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Follow the Drinking Gourd:
A Cultural History



Additional Material for Teachers Notes

(1) Double Coding

See Frederick Douglass, My Bondage and My Freedom, New York and Auburn, Miller, Orton & Mulligan, 1855, page 278. Online version here.

For more on double coding, see Cruz, Jon, Culture on the Margins: The Black Spiritual and the Rise of American Cultural Interpretation, Princeton University Press, 1999

(2) Cole Account

There is at least one slave narrative that contradicts my point. I hesitate to bring it up, since I find it farfetched. You be the judge!

Thomas Cole was born a slave in Alabama in 1845. In a slave narrative from the Federal Writers' Project, he told the interviewer about his escape attempt:

"I's hopin' and prayin' all de time I meets up with dat Harriet Tubman woman. She de cullud women what takes slaves to Canada. She allus travels de underground railroad, dey calls it, travels at night and hides out in de day. She sho' sneaks dem out de South and I thinks she's de brave woman.

At the time of his escape, Tubman was for all intents and purposes unknown. Historian Kate Larson wrote me:

Cole would have had to meet, specifically, someone from Harriet's inner circle on the Eastern Shore, and that person would have (to have) known that Tubman was rescuing people from the Eastern Shore only - friends and family...If she rescued people from Dorchester County Maryland, why would she be known anywhere else - and very, very few people knew her on the Eastern Shore as the person rescuing people. So Cole's testimony doesn't fit what we know about Tubman...

The slave holders never knew, nor could they have imagined...that a tiny five foot tall disabled slave woman could have been one of the UGRR conductors they were so concerned with.

Cole gave the interview somewhere between 1936 and 1938, when he was in his nineties. By then, Harriet Tubman was a national icon, doubtless known to Cole. I believe his Tubman remarks were a late-in-life invention.

Source: Once there, type "Thomas Cole" without quotes in the "Search Descriptive Information" box. Click on item number 1 of the search results. Click on "View page images." Advance to page 5 of the narrative (page 229 overall.)

 (3) Ohio River

Ann Hagedorn, writing about Ripley, Ohio and its riverfront position:

"...Ripley's position along one of the narrowest bends of the Ohio was soon known among slaves in Kentucky. Many knew that a dry spell rendered the river so shallow that crossing at such a narrow stretch was more like wading a stream than navigating a river." (p. 12)

The Ohio of 150 years ago was considerably shallower (and in some places, narrower) than the river of today. Historically, the Ohio River's

"channel was littered with snags and strewn with boulders, its flow broken by sand bars, rock ripples, and falls...The natural river fluctuated wildly from a series of shallow pools during punt drought flows to a raging torrent rising eighty to a hundred feet in flood season. (pp. 180 and 181)

"(T)he captain of a boat drawing only fourteen inches reported it took him thirty-five days to navigate from Pittsburgh to Cincinnati because he grounded fifty times on shoals where the river was ten inches deep and 'worked as hard as ever I did in my life' prying his boat over the shoals." By the Civil War, despite various attempts, there was still not a uniform three foot channel. (p. 185)

Leland R. Johnson, "Engineering the Ohio" in Always a river: the Ohio River and the American Experience, Robert L Reid, 1991, Bloomington: Indiana University Press.

(4) Underground Road

Larry Gara, The Liberty Line, p. 174.

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