The Underground Railroad Quilt Block Code
Prior to the Civil War, quilts played an important part in the Underground Railroad movement. African-Americans followed secret routes and safe houses from southern slave states north to free states and Canada. Travelers and plantation visitors passed information to slaves about the routes, and helped them prepare for their journeys. Quilts were hung on clotheslines and fences as messages to escaping slaves about food, shelter, and directions along the way. Many routes were followed north, and all routes are known collectively as the Underground Railroad.
The designs chosen for the Sacramento Northern Railway Rio Linda station Underground Railroad Quilt Block Code depict just a few of many symbols used to signal safe passage to escaping slaves.
Railroad─Our first block represents the Underground Railroad movement, as well as the trip from Sacramento to Rio Linda on the train. Passengers enjoyed viewing fields of wild poppies along the way.
Monkey Wrench─Symbolizes the blacksmiths, who visited farms and knew the lay of the land. Some could communicate with slaves through the rhythmic beating of a hammer on an anvil. The Monkey Wrench quilt was the first signal to slaves, and meant that it was time to collect tools and knowledge for the journey north.
Wagon Wheel─Wagon Wheel quilts were displayed as signals to pack essential items. Wagons with hidden compartments were one of the primary ways to transport escaping slaves and carry them to freedom.
Carpenter’s Wheel─Future run-away slaves planned their escapes when they saw the Carpenter’s Wheel displayed. Following the Wheel to the west-northwest, they made their way to Ohio and freedom.
Bears Paw─This design advised escapees to follow animal trails through the mountains, and lead them to food and water.
Crossroads─ Once through the mountains, slaves were to travel to the crossroads. The main crossroads was Cleveland, Ohio. Any quilt hung before this one would have given directions to Ohio.
Basket─The Basket symbolizes the provisions needed for the long journey North. Because they couldn’t buy food or tools along the way, slaves carried baskets with them. Women commonly carried laundry baskets full of provisions to safe houses.
Log Cabin─The center block in this pattern often represented the hearth or fire of a cabin. A yellow center could mean a light or beacon, and a black center indicated a “safe” house.
Birds in the Air─This design was created by a Quaker woman, using quilted “birds” to create arrows that pointed toward a safe house in Lancaster County, Pennsylvania.
Drunkard’s Path─Advises slaves to use a crooked, or staggering path, on their flight to freedom to avoid detection by slave hunters.
Sail Boat─Black sailors and ship owners helped many slaves reach the free states and Canada.
North Star─Signaled travelers to follow the North Star.
Shoofly─Identifies a friendly guide who is nearby and can help.
Bowties─Signaled travelers to dress in disguise, or put on a change of clothes.
Flying Geese─The points were meant to follow that direction, such as where geese would fly during spring migration.
Members of the Rio Linda Elverta Quilt Trail Project are grateful for the opportunity to create this public art project. For more information about the Project, visit our website at RLEquilttrail.com. For more information about the Underground Railroad movement, visit pathways.thinkport.org.