For as long as slavery existed in Texas, slaves sought ways to freedom and escape their condition. The term "Underground Railroad" has come to define the network of secret routes and safe houses used by 19th-century slaves of African descent in the United States to escape to free states and Canada with the aid of abolitionists and allies who were sympathetic to their cause. In Texas the Underground Railroad did not run north toward the slave-owning states-it ran south to Mexico, which began to restrict slavery in the 1820s and finally abolished it in 1829, some thirty-four years before Abraham Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation.
Although Mexico outlawed slavery, Texas held onto its slaves. Following abolition, the State Legislature of Coahuila y Texas authorized the alternate practice of indentured servitude for life. "Former" slaves were forced to sign lifetime service contracts with their masters, thereby extending their enslaved status by contract. This was all mute following the formation of the Republic of Texas, which enshrined the institution of slavery into its Constitution. In a direct response to abolitionist movement in the United States the Republic of Texas prohibited all forms of emancipation:
Texas Constitution, General Provisions, Sec. 9. — All persons of color who were slaves for life previous to their emigration to Texas, and who are now held in bondage, shall remain in the like state of servitude: Provided, The said slave shall be the bona-fide property of the person so holding said slave as aforesaid. Congress shall pass no laws to prohibit emigrants from bringing their slaves into the republic with them, and holding them by the same tenure by which such slaves were held in the United States; nor shall congress have power to emancipate slaves; nor shall any slaveholder be allowed to emancipate his or her slave or slaves without the consent of congress, unless he or she shall send his or her slave or slaves without the limits of the republic. No free person of African descent, either in whole or in part, shall be permitted to reside permanently in the republic without the consent of congress; and the importation or admission of Africans or negroes into this republic, excepting from the United States of America, is forever prohibited, and declared to be piracy.
Both sides of the Rio Grande remained in Mexican hands from 1836 - 1845, despite Texas claims to it. The effective border was the Nueces River with little to no Texan population existing west of it. Resistance to Mexico's abolition of slavery was one of the causes of the revolution that led to Texas’s independence in 1836. Following Texas' annexation to the United States as a slave state in 1845 and the subsequent U.S.-Mexican War, the international border was established along the Rio Grande River. The river's numerous border towns provided a clear destination for runaway slaves with Piedras Negras being the a major hub attracting slaves coming from and through San Antonio. Most of the slaves who escaped to Mexico came from Texas, and to a lesser extent Louisiana, The journey to freedom in Mexico, even from Texas, was long and difficult and dangerous. While the U.S. Mexican border is quite extensive, the border towns of Piedras Negras, Coahuila, became a chief destination of runaway slaves seeking freedom in Mexico. The town maintained a large presence of ex-slaves and also became the target of slave raiders from the United States seeking to recover fugitive slaves and capture individuals to sale.
The tenuous position of the Piedras Negras community of former slaves improved in 1850 with the arrival of a group of Seminole Indians from Oklahoma seeking to settle in Mexico. The group was led by Chief Coachoochee (Wild Cat) who had been removed from Florida following the Seminole Wars (1836-1842). In Oklahoma, Chief Coachoochee partnered with a runaway slave named Gopher John who led a group of 100 runaway slaves who joined the Seminole Nation. Both groups sought freedom in Mexico and led a colonization expedition to northern Coahuila. They crossed the border at Eagle Pass in July of 1850, Cora Montgomery a resident of Eagle Pass, Texas described their arrival in a letter, "We were sipping our chocolate, with every door thrown wide to welcome the breeze...when we were astonished to see Francisca coming up at a rapid pace...pointing...towards the hills. We look out in surprise, for there, emerging from the broken ground in a direction that we knew was untraveled by any but the wild and hostile Indians, came forth a long procession of horsemen. The sun flashed back from a mixed array of arms and barbaric gear, but as this unexpected army...drew nearer it grew less formidable in apparent numbers, and opened upon us a more pacific aspect. Some reasonably well-mounted Indians circled around a dark nucleus of female riders...but the long straggling rear-guard was worth seeing...Such an array of all manners and sizes of animals, mounted by all ages, sexes and sizes of negroes, piled up to a most bewildering height, on and among such a promiscuous assemblage of blankets, babies, cooking utensils, and savage traps, in general, never were or could be held together on horseback by any beings on earth but themselves and their red brothers. The party began to break away and vanish into the little ravines that dip down to the river edge, and we understood by these signs they were encamping among us."
