Quilts showed path to the north for slaves during Civil War times


Local quilter Jeanne Pickel speaks to the Sunnyside Kiwanis Club about the quilt patterns used to direct slaves from the south to Canada during the Civil War. The first square she showed was "Jacob's Ladder," which was used to point the way for slaves.

Local quilter and co-owner of Quilts & More, Jeanne Pickel spoke to members of the Sunnyside Kiwanis Club Thursday morning about the use of quilts on the underground railroad.

The underground railroad was a series of people and places during the Civil War that was used to safely lead slaves to freedom, said Pickel.

"It was always rumored that the quilts showed the way," said Pickel.

In 1994, author Jaquilin Tobin interviewed Ozella McDaniel Williams of South Carolina and learned that indeed a series of quilts were used to direct the railroad. Williams' family had been involved in the underground railroad.

"'A lot of the slaves didn't read or write so the quilts were used as signs," said Pickel.

Pickel made a quilt that shows the different patterns that were used to direct the slaves. Each quilt square was originally duplicated to create a full size quilt. There are 10 basic quilt patterns and a few others that were used to point directions and other meanings to the slaves and their "conductor" guides that led them from one safe house to another.

The soon-to-be free slaves would see the quilts as other slaves or those sympathetic to the cause would air their quilts on outdoor lines.

One of the quilts was "Jacob's Ladder," while not one of the 10 main quilts, the quilt pointed directions depending on what direction it was placed on the clothes line.

The first of the 10 main quilts was called the "Monkey Wrench." When the "Monkey Wrench" quilt was aired it was time to gather tools the slaves would need to survive and defend themselves. A fix-it man, called the "monkey wrench," was often the contact person for those seeking freedom since they worked on several different plantations and knew the area better than most.

The "Wagon Wheel" is the second of the quilts. It was the symbol that a wagon with hidden compartments were coming to get the slaves.

"They were ready to go," said Pickel, pointing out the pattern on her quilt.

The third pattern was the "Bear Paw," which let the slaves know they should follow the bear path through the woods, she said. The paths were difficult for slave hunters and dogs to find.

The "Crossroads" quilt let slaves know that it was time to go to a crossroads, such as Cleveland, Ohio after coming out of the mountains.

"Log Cabin" patterned quilts were the fifth in the series. They let slaves know where safe houses were located. Quilts with a yellow center square were designated safe houses and the same pattern with a black center indicated that the house was no longer safe, said Pickel, showing her quilt square with a yellow center.

The "Boat of the Shoofly" quilt indicated a person was on the way who could be trusted, said Pickel of the sixth quilt.

The next quilt, the "Bow Tie," showed slaves where they could get new clothing that would help them fit up North as they continued their flight to Canada.

Pickel said the eighth quilt slaves would see would be "Flying Geese," which let them know they were to take their direction and timing from the geese, which stopped at waterways and grain fields.

The ninth quilt, "Drunkard's Path," let slaves know they were to not walk in a straight line, but rather double back and take indirect routes so they couldn't be tracked by dogs, said Pickel.

The "Sailboat" was the 10th sign to the slaves as to how they would get across the Great Lakes. She said that black sailors knew the water and would provide slaves with passage and jobs on their way to Canada.

Other quilts used included the "Basket" pattern, which would remind slaves that they needed to make sure they had enough food to get from one place to another.

"The Carpenter's Wheel" was also a secondary quilt, but it was a reminder that Jesus was the master carpenter in their life. The wheel was also used to show directions.

Pickel explained that the person who was the monkey wrench or the shoofly would tell the slaves the quilt code they would need for the trip


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