In early September 1832, eleven-year-old slave Harry boarded the steamboat James Monroe in New Orleans. Even though he traveled by water, Harry was on the Underground Railroad. The Underground Railroad wasn’t a real railroad, it was a network of paths and people that helped slaves escape slavery before and during the Civil War.
In some parts of the country, there were large groups of abolitionists (people who wanted to outlaw slavery), who set up networks for escaped slaves to follow to freedom. In Arkansas, especially in the Fayetteville area, some abolitionists helped slaves. However, the networks were not nearly as organized as they were in the east.
Harry was trying to escape his owner, Mrs. Phillips, who lived in New Orleans. He managed to hide on the steamboat for roughly 315 miles up the Mississippi River, about 31 hours, without being found. Once the James Monroe reached Chicot County, Arkansas, Harry was discovered.
A Justice of the Peace, James Blaine, brought Harry to the local jail. By late September, Harry was still in jail when the local government put an advertisement in the Arkansas Gazette requesting that his owner pay to have Harry returned to New Orleans.
No one knows what happened to Harry after his time in jail, but there are several possibilities. First, Mrs. Phillips may have seen the notice and then sent proof that she owned Harry to the local authorities. If so, he would have been returned to New Orleans. If Mrs. Phillips never saw the notice and no one claimed to own Harry, the law allowed him to be imprisoned for the rest of his life. He could have also been sold in Chicot County, to pay the expense of keeping him in the jail.
Escaped slaves in Arkansas generally took three routes toward freedom. Many, like Harry, hid on steamboats until they reached a free state. Some headed southwest, toward Texas. Others went northwest, toward Kansas.
Abolitionists who helped such slaves escape often used specific signals to let the slaves know that a particular place might be safe for them to shelter. One of those signals was the use of “Underground Railroad Lanterns.” Such lanterns were hung on hitches outside houses. A dark lantern meant it was too dangerous to stop. A lit lantern meant that it was safe for escaped slaves to rest there for the night.
Such signal lanterns were important for escaped slaves, who were often forced to sleep outdoors, with no tent or bedding, while on the Underground Railroad. The lanterns represented not just a sign of safe haven, but also stood as a symbol of hard won freedom.
Photo courtesy of Library of Congress.