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HISTORY OF UGRR QUILTS

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Replica of an Underground Railroad quilt, from the 2003 River Counrty Quilt Show held in Jacksonville.

QUILT CODE

SLAVES SPOTTED DIRECTIONS TO FREEDOM IN FABRIC

A recent published book reveals more of the folklore to be fact, as oral accounts of quilts used to help slaves escape are confirmed by quilts of the Ozella McDaniel Williams family. Mrs. Williams shared stories of her ancestors to bring life to the meaning behind quilts used as secret codes to camoflauge symbols and disguise signposts that were part of the "Underground Railroad" experience. Oral accounts fo slaves escaping, traveling on foot in unfamiliar territories, recognizing strangers' homes as places of sanctuary by means of prearranged signals have been doubted by some because of lack of written documentation. In slave-holding states, it was actually illegal to teach slaves to read and write. Therefore oral stories have been the only records of some of these events, causing some historians to doubt credibility. Mrs. Williams has shared this code to reveal African symbols and quilt patterns, both still used today to complete this historical time.

KNOTS on the quilts told various things as when and where to travel.

QUILTING STITCHES were used to stitch intricate maps on the quilts discovered on the backside of the quilts.

SIGNATURE QUILTS were often made by Women's groups, sometimes as a fund raising effort to show the support of the idea of eliminating slavery. Many quilters used their talent to pass along their political views. The Quakers, Masons and Easter Star organizations provided help int he Underground Railroad.

MONKEY WRENCH - This pattern would direct the slaves to get their tools or belongings together in preparation for escape.

WAGON WHEEL - This pattern would suggest that the escaping slaves were to follow the carpenter's (Jesus) wheel to the Northwest.

BEAR PAW -  The easier routes were actual bear trails, which also led to food and water.

LOG CABIN - Open to speculation. Some log cabin quilts have a yellow center, no the usual red, and so may have been a code for a safe house.

SHOOFLY - This pattern would tell the slaves to dress in good cotton clothing so they would not look like runaways.

BOW TIE - This pattern would suggest the slaves should shed their immediately identifiable worn and torn garb and possibly wear satin bow ties so they could travel through towns.

FLYING GEESE -  This quilt pattern would point in north, south, east and west. The odd fabric may distinguish the traveling direction.

DRUNKARDS PATH - This pattern would encourage the slaves to follow a zig-zag path similar to a staggering gait of a drunk. The Africans believed that evil traveled only in straight lines. There is believed to be a connection between that superstition and the quilt pattern. It is also interesting to note that safe houses were staggered for protective reasons as well.

STAR PATTERNS - Since the escaping slaves were told to follow the North Star, many nineteenth century quilts contain star images.

Suggested reading:
Hidden in Plain View, by Jaqueline L. Tobin and Raymond G. Dobard, Ph.D.
Quilts from the Civil War, by Barbara Brackman

Contributed by Sue Hileman, Times Square Sewing Complex of Jacksonville, IL, 217-245-5445.

CLICK HERE FOR MORE UGRR HISTORY

Underground Railroad Committee
of the
Morgan County Historical Society

Loreli Steuer & Jim Murphy, Co-Chairmen
Liddy Stark & Gary Morris, Co-Vice-Chairmen
Kristan Becker Hoffman, Treasurer
Mary Hathaway, Secretary
Art Wilson & Abbie Templin, Founding Directors
1463 Gierke Lane
Jacksonville, IL 62650
217-243-3755
1-800-593-5678

e-mail: undergroundrailroadcommittee@yahoo.com  website: www.woodlawnfarm.com / www.undergroundrailroadcommittee.org










©2004, Underground Railroad Committee of the Morgan County Historical Society.