1. Discuss how slaves used clues in nature to find their way north.
Tell students that slaves did not have maps, compasses, or GPS units. Most slaves were never allowed to receive an education, and so could not read or write. Ask: How do you think slaves knew they were going in the right direction? Tell students that slaves relied on guides in the Underground Railroad, as well as memorization, images, and spoken communication. Slaves could also tell they were traveling north by looking at clues in the world around them. For example:
- Moss usually grows on the north side of trees.
- Migrating birds fly north in the summer.
- The North Star always points to the north. You can find it by looking for the Big Dipper, a group of stars that some slaves called “the drinking gourd.”
Have students imagine themselves in the woods, trying to find their way north. Ask: What other clues in nature tell you something about direction? Elicit from students that the sun rises in the east and sets in the west. They could use this to figure out which way is north at the beginning and end of the day.
2. Discuss how slaves used clues in music and art to find their way north.
Explain to students that slaves also relied on songs and quilts to find their way north. Tell them that songs were one way to hide information about a route. Read aloud the lyrics of “Follow the Drinking Gourd” and the clues about the words on the Pathways to Freedom website. Then explain that quilts were blankets that had special patterns, or codes, that slaves memorized. These patterns helped slaves learn about the route to take in order to escape to the north. Show students two of the quilt patterns on the Pathways to Freedom website. Read aloud the meanings of the patterns for slaves. Ask: Why were songs and quilts helpful for escaping slaves? Elicit from students that these were ways to communicate in secret, and slaves did not need to know how to read or write to understand their message.
3. Have each student create a quilt with a clue about routes to freedom.
Display for students the map “Routes to Freedom.” Ask students to draw a quilt with a picture clue about something slaves would have needed to know to successfully take one of the routes north. Encourage students to be creative. For example, students can create clues about:
- what the weather was like
- where food could be found
- how much distance was left to travel
- ways to cross bodies of water
- dangers from people or animals
- which way is north
4. Create a class quilt.
After students have finished, tape all of the squares together on a wall to create a class quilt.
- describe clues in nature, music, and art that helped slaves find their way north
- create a quilt showing clues about routes to freedom
- Hands-on learning
This activity targets the following skills:
Critical Thinking Skills
- Geographic Skills
What You’ll Need
Materials You Provide
- Construction paper
The resources are also available at the top of the page.
- Internet Access: Required
- Tech Setup: 1 computer per classroom, Projector
- Large-group instruction
Clues in nature, music, and art helped slaves navigate their way north via the Underground Railroad.
Term Part of Speech Definition Encyclopedic Entry slave Noun
person who is owned by another person or group of people.
process and condition of owning another human being or being owned by another human being.
Underground Railroad Noun
system used by abolitionists between 1800-1865 to help American slaves escape to free states.
For Further Exploration