Black History and the Underground Railroad in Beaver County

An Unknown History

Cover: "North Star" (Underground Railroad Series), by Marlon Gist

About this Project

As much as the abolitionist movement and its Underground Railroad (UGRR) in Beaver County, Pennsylvania appears to be fairly well documented, we know very little about the actual experiences of Black Beaver Countians or the “Freedom Seekers” themselves–those African Americans who risked their lives during the 19th century escaping slavery and oppression through a vast network of clandestine transportation routes leading from the South toward Canada.  

With few exceptions, their voices and stories are untold, perhaps lost to history. 

Local historians have documented the abolitionist movement as early as 1828, as well as actual routes and stops along the UGRR used over several decades leading up to the Civil War. They have also identifed a pantheon of fiercely committed abolitionists serving as station masters, conductors, agents, and stockholders. The local historical record even describes detailed processes and methods by which Freedom Seekers found northward passage overland and by waterways, such as the Ohio and Beaver Rivers. 

But who were these Black folk, often referred to as passengers, freight, or cargo (“hardware” for males or “drygoods” for females)? Each had a name, a family, a life story.  Where did their journey begin? Where did it end? What was their experience like passing through Beaver County?    

For good reason, contemporaneous written accounts and logistics of the UGRR are rare. Such records were incriminating. If caught, abolitionists could be jailed and fined. If Freedom Seekers were caught, they could be sent back to their owners–a fate which may lead to severe physical punishment or death.

Out of necessity, the UGRR operated by secretive social conventions, word of mouth instructions, and narrative codes: Follow the drinking gourd, The friend of a friend sent me, The wind blows from the South today, We’re expecting budles of wood, The dead will show you the way.   

Beyond a small handful of identified abolitionists, known safe houses, and described escape routes, we know very little about the actual experience of freedom seekers following the UGRR in Beaver County, and we know less about the freedom seekers themselves. And if historians are correct that much of the UGRR was operated by African Americans themselves, was there a local Black network of station masters, conductors, agents, and stockholders?

We know very little about the Black experience on the UGRR in Beaver County.

This project ponders this incomplete history.      

Pathway Toward Hope, Possibility, and Courage

Dispelling Myths and Misconceptions about the Underground Railroad

Sometimes when people tell the story of the Underground Railroad what they imagine, and what some early scholars depicted in their own work, was a network made primarily of benevolent white abolitionists who helped escaped slaves who couldn’t help themselves. And while there were many white abolitionists who were absolutely involved in the system, sometimes this story can lead to many people ignoring or erasing the fact that it was mostly Black people who were a part of, and who led, the Underground Railroad’s efforts.

~ Clint Smith, The Underground Railroad: Crash Course Black American History #15

The Underground Railroad movement secretly operated in conjunction with free Black communities and their historic Black churches. Peering at these sites through a cultural landscape lens allows a new perspective for understanding the relationship between free Black communities, the Black church, and the Underground Railroad. Blacks, enslaved and free, operated as the main actors in the central drama that was the Underground Railroad. Extended families populated Black communities and filled the Black churches at the heart of the movement.
Cheryl LaRoche
“Introduction." In Free Black Communities and the Underground Railroad: The Geography of Resistance, 1–18. University of Illinois Press, 2014