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Mapping the Many Underground Railroads Lesson Plan
The narrative Runaway Journeys, describes the experiences of many fugitive slaves and the extent of the Underground Railroad. "Mapping the Many Underground Railroads" is a lesson plan that helps visual learners comprehend the challenges faced by fugitives escaping to freedom on the Underground Railroad. It may be used with or as follow-up to reading the narrative. Students then plot the migration route of one of the individuals named in the narrative and add it to a map of the United States in 1850; the overlays of the entire class or grade level would create a mosaic representing the regions into which the migrations of fugitive slaves occurred and enable students to discern general trends.
Grade Levels:Middle school, grades 6-8
For use with:Runaway Journeys
Concentration Area:Geography
National Curriculum Standards met by this lesson
The following standards have been taken from the Mid-continent Research for Education and Learning (McRel) standards.
Students will understand

  • How slavery shaped social and economic life in the South after 1800 (e.g. the cotton gin and the opening of new lands in the South and West led to increased demands for slaves; differences in the lives of plantation owners, poor free black and white families and slaves; methods of passive and active resistance to slavery; escaped slaves and the Underground Railroad).
  • Different economic cultural and social characteristics of slavery after 1800 (e.g. the influence of the Haitian Revolution and the ending of the Atlantic slave trade, how slaves forged their own culture in the face of oppression, the role of the plantation system in shaping slaveholders and the enslaved, the experiences of escaped slaves).
Time required
One 50-minute class period.
Materials needed
  • Runaway Journeys Copies of the narratives of fugitive slaves provided on the site
  • Map of North America and the United States in 1850 with states and territories (either in print, made into a transparency, or part of a computer mapping program)
  • Maps provided on the site
  • Atlas of the United States and Canada
Anticipatory Set

  • Be honest with students about the fact that the slave narratives' readers were from the Victorian era, so sentence structure is often complex and vocabulary may be difficult.
  • Remind students that they usually don't appreciate people changing things they have said or written, and that it's important to hear the voices of the fugitive slaves through the words they chose, telling their story as they wished it to be known.
  • Challenge students to put into perspective the inconvenience of reaching for a dictionary or having to struggle with a sentence with the perils faced by fugitive slaves.
  • Remind them that if modern readers give up on these narratives, then the voices of the enslaved will be silenced not by hateful racists of the past, but by us.
    1. Show students a map of the United States or North America from 1850, provide them with information on the date and publisher, and point out special features (key, scale, compass rose, title, any notations). Then, direct them to study the map silently for a minute or two, looking for differences with the United States today.
    2. Ask students to brainstorm how it is different from the United States today and record their ideas on a chalkboard, transparency, or flipchart.

    1. Ask students to skim the narrative, Runaway Journeys, recording the names of fugitive slaves whose accounts are referred to in the narrative and any location associated with each fugitive's journey that is mentioned in the narrative.
    2. Either assign fugitives for research or direct students to sign up to do research to find the details of the journey of one of the fugitive slaves mentioned in the narrative. You may opt to allow students to work in pairs or trios.
    3. Tell students that in addition to the narratives provided on this site, they can find full narratives online, in most cases at the North American Slave Narratives website maintained by the University of North Carolina – Chapel Hill Libraries at Published versions may be available, as well (see Related Works).
    4. Instruct students that they will need to do the following:

      1. Determine the beginning and end points of the enslaved person's journey to freedom;
      2. Note landmarks mentioned along the way such as cities, towns, rivers, mountains, and other geographic features; and
      3. Look at the publication date, if the narrative provides very few details about the journey, and suggest a reason why the writer might not have been willing to give out details about his/her route to freedom.
    5. Ask students to select a distinctive color and line design (dots, dashes, solid) and to mark it on the key with the name of the fugitive slave they researched. Then, ask students to plot the route of the individual they researched on the map. If it was not provided in the narrative, ask them to note the following:

      1. Distance covered;
      2. Major geographical barriers along the route (oceans, rivers, mountains, deserts); and
      3. Major cities between the point of departure and the final destination.
    6. Ask students to use their notes from the narrative and their examination of the route as they mapped it to write a journal entry or informal paper describing what they think the journey to freedom must have been like for the person they studied.

