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Follow the Drinking Gourd:
A Cultural History

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How Do We Know What We Know Notes

(1) Heraclitus

The ancient Greek philosopher Heraclitus wrote to the effect that you can't step twice into the same river, since other waters are constantly flowing in. (Near as we know, he was not speaking of the Tombigbee, Tennessee or Ohio!)

(2) Other Accounts

In the company of conductors who knew the route, escapees could quickly cover very substantial mileage. Josiah Henson (the model for Harriet Beecher Stowe's Uncle Tom) led a party of 30, including children, from "between forty and fifty miles into the interior of Kentucky...We succeeded in crossing the Ohio River in safety, and arrived in Cincinnati the third night after our departure." (See: Josiah Henson, Truth Stranger Than Fiction. Father Henson's Story of His Own Life, Boston: John P. Jewett and Company, 1858, pp. 147-149. Electronic version here.

Harriet Tubman and her bands of escapees could make it from the Eastern Shore to Wilmington, Delaware (roughly 100 miles) in three or so days, on foot and using boats and wagons. Philadelphia, roughly 125 miles away, would take a day or two longer. Tubman's brothers covered over 35 miles in one night to meet her when they ran away from Poplar Neck in Caroline County, Maryland. (Historian Kate Larson, personal communication.)

To be sure, there are other slave accounts describing meandering journeys from the Deep South to the North, such as Charles Ball's nine month trek from Georgia to Maryland. (See: Fergus M. Bordewich, Bound for Canaan, Amistad, an imprint of HarperCollins, 2005, p. 120.) But these seem to be the exception. In any event, no single account should stand in for the experience of all escapees.
 

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