Where Was the 1st Underground Railroad?

PBC History Online
PBC History Online

Editor's Note: For those who are wondering about the retro title of this black history series, please take a moment to learn about historian Joel A. Rogers, author of the 1934 book 100 Amazing Facts About the Negro With Complete Proof, to whom these "amazing facts" are an homage.


(The Root) — 100 Amazing Facts About the Negro No. 15: Where was the first Underground Railroad?

We have all been regaled with stories about our slave ancestors escaping from the harsh life of the plantations in the South, finding their freedom in the North by "following the North Star" through alligator- and snake-infested swamps, hiding by day in dense forests, braving the elements, dangerous animals and disease-bearing mosquitos and eventually finding freedom across the Mason-Dixon Line, frequently guided by that courageous conductor on the Underground Railroad, Harriet Tubman. Few elements of African-American history have been more mythologized or misunderstood than the legendary Underground Railroad, and one of my columns during Black History Month will deal with that, as this series moves chronologically to antebellum America and the Civil War.

But the question for today is, "Where was the first Underground Railroad?" I think that the answer will surprise you, just as it surprised me when we filmed this story for my forthcoming PBS series, Many Rivers to Cross: The History of the African American People.

It stands to reason that slaves in the Southern states had to flee north to gain their freedom, following the metaphorical "drinking gourd" (as the Big Dipper was called), right? And this was certainly the case after 1830, when what we now call the Underground Railroad came into common usage in the press. So you will be forgiven if you think that this has always been true. Actually, the very first slaves in what is now the United States fled to their freedom by running south, not north.  

How could this have been possible? The answer has to do with the early Colonial rivalry for territory, manpower and resources between Spain and England. As the historian Jane Landers outlines in a fascinating essay, "Southern Passage: The Forgotten Route to Freedom in Florida," that drama unfolded among Charleston, S.C., Savannah, Ga., and St. Augustine, Fla., in the late 1600s and the early 1700s.

The first African slaves are thought to have come to what is now the United States to help found San Miguel de Guadalupe, a settlement near Sapelo Sound, Ga., in 1526. A few decades later, in 1565, the Spanish founded St. Augustine, bringing with them perhaps some 50 African slaves. Just over a century later, Barbadian planters of English descent founded Charleston, which was "but 10 days journey" from St. Augustine. The New World rivalry between Colonial Spain and England was on.


Unlike the English settlement at Charleston, the Spanish settlement in Florida included some free blacks and mulattoes. Incredibly, the Spanish governor, Juan Marquez Cabrera, armed them to fight, forming a black militia at St. Augustine in 1683. In 1686, this militia formed part of a Spanish force that began to raid the Carolinians' territory. The presence of black soldiers among the Spanish forces must have astonished the Carolina slaves. And just a year later, the first documented group of black slaves — eight men, two women and a nursing child — managed to escape south from Charleston to St. Augustine, covering the 277 miles or so in a stolen canoe. The Spanish refused to return them to the English, and granted them their freedom. (Landers gives a riveting account of the black presence in Spanish Colonial Florida in her book, Black Society in Spanish Florida: Blacks in the New World.)

From this point on, Spain would deploy the black fugitive slaves in raids against the English settlements to the north, and establish a policy of granting freedom to escaping slaves on religious grounds, but the truth is also that Spain was seeking to weaken the colonies of their British rivals. By encouraging slaves to run away south to Florida, Spain was aiming at the heart of British power in the colonies.


Just seven years later, in 1693, the Spanish king, Charles II, seeking systematically to undermine the economy of the Carolinas, decreed that Florida would be a religious sanctuary for fugitive slaves seeking "the true faith"; his royal proclamation declared that he was "giving liberty to all … the men as well as the women … so by their example and by my liberality others will do the same." Virtually overnight, this new, and unprecedented, route to freedom was established, and we can think of it as the first metaphorical "underground railroad" — the slaves' first route to freedom, and it ran south.

The black slaves fought against their English owners in a variety of ways, including running away to join the Native Americans, as when the Yamasee Indians fought their war against the English settlers between 1715 and 1717. But Florida was a much more popular and preferable alternative. A second royal edict, issued in 1733 (the year that James Oglethorpe founded the colony of Georgia) reiterated the promise of religious sanctuary for fugitive slaves fleeing the English colonies. More and more black fugitives escaped by land and by sea from Charleston in the 1720s and then from that city and Savannah in the 1730s — so many, in fact, that in 1738, the new governor, Manuel de Montiano, formally granted unconditional freedom to all fugitive slaves who managed to escape to Florida. 


Spain later extended this offer of religious sanctuary to any slaves fleeing from Protestant colonies, which led to slave escapes all over the circum-Caribbean. Soon slaves from Jamaica were fleeing to Cuba, slaves from Curacao fled to Venezuela, and even some runaways from Catholic and French Saint Domingue (which would become the independent Republic of Haiti in 1804) found safe harbor and their freedom at the other end of the island of Hispaniola, in Spanish Santo Domingo. This policy would remain in place in Florida until Spain was forced by the English to abandon its settlements there in 1763.

But so many fugitives had arrived by 1738 that Spain founded the all-black fort and settlement of Gracia Real de Santa Teresa de Mose, just two miles north of St. Augustine. It was known as Fort Mose. And for several decades it bravely stood as the first line of defense between the Spanish settlers and their enemies, the English colonists from the north.


As always, you can find more "Amazing Facts About the Negro" on The Root, and check back each week as we count to 100.

Henry Louis Gates Jr. is the Alphonse Fletcher University Professor and the director of the W.E.B. Du Bois Institute for African and African-American Research at Harvard University. He is also the editor-in-chief of The Root.