The fact that there were underground railroad maritime routes through Cape Cod may come as a shock to most people. In fact, most people may not even realize that slaves escaped the South via maritime vessels at all.
Several southern slaves would have escaped via maritime routes that ran through New Bedford and Nantucket.
In this article, we will take a deeper look at how slaves escaped the south using maritime vessels and more specifically how that route took them through Cape Cod.
Coastal Trade Fueled the Economy
Many people don’t realize that trade between the North and South was fueled by coastal trade during the 1800s. The sea routes between the Carolinas and New England would have looked much like I-95 today.
Northern states would bring oil and other luxury goods down from New England in exchange for raw goods like cotton and tobacco in the south. The transport of these goods was essential for both economies.
Slaves Working on the Coast
African Americans that were enslaved in coastal towns were forced to work in the harbors in order to ensure the smooth operation of the ports and load and unload the ships. The slaves working on the docks were able to learn a unique set of maritime skills that would ultimately help them escape.
The slaves working in ports would escape through three different methods:
- With the assistance of Northern crews who sailed to Southern ports often
- Paying a fee to captains in exchange for secret passage
- Using knowledge of the maritime schedule to sneak onboard ships traveling north
Eventually, the Southern states caught on and enforced strict laws against helping slaves escape via maritime vessels, making it extremely dangerous for Northern crews to coordinate escapes. Therefore, enslaved individuals on the Southern coast most typically escaped by sneaking onboard.
The trip from North Carolina to New England only took about a week, so it was perfectly feasible for slaves to stay hidden for the entirety of the trip.
New Bedford’s role in the Underground Railroad Maritime Routes Through Cape Cod
How was Cape Cod involved in all of this? New Bedford, a town just south of the Cape, was a very busy port prior to the Civil War. It’s believed that thousands of slaves escaped the South on the four to five-day boat trip from Norfolk, Virginia to New Bedford, Massachusetts.
In fact, the escape route became so prominent that captains regularly sailing the route would place newspaper ads of slaves who stowed away on their ship without their knowledge in order to absolve themselves of any responsibility.
The White Pidgeon
When slaves reached Cape Cod and Boston it usually wasn’t safe for them to go all the way into the harbor. Austin Bearse, the captain of the White Pigeon, found a way around this.
He would use his boat to come to meet vessels coming from the south and sneak escaped slaves on board his own boat. He would then sneak them onto shore in the middle of the night. This worked because the ports were all operated by black mariners. Therefore, it was difficult to determine the difference between a slave and a free black mariner.
Additional Information on Underground Railroad Maritime Routes
If you are looking for more information about the Underground Railroad maritime routes check out the book Sailing to Freedom.
While many slaves escaped through the maritime routes along the East coast, there is relatively little information on the subject. Many assume that most slaves escaped overland through Ohio; however, the maritime trade played a huge role in the escape network.
While Sailing to Freedom touches the surface of Cape Cod’s role in these routes, more research will undoubtedly unveil more about the Cape’s impact on the Underground Railroad.