    1. When all the routes have been marked on the map, ask students to:

  • Determine what regions the majority of the fugitive slaves they researched fled to.
  • Suggest reasons that might account for the popularity of one region over another.
  • Make generalizations about the extensiveness of the Underground Railroad network.
  • 2. You may ask students to answer the questions in the form of three unrelated paragraphs, a journal entry, or a more cohesive five-paragraph essay on the migration patterns of fugitive slaves.

    3. For either a journal or three-paragraph assessment, evaluate on a five-point scale (which may be weighted) or five letter-grade rubric as follows:

    Grading Elements Points/Grade
    No response 0/F
    Response is not linked to questions or map, shows little insight, misinterprets map information, and has many technical problems. 1/D
    Response is not clearly linked to all questions, shows some insight, may misinterpret some map information, and has some technical problem with writing. 2/C
    Response references all three questions and map, shows some insight, and demonstrates most technical elements of good writing (spelling, grammar, punctuation). 3/B
    Response references all three questions and map, shows originality and insight, provides specifics and comprehension of trends, and demonstrates technical elements of good writing (spelling, grammar, punctuation). 4/A

    Related Works
    Additional narratives, including those mentioned in the narrative are available at this site or at Documenting the American South, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill Libraries

    • Ball, Charles. Fifty Years in Chains; or, The Life of an American Slave. New York: H. Dayton, Publisher, 1859. 3-007
    • Bibb, Henry. Narrative of the Life and Adventures of Henry Bibb, An American Slave. Written by Himself. With an Introduction by Lucius C. Matlack. New York: Published by the Author, 1850.
    • Brown, Henry Box. Narrative of the Life of Henry Box Brown, Written by Himself. Manchester: Printed by Lee and Glynn, 1851. 2-012
    • Brown, William Wells. Narrative of William W. Brown, a Fugitive Slave. Written by Himself. Boston: The Anti-slavery office, 1847.
    • Bruce, Henry Clay. The New Man. Twenty-Nine Years a Slave. Twenty-Nine Years a Free Man. York, Pennsylvania: P. Anstadt & Sons, 1895. 6-006
    • Craft, William. Running a Thousand Miles for Freedom. London: William Tweedie, 1860. 2 -023
    • Clarke, Lewis and Milton. Narratives of the Sufferings of Lewis and Milton Clarke, Sons of a Soldier of the Revolution, During a Captivity of More Than Twenty Years Among the Slaveholders of Kentucky, One of the So Called Christian States of North America. Dictated by Themselves. Boston: Published by Bela Marsh, 1846.
    • Drew, Benjamin. A North-Side View of Slavery. The Refugee: or the Narratives of Fugitive Slaves in Canada. Related by themselves, with an account of the history and condition of the colored population of Upper Canada. 2-031
    • Henson, Josiah. The Life of Josiah Henson, Formerly a Slave, Now an Inhabitant of Canada. Narrated by Himself. Boston: Arthur D. Phelps, 1849. Henson, considered the source of Uncle Tom in Harriet Beecher Stowe's novel, Uncle Tom's Cabin also published the following:
    • "Uncle Tom's story of his life." An autobiography of the Rev. Josiah Henson (Mrs. Harriet Beecher Stowe's "Uncle Tom"). From 1789 to 1876. London, Christian age office, 1876.
    • Northup, Solomon. Twelve Years a Slave; Narrative of Solomon Northup, a Citizen of New York, Kidnapped in Washington City in 1841, and Rescued in 1853 from a Cotton Plantation near the Red River in Louisiana. Auburn, New York: Derby and Miller, 1853.
    • Pennington, James W. C. The Fugitive Blacksmith; or, Events in the History of James W. C. Pennington. 3d ed. Westport, Connecticut: Negro Universities Press, 1971.
    • Still, William. The underground rail road. A record of facts, authentic narratives, letters, &c., narrating the hardships, hair-breadth escapes and death struggles of the slaves in their efforts for freedom, as related by themselves and others, or witnessed by the author; together with sketches of some of the largest stockholders, and most liberal aiders and advisers, of the road. Philadelphia: Porter & Coates, 1872. 2-026
    • Ward, Samuel Ringgold. Autobiography of a Fugitive Negro: His Anti-Slavery Labours in the United States, Canada, & England. London: John Snow, 35, Paternoster Row, 1855.

