Friday, June 26, 2009

Just finished reading - Bound for Canaan: The Underground Railroad and the War for the Soul of America by Fergus M. Bordewich

If you have ever looked for a fast paced narrative of the Underground Railroad that factually relates all of the legendary stories associated with that era in history, you will want to pick up a copy of Bound for Canaan. And, although the book is 440 pages, it is so well written, and the stories blend into one another so seamlessly, you won't mind spending the time to finish it. The author, Fergus Bordewich has written for several historical publications, including the Smithsonian, and American Heritage.

One reason I especially enjoyed the book is that there were so many references, stories, and personalities that came out of Kentucky. I was quite aware of this from previous reading and study, but Bordewich makes these events and people come to life. He makes the reader feel that they are in a wagon or on a dark and lonely road searching for the next "station," and "conductor."

One figure that I came to learn more about through the book was George DeBaptiste. I first heard about DeBaptiste when I visited the Elutherian College historic site in Lancaster, Indiana a few months back (see April 13, 2009 post). DeBaptiste was born a free man in Fredericksburg, Virginia in 1814 or 1815, and had moved to the Ohio River town of Madison in the late 1830s. He was well known in town and earned a respectable living as a barber; the chosen occupation of many free blacks. Somehow he became known to William Henry Harrison, who was elected President in 1840, and went with Harrison to the White House to serve as the president's steward. His stay in Washington was a short one however as Harrison died shortly after his inauguration. DeBaptiste returned to Madison and became active in helping Kentucky runaways make their way to freedom. DeBaptiste was forced to move to Detroit, Michigan when his antislavery activities came to light. In Detroit, DeBaptiste continued helping runaways, often funneling them to nearby Canada. When the Civil War broke out he joined a United States Colored Troop, the 102nd USCT. He lived in Detroit until his death from cancer in 1875.

A large number of other personalities appear throughout Bound for Canaan; some famous, some not so famous. He recounts the tales of Harriet Tubman, John Brown, Frederick Douglass, Gerrit Smith, Margaret Garner, Josiah Henson (a great Kentucky story), Henry Bibb, Henry Box Brown, William Wells Brown, Levi Coffin, Jermain Loguen, Isaac Hopper, William Still, Thomas Garrett, and John Rankin; just to name a few.

The thing that struck me as obvious was the power that the Underground Railroad's common goal had over a diverse population. The people involved in helping runaways were both black and white, they were rich and poor, they were well educated and barely educated. But they all desired the same thing...they wanted everyone, regardless of color, to be able to experience those American rights that Jefferson so clearly made in the Declaration of Independence; LIFE, LIBERTY, AND THE PURSUIT OF HAPPINESS.

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