Thursday, April 17, 2014

If this is Thursday it must be postcards, 138

Castle in the Hills, near Newcastle, Ohio

Eli Nichols built the house shown on this week’s postcard in the 1840s.  The secluded stone house in the Buckeye forest was used as an Underground Railroad station for escaping slaves before the Civil War.  Nichols, who was born in Virginia and moved to Ohio with his family when he was a child, was raised as a Quaker but as an adult left the Society of Friends and became interested in spiritualism.  He was an eminent attorney, politician, legislator and an abolitionist who helped many escaping slaves to make their way across Ohio toward Canada in the years before the Civil War.

The Underground Railroad was not a railroad in the usual sense but a series of foot routes where escaping slaves could find safe houses or safe places to hide as they continued traveling north.  People who helped in this effort used railroad terminology as codes.  A shepherd or agent would help slaves find the railroad, guides were known as conductors, hiding places were stations.  The slaves were known as passengers or cargo.  Ohio had numerous routes as seen on the map below from Wikipedia.  Most of the slaves that Nichols helped came from eastern Tennessee and Kentucky. 

There is folklore associated with the Underground Railroad including stories about quilts hung on fences or clothes lines pointing the way to sanctuaries.  One book I read several years ago describes a particular patchwork quilt pattern called the Log Cabin that had black central squares and was used as a sign to escapees that this was a safe route or a safe place to stop.  Another quilt theory points to ten different patterns with one quilt at a time placed on a fence as a way of non-verbal communication or alerts to runaways.  The code was supposed to have had two meanings, one to signal runaway slaves to prepare to flee, the second to give clues and directions for the journey.  Both quilt historians and scholars of pre-Civil War America, however, have disputed these theories, so there is currently no evidence to substantiate this folklore. 

Music or songs such as spirituals like “Steal Away” and “Follow the Drinking Gourd,” were once thought to contain coded messages to assist individuals using the railroad.  The Drinking Gourd had reference to the North Star and Big Dipper.  Scholars who point out that slaves songs certainly expressed hope but did not contain literal help for runaways disbelieve this popular folklore.  One song, however, written in 1860 to the tune of “Oh, Susanna” and called “Song of the Free” is about a man fleeing slavery in Tennessee has stanzas that end with references to Canada.  Canada had abolished slavery in 1834 and was the destination of most escapees.

Trivia:  in some cases the Underground Railroad operated in reverse as fugitives returned to the United States from Canada
following the passage of the 13th Amendment to the United States Constitution outlawing slavery by Congress in 1865.
D, F. Anguish Enterprises, Dresden, Ohio published the postcard and Dexter Press, Inc. of  West Nyack, New York printed the cards.  It has a divided back with an information blurb at the top of the message side and an identifying number at the lower left corner:  47823-B.  The information provided on the card says that Fulton Van Voorhis owned the estate at the time the card was published.  Van Voorhis and his heirs owned it from 1921 to 1969.  It is not a Linen card but appears to be from about 1940; however, it is difficult to date it since it unused and does not have a cancellation mark that might have helped.  It almost looks as if the picture may have been a black & white photograph that has been tinted then reproduced as a color card.

For more information about Eli Nichols and the Underground Railway, see

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