Guest blogger Scott Hart explores the less well known route to Freedom- the path to Mexico.
Scott is a member of the West Des Moines Historical Society’s Board of Directors. He’s done research on the Underground Railroad in Iowa for the State Historical Society of Iowa and received his master’s degree in museum studies from the University of Leicester.
In our Underground Railroad Display, there is a map displaying the general routes Freedom Seekers took to make their way to freedom. While most of these routes go north, there are two routes in particular that are different. One goes to the Caribbean and the other goes to Mexico. While I’ve noticed it, I never really thought about it until I saw an article by NPR called “A Chapter In U.S. History Often Ignored: The Flight of Runaway Slaves to Mexico” and it mentioned the book South to Freedom Runaway Slaves to Mexico and the Road to the Civil War by Alice Baumgartner. This post will be a brief general history on the Underground Railroad to Mexico.
The short answer to why there was an Underground Railroad to Mexico and other Caribbean countries or colonies is because they had abolished slavery much earlier than the U.S. and for those living closer in Texas it was easier to go to Mexico than it would have been to Canada. This is demonstrated in a quote from Felix Haywood, a formerly enslaved person who stated in 1937, “Sometimes someone would ‘long and try to get us to run up north and be free. We used to laugh at that…There wasn’t no reason to run up north. All we had to do was to walk, but walk south and we’d be free as soon as we crossed the Rio Grande. In Mexico, you could be free. They didn’t care what color you was – black, white, yellow or blue. Hundreds of slaves did go to Mexico and got on all right.” Haiti had abolished slavery in 1804 and freed enslaved persons that made it there in 1816. By 1827 half of the Mexican states had promised to free those who were born to enslaved parents, one state that didn’t implement this law was Texas, and by 1837 slavery had been abolished across all of Mexico. It seems the reason that Mexico was implementing these legal measures before the U.S. was because of a legal culture that was already in place while Mexico was a colony of the Spanish Empire. Going back to 1693, Charles II issued a decree that made Florida, then a Spanish colony, would be a sanctuary for Freedom Seekers if they converted to Catholicism and similar decrees were present throughout the Spanish Empire, including Mexico.
Though Mexico had laws that freed Freedom Seekers there were still attempts by both the U.S. citizens and government to reclaim those people. Slave hunters would attempt to kidnap formerly enslaved persons in Mexico, in some instances locals would help protect those freedom seekers. In 1850 negations broke down between the U.S. and Mexican governments for an extradition treaty to return the formerly enslaved persons to their “owners.”
Freedom seekers attempting to make it to Mexico had a very similar journey to get to freedom as those going to Free states or Canada; they had to rely on people sympathetic to their cause to help them make it to Mexico. Upon making it to Mexico they still did not have an easy life and in some cases would end up in a situation similar to slavery. Baumgartner states, “Enslaved people who escaped to Mexico would have encountered labor conditions that resembled slavery in the United States in certain respects. But in contrast to the southern United States, where enslaved people knew no other law besides “the caprice of the masters,” laborers in Mexico enjoyed a number of legal protections. Laborers could file suits when their employers lowered their wages or added unreasonable charges to their accounts….laborers had the right to seek new employment for any reason. All they had to do was ask their employer how much they owed and find someone who would assume their debts.” The reason for being in debt is because these people were indentured servants or peons. Despite these protections employers didn’t always obey these laws. One such story is of Encarnación Baldenama (side note Baumgartner doesn’t state if Encarnación was a formerly enslaved person who became an indentured servant or a local who was an indentured servant, either way I think it is a good example of the plight of indentured servants in Mexico) asked his employer, Manuel Gutiérrez, to show him his account. Upon inspection Encarnación found that his wages had been lowered from five peso to four. While Encarnación did runaway from Manuel he later returned and was tied up “like a goat” until Encarnación agreed to work for another 3 months, he would leave again before the three months were up.
There are so many stories to tell about these enslaved persons journey to freedom, some estimates are 3,000 – 5,000 made it to Mexico to secure their freedom. This has been a very brief, and probably overly simplified, telling of their history. Please let us know what you think of this and share this post with others so they can learn about this history too. Also, if you want to learn more please check out the sources used to make this post down below. There is so much more information available than what has been presented here. Thank you for your time.
Baumgartner, Alice L. South to Freedom Runaway Slaves to Mexico and the road to the Civil War. New York: Basic Books, 2020.
Burnett, John. A Chapter In U.S. History Often Ignored: The Flight of Runaway Slaves to Mexico. February 28, 2021. https://www.npr.org/2021/02/28/971325620/a-chapter-in-u-s-history-often-ignored-the-flight-of-runaway-slaves-to-mexico (accessed May 2021).
Leanos Jr., Reynaldo. This underground railroad took slaves to freedom in Mexico. March 29, 2017. https://www.pri.org/stories/2017-03-29/underground-railroad-took-slaves-freedom-mexico (accessed May 2021).
Smith, Bruce. For a century, underground railroad ran south. 2012. https://web.archive.org/web/20120321073827/https:/www.google.com/hostednews/ap/article/ALeqM5jiODwWs22MG9qBGQ_ZI9U-6W3s9g?docId=b67287f0636841dfbad57fb14222cd97 (accessed May 2021).