Wednesday, December 09, 2009

Eighteenth Century Living: The Underground Railroad

Harriet Tubman and John Brown are names readily associated with the Underground Railroad, a network of secret routes and safe houses used by nineteenth century slaves in the United States to escape to the northern states or Canada, and freedom.

During the early research for Kindred (which deals largely with issues of slavery), I began to wonder about the hundreds, maybe thousands, of nameless men and women who first harbored escaped slaves, or conducted them northward in their flight. The Underground Railroad didn't simply spring into being one day in the 19C, fully realized and operational. There had to be a first man or woman to help an escaping slave along her road. But who were they? And when did they get the notion, and the courage, to do so?

There can be no knowing, since a huge element of the success of such endeavors was secrecy. No doubt many an early abolitionist carried his secrets to the grave.
Recently author Laura Frantz posted on her blog about her historical heroes, and in pondering the question for myself, I knew that these unknown heroes who laid the first tracks for the Underground Railroad were some of mine.

One who stands in place for them all is a man named Levi Coffin. He was a Quaker, a North Carolinian with Nantucket roots, and he, along with his cousin Vestal Coffin, became "the founders of the earliest known scheme to transport fugitives across hundreds of miles of unfriendly territory to safety in the free states."*  The year was 1819.

Kindred is set some twenty-five years earlier, in 1793-4. Still my mind would not let go of the possibility that someone else, somewhere, had gotten the idea that it was a good thing to help escaping slaves to their freedom, in defiance of law and social pressure. And then I found what might have been the impetus for the taking of such risky action.

The year 1792 saw the publishing of the first slave narrative, by Olaudah Equiano (as portrayed by Youssou N'Dourin in one of my favorite films, Amazing Grace).

Between my knowledge of Equiano's narrative, and my surmises on the grassroots beginnings of the URR, was born two of Kindred's secondary characters, the Quaker, Benjamin Eden, a passionate abolitionist, and Thomas Ross, a free black man who has never known slavery, has been raised in a white family, and is shaken by the things he's read in Equiano's book, shaken out of complacency and onto a path that will forever change his, and many others, destiny.

For more information about Levi Coffin, visit author Carla Gade's geneaology blog. Small world that it is, turns out Levi Coffin is mentioned in Carla's family tree.

*Bound for Canaan, The Underground Railroad and the War for the Soul of America, by Fergus M. Bordewich.


  1. Such a wonderful post! I just love that there have always been people who knew, by the grace of God, that no matter what society deemed acceptable, treating God's children that way was wrong, and that they risked their lives to put it right. What a wonderful thing to incorporate into a novel!!

  2. You're inspiring me to revisit Amazing Grace, as it's been quite a while since I've watched that film.

    Are you familiar with Lynn Austin's Civil War series? If memory serves, at least one of the books dealt with the Underground Railroad.

  3. Awesome post, Lori! I really feel, though I've only read excerpts of Kindred, that it is a truly epic novel, one you were meant to write. You've taught me a lot and I'm so pleased to meet Levi Coffin and know that you've drawn inspiration from him. Neat to think that the underground railroad had its roots in our beloved 18th-c.

    ps Amazing Grace is one of my favs, too. It has some magical moments.

  4. Maisey,

    Amen. These are my heroes. And men like William Wilberforce (depicted in the film Amazing Grace), who fought very visibly to end injustice his entire adult life.

  5. Ruth,

    I love Lynn's writing, and I have read the first in that series. How I wish there was more time or that I read faster!

    I'm going to admit here that I went to see Amazing Grace in the theater... 10 times. Not long ago a friend of mine was able to sit down at a table with Ken Wales, one of the movie's producers, and she told him about my enthusiasm for his film. I'll likely never meet him, but that was such a blessing to ME, knowing that he knows. I wish more such movies were being made.

  6. Laura,

    When I posted that trailer I was thinking, if Laura is not already a fan of this movie I'll eat my copy!

  7. Ten times? That's awesome - AG is a movie well deserving of that. And it's so wonderful that someone was able to tell a producer of the film about your passion for the story. I have to think that was a mighty blessing.

  8. What an inspiring post, Lori. Isn't it a blessing to be able to write about such important parts of history, even in fiction. I am just thrilled at the opportunity to be able to further illuminate some of these interesting people and events. I love researching them and get tickled when I learn they are in the branches of my own family tree. Levi Coffin, for one (thanks, for mentioning my genealogy blog).

    Every time I hear more about Kindred I get more excited about it. It's awesome that you are capturing such an important topic, and in such a creative way. I like the idea about the free black man who is shaken upon reading Equiano's book.

    Amazing Grace is one of my very favorite movies, also.

  9. Carla,

    I'd like to have a look at your family tree sometime. You've so many interesting characters up in those branches. Do you have it on line?

    Kindred sounds a little different when written about from the POV of a secondary character, but then, I wrote it trying to keep in mind that every character in the story sees themselves as the "hero." Even the antagonist. So I tried to give them all some sort of goal or motivation to often work at cross purposes with Ian and Seona. Even if I'm the only one who knows what each character's goal or desire is, the fact that they have one I hope will make for a stronger cast and greater purpose and tension in scenes, and over all.

    That was the plan, anyway. Somewhere along in the writing process, probably on a day I was feeling muddled about this character or that, I took some time to write a diary entry of sorts in the first person, for each character who had a significant part to play in the story, who had something of an arc. That helped immensely in cementing their character in my mind. I'd never done an exercise like that, but I recommend it if a character won't come clear. I remember getting a few surprises, and finding some sympathy for one or two not-so-nice characters.

    Now if what was settled in my head actually got transmitted to the page... that remains to be seen. :)

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  11. Laura,

    Oh funny. I've certainly watched TLOTM that many times on DVD. I often still play my favorite scenes, in large part to hear the music--inspiring, sweeping, epic.

  12. Hi Lori,

    I'm still working on getting the family tree online, so far it is just the closest members so it probably wouldn't value you much at this point. It's on my genealogy blog.

    I'm glad you shared some about your process for working out your POV and characters. The writing exercise sounds like a great idea which I think I'll try. Very good advice worthy of following!

    I watch a lot of period movies, too. With a writer's eye, of course.