Discover the Underground Railroad to Mexico

It is likely that more enslaved blacks escaped to Mexico than originally thought, researchers say.

Why is this important: The story of the Underground Railroad to Mexico—loosely organized paths through which enslaved black people escaped servitude by fleeing south—exposes a neglected history of the black experience in the Americas.

Details: Historians have known for decades that some enslaved black people in Texas, Louisiana, Oklahoma and Alabama escaped slavery by heading south.

  • Oral histories, records of slave escape announcements, and accounts of former slaves show that escape to Mexico had been a possibility leading to the American Civil War.
  • Abolitionists have written about the “colonies” of formerly enslaved black people springing up in cities in northern Mexico – a country that had abolished slavery in the 1830s.

Yes, but: How many people fled south of the border has remained a mystery, and historians wonder how well-organized the network was.

The plot: New research shows that between 4,000 and 10,000 enslaved black people may have made the trip south, said Alice Baumgartner, author of “South to Freedom: Runaway Slaves to Mexico and the Road to the Civil War.” told Axios.

  • That’s little compared to the northern Underground Railroad where 30,000 to more than 100,000 people may have braved the more famous journey, said Baumgartner, a history professor at the University of Southern California.
  • Historians are also scouring Spanish-language documents about when the slaves arrived and how they would fit into Mexican society, giving clues as to what happened to those who escaped.

How it worked: The slaves left the farms and headed south with the help of poor Mexican Americans, German immigrants and abolitionists who hid them in places ranging from eastern Texas to remote areas approaching of the Rio Grande.

  • Biracial Black and white couples living along the Rio Grande hid escapees until they could take ferries to Mexico, where they would change their names and marry.
  • Researcher María Esther Hammack’s research on a former slave, Silvia Hector Webber, showed how she helped runaways along the border.
  • Baumgartner founded cases of slaves hiding on ships docked in New Orleans bound for Mexico, where laws granted slaves immediate freedom.

But, but, but: Texas slave owners organized possessions to invade Mexico in an effort to reclaim their “property”.

  • White-led mobs faced resistance from Mexico as violence erupted.
  • “I was shocked by the number of documents I found relating to kidnappers from the United States, who had arrived in an attempt to kidnap slaves who had escaped to Mexico,” Baumgartner said.
  • “They faced resistance from the slaves themselves, but also from Mexican citizens.”
  • These crowds in Mexico also saw armed resistance from the Black Seminoles – or Los Mascogos – who had resettled in northern Mexico.

And after: The United States National Park Service plans to expand its Underground Railroad route from Natchitoches, Louisiana, through Texas to Monclova, Mexico, which is considered a rough Underground Railroad route in south direction.

  • Last year, the agency convened scholars like Roseann Bacha-Garza, program manager for the University of Texas Rio Grande Valley Community Historical Archeology Project with schools in Edinburg, Texas, to present new research.
  • Bacha-Garza said she recently participated in a documentary examining the Underground Railroad to Mexico.
  • “It’s a very important part of American history, and we’re constantly discovering new information.”

A fun fact: Relationships created in Mexico convinced some emancipated blacks to cross the border south after the American Civil War.

  • William Ellis, a former slave in Texas, later became a millionaire in Mexico.

Editor’s Note: The story was originally published on February 7.

Go further: The story of the Underground Railroad to Mexico attracts attention (via AP)

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Bonny J. Streater