    • Additional subjects for the map, but who were not mentioned in the narrative:

      • Harriet Tubman: unquestionably, the fugitive slave who is most familiar to most students and who collaborated with Sarah Hopkins Bradford (under whose name Tubman's two autobiographies are indexed at the UNC website):

        • Harriet, the Moses of Her People. New York: Geo. R. Lockwood & Son, 1886.
        • Scenes in the Life of Harriet Tubman. Auburn, N.Y.: W.J. Moses, printer, 1869.
      • Clarke, Lewis and Milton. Narratives of the Sufferings of Lewis and Milton Clarke, Sons of a Soldier of the Revolution, During a Captivity of More Than Twenty Years Among the Slaveholders of Kentucky, One of the So Called Christian States of North America. Dictated by Themselves. Boston, Mass.: Published by Bela Marsh, 1846.
      • Pennington, James W. C. The Fugitive Blacksmith; or, Events in the History of James W. C. Pennington. 3d ed. Westport, Conn.: Negro Universities Press, 1971.
    • Print versions are available for many of the narratives listed above and others, including:

      • Andrews, William L., Ed. Six Women's Slave Narratives. The Schomburg Library of 19th-Century Black Women Writers. New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 1988.
      • Blackett, R.J.M. Running a Thousand Miles for Freedom: The Escape of William and Ellen Craft from Slavery. Baton Rouge, LA: Louisiana State University Press, 1998.
      • Jacobs, Harriet A. (Harriet Ann). Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl. The Schomburg Library of 19th Century Black Women Writers. New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 1988.
      • Larison, Cornelius Wilson. Silvia Dubois: A Biografy of the Slav who Whipt her Mistres and Gand her Fredom. The Schomburg Library of 19th Century Black Women Writers. New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 1988.
      • Nichols, Charles Harold, Comp. Black Men in Chains: Narratives by Escaped Slaves. New York, NY: L. Hill, 1972.
      • Osofsky, Gilbert, Ed. Puttin' on Ole Massa: The Slave Narratives of Henry Bibb, William Wells Brown, and Solomon Northrup. New York, NY: Harper and Row, 1969.
    Interdisciplinary Links

    • Music: Music helped the fugitives in place of maps, which were unavailable and which few slaves knew how to interpret. Collaborating with the music teacher, students could locate and learn a selection of songs used by runaways and the Underground Railroad, either for direction, inspiration or as code. Examples of songs include: "Follow the Drinking Gourd", "Let Us Break Bread Together on Our Knees", "Swing Low Sweet Chariot", "Wade in the Water", and "Go Down Moses". Students may wish to map the directions of a particular song, such as "Follow the Drinking Gourd", to show how the lyrics fit with actual geographical features.
    • Sewing/Fashion Production/Home Economics: The possible role of quilts as "maps" on the Underground Railroad has recently come to light, but is still a matter of debate by scholars. Working with the sewing teacher, ask students to find historic quilt designs that some have suggested were used by the Underground Railroad, and then to select one and recreate it in fabric, with an explanation of the element it was meant to represent. Students may combine the individual squares and display them in a location in the school, with collaboration from the administration and contributions of batting, backing, and border material.
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