institutions that literally were a stone’s throw away from my house. So, I thought, ‘Gosh, I’m gonna do this,’ and the book is the result of that.

I invited several of the presenters who had come to New Bedford [for the NEH program] to … contribute chapters. And then other chapters were contributed by people that I recruited specifically because of the geographic locations that they study. So, someone to do, for example, Charleston, South Carolina, and someone else to do Hampton Roads, Virginia — these were places that were really important as exit points in the South — and then other people who were looking at entry points in the North.

NBL: In the essay contributed by Len Travers, UMD history professor emeritus, he discusses the role of maritime labor for Black men as recorded in New Bedford city directories before the mid-1850s. Is there any way to estimate the economic impact of this influx of newcomers?

TW: I think there are ways to estimate it, but it’s going to be pretty tentative and a little rough and ready. New Bedford had the highest population per capita of people of color of any city in the North prior to the Civil War. Even though the raw numbers were much bigger in places like New York and Philadelphia and Boston, in terms of a percentage of the entire population, New Bedford’s percentage is higher – it’s somewhere in the neighborhood of 8%. An astonishingly large percentage of those folks in the census of 1840 identified their birthplaces as being in the South. So, a person of color living in the North who was born in the South — the chances are very high that they were born into slavery prior to the Civil War. 

And they ended up here. How did they get here? Well, there are lots of ways they could have come to New Bedford. Frederick Douglass shows us and publishes an account of how he did it. But other people came, too. Sgt. William Carney, who was from North Carolina and ends up in New Bedford — well, one of the very few ways that he could have done it — we’ve already established that he probably didn’t walk, and he probably didn’t go over land. He had connections with oystermen in the region where he grew up, so he probably escaped by sea. There’s a real good chance that he did. And other people, too, who became real key figures of the Black community here in New Bedford.

So, their economic impact — they are doing all kinds of things. If they arrived in New Bedford with skills from the waterfront or from working on the water, then they have a ready home here. This is a very active working port [in the 1800s]. And furthermore, if you arrived as a fugitive and you wanted to stay out of sight of people who might come to re-enslave you, the bounty hunters who made their living by taking people back to enslavement, one of the ways to do that was to sign aboard a whaling vessel and be gone for two to three years. … a lot of people who escaped from enslavement ended up either working in maritime trades on the New Bedford waterfront or signing aboard whaling voyages.

NBL: The New Bedford Whaling Museum is hosting an exhibition, also titled “Sailing to Freedom: New Bedford and the Underground Railroad,” and there also will be two sessions of National Endowment for the Humanities Landmarks Workshops for School Teachers in July. Can you tell me more about that?

TW: The exhibition, it’s going to run for six months, May to November. Then in the summer, we’ll have the NEH program again. We have nearly 80 teachers coming to New Bedford from across the U.S. …

The exhibition is … more focused on New Bedford and this region, Buzzards Bay, but it does try to tell the broader story of the entire maritime dimension of the Underground Railroad, but maybe through the lens of New Bedford as an important endpoint. New Bedford was this terminus that became very important for the maritime Underground Railroad.

And then, in September, we’ll have a conference which will bring together [most of the contributing authors to the volume]. … We’ll have panels and then we’re going to have discussants who are other academics and teachers who will sort of talk about and ask questions and try to give a more critical read to this piece of work that we’ve done.

The book is a starting point. And what every scholar would like to see, I think, we don’t claim, and it wasn’t our intention, to have the last word on this. We hope it will be a starting point for other people to spin off new scholarship. …

But we hope that the conference and the workshops for teachers and this exhibition will really get people thinking about and changing their view of what the Underground Railroad really meant, and what seeking freedom meant for African Americans prior to the Civil War and prior to the amendments that followed the Civil War. The whole story of seeking freedom, up to now has been pretty much a land-based story …

What the maritime dimension really throws light on is that a lot of the folks who are escaping from the coastal far South are doing it entirely on their own initiative. They’re actually only engaging with the Underground Railroad when they get to the North. So, what they’re doing is they’re using the knowledge base and the information that they have gleaned from years of exposure to the maritime trades and the waterfront labor that they’re actively engaged in, and they’re turning that to their advantage, but they’re not getting help from other people. This is, you know, this is self-determination at the highest level, of figuring out ways to achieve liberty through means that they’ve come to know by working on the waterfront or working on the water.

And that’s something that’s sometimes missed in the way that the Underground Railroad is taught or has been taught in the U.S. until relatively recently. The focus was on the agents of the Underground Railroad who were often very well-meaning white abolitionists, but this puts the onus of responsibility into the hands of the enslaved people themselves. And I think that’s an important part of the story, too.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity. Learn more about the New Bedford Whaling Museum exhibition, “Sailing to Freedom: Maritime Dimensions of the Underground Railroad,” at whalingmuseum.org. The book is available in the museum shop. 

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