The Underground Railroad was a large movement in North America consisting of several individuals who worked together to aid enslaved men and women in their escape from their captors. The freedom network began in the 1830s; there were homes, schoolhouses, churches and businesses which became known as “stations” along the route toward the north. These homes provided temporary shelter for fugitive slaves before they continued the rest of their journey.
The Underground Railroad extended to Canada in 1834 after the latter had outlawed slavery. By the end of 1850, the network had helped over 10,000 slaves escape to freedom. But apart from the popular Underground Railroad to the north, which helped fugitive slaves flee to Northern states and Canada, there was also a route to freedom south of the border.
For many enslaved people in the Deep South including Texas, seeking refuge in Canada was almost impossible considering the distance. To them, liberty was a lot closer in Mexico and luckily, slavery was also illegal in Mexico. Enslaved people in the Deep South took to this closer route that led through South Texas to Mexico during the 1800s. According to research, about 5,000 to 10,000 people escaped from bondage into Mexico with the help of German immigrants, Mexican Americans, and biracial Black and white couples living along the Rio Grande.
The Rio Grande river dividing Texas from Mexico became a river of deliverance, as stated by NPR. Since these enslaved men and women were using clandestine routes, they knew that if they got caught they would be killed and lynched, so most of them did not leave a lot of records.
In the wake of protests against systemic racism and as more people begin to show an interest in studying slavery, scholars and researchers have been looking more into the story of the almost forgotten underground railroad that led through South Texas to Mexico.
Mexico abolished slavery in 1829 when Texas was still part of the country. Soon, White, slave-holding immigrants began fighting for independence in the Texas Revolution. As soon as they formed the Republic of Texas in 1836, they made slavery legal again, and the practice continued to be legal when Texas joined the U.S. as a state in 1845, according to History. As enslaved men and women began to escape to freedom, indentured debt servitude existed in Mexico, but it was not the same as chattel slavery. Thus, enslaved people in Texas knew that they could flee south and cross over to free Mexican soil. So were those who made it all the way from North Carolina, Mississippi, Louisiana, and Alabama.
Enslaved people fled to Mexico in many different ways. While some rode horses or snuck aboard ferries bound for Mexican ports, others went on foot, History says. There were also those who floated on bales of cotton.
“Sometimes someone would come ‘long and try to get us to run up north and be free. We used to laugh at that,” former slave Felix Haywood said while being interviewed in 1937 for the federal Slave Narrative Project. “There wasn’t no reason to run up north,” he added.
“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.”
But it was a perilous journey as runaway slaves had to travel through forests and survive wild animal attacks as well as “a dry, parched landscape” with not many trees and no running streams. And even though the northbound underground railroad had a network of people or “conductors” who provided shelter for fugitive slaves and helped them continue the rest of their journey, the southern route had nothing like that.
“We didn’t have a conductor like a Harriet Tubman, and we didn’t have a certain station like they did in Philadelphia where they could live and make some money,” Roseann Bacha-Garza, a borderlands historian at the University of Texas Rio Grande Valley, was quoted by NPR. “What we did have down here were pathways that people could follow to get to the Rio Grande.”
That notwithstanding, records show that there were abolitionists who traveled south to help enslaved people get to Mexico. There were also “tejanos”, or Mexicans in Texas, who acted as “conductors” and helped people reach Mexico. Maria Hammack, who is writing her dissertation about this topic at the University of Texas at Austin, and researcher Bacha-Garza did find out about a mixed-race family from Alabama who moved to southern Texas near the Rio Grande and helped enslaved people flee to Mexico. The wife of that family, Matilda Hicks, was a formerly enslaved woman while her husband, Nathaniel Jackson, was the son of her slave owner. Having moved to southern Texas, they found another family — the Webbers — who were already settled in the Rio Grande Valley. That family also helped runaway slaves across the river into free Mexico.
At the time, the U.S. wanted Mexico to sign a fugitive slave treaty similar to the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850 that forced free states to return escapees to the south. But Mexico did not sign the treaty, arguing that all enslaved people who got to Mexico were free. And as Mexico refused to return escaped enslaved people to the U.S., some slave owners in the U.S. hired slave catchers to illegally kidnap escapees in Mexico. But Mexican authorities including Black Seminoles — or Los Mascogos — who had resettled in northern Mexico fought against slave catchers and helped the now-free men and women in Mexico from being taken back to the U.S.
As this went on, White people in Texas also banished Mexican Americans from towns over reports that they were helping enslaved people escape. All in all, escaped slaves, once getting to Mexico, adopted Spanish names, married into Mexican families and migrated deeper into Mexico. Most of them have since disappeared from history.