By 1850, a colony of runaway slaves existed in Pierdas Negras, Coahuila, across the Rio Grande from Eagle Pass. This group joined the Seminoles and runaway slaves under Gopher John and Chief Coachoochee. Together they requested land and the right to settle in Mexico. Awaiting a response they temporarily encamped at San Fernando de Rosas (present-day Zaragoza, Coahuila), la Navaja, Coahuila and near Presidio Monclova Viejo. The Mexican government granted the request for form a colony and assigned seventy thousand acres along the headwaters of the Rio San Antonio and Rio San Rodrigo. The grant also allowed members of the Kickapoo tribe to settle. The Kickapoo had arrived in 1839 and assisted the Mexican Army in defense of the area. The colony was approximately 50 miles southwest of Ciudad Acuña. The treaty required the colonists to "obey the authorities and laws of the republic; maintain harmonious relations with nations friendly to Mexico; prevent, by all means possible, the Comanches and other barbarous tribes from continuing their incursions through the area; pursue and punish them; refrain from any commerce with these tribes; and maintain the best possible relations with the citizens of the United States."
Relations with the citizens of the United States soon became a problem. Slave hunters began raiding into Piedras Negras and the new colony. On November 10, 1851, for example, Mexican military reported a slave raid of "American volunteers" who crossed the border and attacked La Navaja, Coahuila "with the intention of attacking and capturing all the Negros as well as the Seminole Indians living there."
The following year, Chief Coachoochee visited Mexico City seeking a new colony further away from the border at El Nacimiento, Coahuila. The Ministry of War granted the request authorizing 17,352 acres. The settlers were asked to establish villages and be able to provide two hundred warriors/militia upon request by the local military commander. The two groups formed two villages on opposite sides of Alameda Canyon -- the Seminole settlement was known as El Nacimiento, the free African settlement was known as El Nacimiento de los Negros. This is but one example of the fate of runaways slaves seeking freedom in Mexico. Piedras Negras, Ciudad Acuña, Nuevo Laredo and other border towns had a persistent presence of runaway slaves.
As the institution of slavery strengthened in Texas, so did the population of slaves within plantation districts along the river bottoms that yielded the best cotton crops. With a critical mass of population, African American slaves were able to form not simply communities, but interpretive communities.” These interpretive communities had the ability to understand the linkage between the pathway to freedom and Mexico, and take necessary actions to travel along that path.
The scarce population from the mouth of the Rio Grande River to El Paso, Texas also contributed to the opportunity for African Americans to travel into Mexico along the pathway to freedom. According to the U.S. Census of 1860, there were probably 25,000 persons living along this section of the river, of which, “80 to 90 percent were Mexican.” In an effort to address the increasing number of escaping African American slaves, U.S. Army officials, ordered Brevet Lieutenant Colonel Joseph Morris, commanding Fort Duncan on the Rio Grande, to arrest any runaway slave attempting to cross near his post. There were too few troops in the area to carry out this order.
Resistance to the institution of slavery included sabotage, otherwise known as insurrection. In an 1858 statute of Texas, “insurrection of slaves’ is defined as, “An assemblage of three or more, with arms, with intent to obtain their liberty by force.” There were several large scale slave revolts in Texas. For example, in Columbus, Colorado County on September 9, 1856, more than two hundred slaves planned to attack every house in the town, simultaneously, and, “kill all the whites. . .plunder their homes, take their horses and arms, and fight their way on to a ‘free state’ [Mexico].”
“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,” recalled Felix Haywood an ex-slave from San Antonio who was interviewed about his experiences as a slave in San Antonio by the WPA in 1937.
To reach the pathway of freedom into Mexico runaway slaves found help from people within Texas. According to historian Obadele-Starks, “Flight across the border was initiated primarily by the escapees themselves and with limited help from northern abolitionists or antislavery sympathizers.” Almost seventy years after his emancipation, Felix Haywood of San Antonio had his own story recorded by a WPA interviewer for the Slave Narratives, “Sometimes someone would come ‘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.” His story helps to confirm the communication that took place between slave communities within the plantation districts. An example of slave sympathizers was uncovered when three white men, who had been implicated in the foiled plan for the October 31st revolt in Halletsville. However, slave sympathizers were not only isolated to whites. In 1855, about twenty Mexican families in Seguin they had been accused of aiding and abetting runaway slaves in their escape from bondage.
