The Underground Rail Road

Kentucky and the Underground Railroad

Follow The Drinking Gourd

Follow the drinking gourd
Follow the drinking gourd
For the old man is waitin' to carry you to freedom
Follow the drinking gourd.

When the sun goes back and the first quail calls
Follow the drinking gourd
The old man is waitin' for to carry you to freedom
Follow the drinking gourd. (Chorus)

The river bed makes a mighty fine road,
Dead trees to show you the way
And it's left foot, peg foot, traveling on
Follow the drinking gourd. (Chorus)

The river ends between two hills
Follow the drinking gourd
There's another river on the other side
Follow the drinking gourd. (Chorus)

I thought I heard the angels say
Follow the drinking gourd
The stars in the heavens gonna show you the way
Follow the drinking gourd. (Chorus)



Draft of Spindletop Research Project No. 311
Park Histories in Pendleton County
Transcribed by Bonnie Snow from the:
Pendleton County Historical and Genealogical Society Newsletter
Volume 8, Issue 2 - June 2001


At one time, the fifty miles above and below the mouth of the Licking River was a favorite crossing place of the Indians for sneaking captives out of Kentucky; some famous captives were led over here - among them, Daniel Boone.  Later, this stretch served well for running slaves across free territory, to catch the underground railroad trail, operated largely by the Quakers, straight to Canada.  Harriet Beecher Stowe got her idea for "Uncle Tom's Cabin" from the tales of the slave activities here and upriver.  Most of the Negroes who escaped from Kentucky were familiar only with the plantation on which they were born; completely ignorant of geography and seldom chose the best and quickest way north to Ohio.  They traveled by night and were guided solely by the North Star.  Every slave who fled from his master in Kentucky learned of the North Star and that by following it he would reach a land of freedom.  Trusting to this beacon light before them as a symbol of liberty, hundreds of slaves successfully made their escape.  Hiding by day, the fugitives subsisted on green corn, nuts, berries, an occasional chicken or whatever else they could find during the journey.  As more slaves escaped, it became evident that such large numbers could not have escaped without out-side help, and some of the slave owners said, "There must be an underground railroad somewhere," and this expression became the general name by which the whole system later was known.

Just when the "road" began to operate is not known but by the early part of the nineteenth century it was beginning to take a definite form.  With hundreds of men and women willing to fight slavery with their lives and property, and despite the drastic laws which made the road illegal, the system grew from an obscure trickle into a powerful interstate organization.  All along the Ohio River, including Falmouth, were points through which branches of the "road" passed from Kentucky into the free states of Ohio, Illinois, and Indiana.  At Covington, one of the famous stations was the Rothier house, built in 1815, which had a secret tunnel leading from the cellar to the river, large enough to hide dozens of refugees.  The runaway slaves used the passage to get down to the waters edge and then across the river to Ohio.

The most hazardous work of the agents of the escape route was in Kentucky.  A common guise was that of a pack peddler who approached the big house at a plantation and asked permission to show his wares to the slaves, and if permission was received, the agent would cautiously approach what appeared to be an intelligent and trustworthy Negro, and casually question him about his desire for freedom.  The Negro, in turn, would be equally cautious, but when mutual confidence had been established, the plan of escape covered that slave as well as the others he could enlist.  The escape route was shrouded in mystery similar to a secret service; codes were used, rigid discipline was maintained, and nothing was put in writing that might lead to incrimination or conviction.  Since no records were kept, the operation of the "road" remains much of a mystery even today.  As soon as it became know that a slave had escaped, a descriptive advertisement was published by the master in the leading papers of the section of Kentucky in which he lived.  But once in Canada, hundreds of Kentucky slaves had escaped from bondage to a land where the could "breathe the air of Freedom."



Kentucky and the Underground Railroad
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