In 1857, the Bexar County Sheriff led a posse to Garza's Crossing (Von Ormy) to lynch unnamed "Mexicans" who had been accused of assisting slaves to freedom in Pierdras Negras, Mexico. Newspaper reports at the time state that the posse was stopped by a group of armed German residents led by Dr. Theodore Heerman who insisted that they knew of no much persons in the community and refusing to allow the posse to enter the town.
The success along the pathway of freedom into Mexico is evident through the voices of former slaves, and personal accounts of those who have traveled into Mexico south of the Rio Grande River. During his interview, Felix Haywood stated, “In Mexico you could go 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.” Ronnie C. Tyler, professor of history at the University of Texas at Austin and director of the Texas State Historical Association, had collected more than 1,100 ads posting rewards for the return of fugitive slaves. The destination for many of these runaways was the Coahuila-Texas border towns of Eagle Pass and Piedras Negras. Fredrick Law Olmstead, a journalist commissioned by the New York Times to travel through the American South to chronicle and research its slave economy (1852-1857) encountered two runaway slaves in Piedras Negras. In the course of an interview, one informed Olmsted that he was born in Virginia, brought to the South by a trader, and sold in Texas. Furthermore, he had runaway four or five years prior. He could speak Spanish fluently, and professed that he was a competent guide into Northern Mexico. Additionally, he informed Olmsted that runaways were constantly arriving in Piedras Negras, and that forty had arrived in the previous three months. From these accounts we learn that the pathway of freedom into Mexico was indeed existent.
The question of how many runaways traveled the pathway of freedom into Mexico is unknown, and can only be estimated. The Austin State Times, in 1854, estimated that, “There were upwards of two hundred thousand escaped slaves in Mexico.” This estimate appears to be substantially high. A more reasonable estimate was given by John S. “Rip” Ford, doctor, lawyer, journalist, Mexican War veteran, and Texas Ranger. Texans had been willing to pay up to a $600.00 reward for the return of runaway slaves residing in Mexico. Ford, set out to capture and return these runaway slaves back to Texas. He claimed that slaves worth $3,200,000.00 were in Mexico. This would put the number of those who traveled the pathway of freedom into Mexico in the range of 4,000.
Below is the complete interview given by Felix Haywood, former slave of San Antonio, Texas, to the WPA in 1937. Haywood was 92 years old at the time.
Felix Haywood is a temperamental and whimsical old Negro of San Antonio. Texas, who still sees the sunny side of his 92 years, in spite of his total blindness. He was born and bred a slave in St. Hedwig, Bexar Co., Texas, the son of slave parents bought in Mississippi by his master, William Gudlow. Before and during the Civil War he was a sheep herder and cowpuncher. His autobiography is a colorful contribution, showing the philosophical attitude of the slaves, as well as shedding some light upon the lives of slave owners whose support of the Confederacy was not accompanied by violent hatred of the Union.
Yes, sir, I'm Felix Haywood , and I can answer all those things that you want to know. But, first, let me ask you this? Is you all a white man, or is you a black man? I'm black, blacker than you are, said the caller. The eyes of the old blind Negro, - eyes like two murky brown marbles - actually twinkled. Then he laughed: No, you ain't. I knowed you was white man when you comes up the path and speaks. I jus' always asks that question for fun. It makes white men a little insulted when you don't know they is white, and it makes niggers all conceited up when you think maybe they is white. And there was the key note to the old Negro's character and temperament. He was making a sort of privileged game with a sportive twist out of his handicap of blindness. As the interviewer scribbled down a note, the door to the little shanty on Arabella Alley opened and a backless chair was carried out on the porch by a vigorous old colored woman. She was Mrs. Ella Thompson , Felix ' youngest sister, who had known only seven years of slavery. After a timid "How-do-you-do," and a comment on the great heat of the June day, she went back in the house. Then the old Negro began searching his 92 years of reminiscences, intermixing his findings with philosophy, poetry and prognostications.
It's a funny thing how folks always want to know about the war. The war weren't so great as folks suppose. Sometimes you didn't knowed it was goin' on. It was the endin' of it that made the difference. That's when we all wakes up that somethin' had happened. Oh, we knowed what was goin' on in it all the time, 'cause old man Gudlow went to the post office every day and we knowed. We had papers in them days jus' like now. But the war didn't change nothin'. We saw guns and we saw soldiers, and one member of master's family, Colmin Gudlow , was gone fightin' - somewhere. But he didn't get shot no place but one - that was in the big toe. Then there was neighbors went off to fight. Some of 'am didn't want to go. They was took away (conscription). I'm thinkin' lots of 'on pretended to want to go as soon as they had to go. The ranch went on jus' like it always had before the war. Church want on. Old Man Johnson , the preacher, seen to it church went on. The kids didn't know war was happenin'. They played marbles, see-saw and rode. I had old Bustar, a ex, and he took me about plenty good as a horse. Nothin' was different. We get layed-into (whipped) time on time, but gen'rally life was good just as good as a sweat potato. The only misery I had was when a black spider bit me on the ear. It swelled up my head and stury came out. I was plenty sick and Dr. Brennen , he took good care me. The doctor always took good care of people when they was sick. Hospitals couldn't de no better for you today Yes, maybe it was a black widow spider, but we called it the 'devil biter'. Sometimes someone would came '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 de was to walk, but walk South, and we'd be free as soon as we creased the Rio Grande. In Mexico you could be free. They didn't care what color you was, black, white, yellow or blue. Hundreds or slaves did go to Mexico and got on all right. We would hear about 'em and how they was goin' to be Mexicans. They brought up their children to speak only Mexican. Me and my father and five brothers and sisters weren't goin' to Mexico. I went there after the war for a while and then I looked 'round and decided to get back. So I comeback to San Antonio and I got a job through Colonel Brockenridge with the waterworks. I was handling pipes. My foreman was Tom Flanigan he must have been a full-blooded Frenchman! But what I want to say is, we didn't have no idea of runnin' and escapin'. We was happy. We get our lickings, but just the same we got our fill of biscuits every time the white folks had 'em. Nobody knew how it was to lack feed. I tell my chillen we didn't know no mere about pants than a hawg knows about heaven; but I tells 'em that to make 'em laugh. We had all the clothes we wanted and if you wanted shoes bad enough you get 'em shoes with a brass square too. And shirtal Mister, them was shirts that was shirtal If someone gets caught by his shirt on a limb of a tree, he had to die there if he weren't out down. Them shirts wouldn't rip no more'n buckakin. The end of the war, it come jus' like that like you snap your fingers. How did you know the end of the war had come? asked the interviewer. How did we know it! Hallalujah broke out Abe Lincoln freed the nigger With the gun and the trigger; And I ain't goin' to get whipped any more. I got my ticket, Leavin' the thicket. And I'm a-headin' for the Golden Shore!' Soldiers, all or a sudden, was everywhere comin' in bunches, crossin' and walkin' and ridin'. Everyone was a-singin'. We was all walkin' on golden clouds. Hallelujah! Union forever, Hurrah, boys, hurrah! Although I may be poor. I'll never be a slave Shoutin' the battle cry of freedom.'
Everybody went wild. We all felt like heroes and nobody had made us that way but ourselves. We was free. Just like that, we was free. It didn't seen to make the whites mad, either. They went right on giving us read just the same. Nobody took our homes away, but right off colored folks started on the move. They seemed to want to get closer to freedom, so they'd know what it was like it was a place or a city. Me and my father stuck, stuck close as a lean tick to a sick kitten. The Gudlows started us out on a ranch. My father, he'd round up cattle, unbranded cattle, for the whites. They was cattle that they belonged to, all right; they had gone to find water 'long the San Antonio River and the Guadalupe. Then the whites gave me and my father some cattle for our own. My father had his own brand, 7B, and we had a herd to start out with of seventy. We knowed freedom was on us, but we didn't knew what was to come with it. We thought we was goin' to get rich like the white folks. We thought we was goin' to be richer than the white folks, 'cause we was stronger and knowed how to work, and the whites didn't and they didn't have us to work for them anymore. But it didn't turn out that way. We soon found out that freedom could make folks proud but it didn't make 'em rich. Did you ever stop to think that thinking don't de any good when you de it too late? Well, that's how it was with us. If every mother's son of a black had thrown 'way his hoe and took up a gun to fight for his own freedom along with the Yankees, the war'd been over before it began. But we didn't do it. We couldn't help stick to our masters. We couldn't no more shoot 'em than we could fly. My father and me used to talk 'bout it. We decided we was too soft and freedom wasn't goin' to be much to our good even if we had a education. The old Negro was growing very tired, but, at a request, he instantly get up and tapped his way out into the scorching sunshine to have his photograph taken. Even as he did so, he seemed to smile with these blurred, dead eyes of his. Then he chuckled to himself and said: Warmth of the wind And heat of the South, And ripe red cherries For a rips, red mouth. Land sakes, Felix ! came through the window from sister Ella . How you carries on! Don't you be a-mindin' him, mister.