Putting the History in the Historical Novel: The Underground Railroad

This is the second in a series of articles in which I will share my methodology for crafting a story which I hope is both interesting and informative. In my first article, I discussed slavery in the context of the slaveholding household and women’s non-existent legal rights. This week, I turn to the underground railroad, which played a significant role in the antebellum history of Guilford County, North Carolina.


Levi Coffin                          Source: Biography.com

Among the underground railroad’s leaders was its unofficial president, Levi Coffin, who was born in the Quaker community of New Garden. He moved to another Quaker community in Richmond County, Indiana, as a young man and later moved to Cincinnati, Ohio.

My research for the novel included many hours of perusing microfilm of the period’s weekly newspaper, the Greensborough Patriot. Although the newspaper’s editor, often spoke out against slavery, he married a woman who owned slaves and he ran advertisements offering rewards for the capture of runaway slaves. Slavery, as they say, was a “peculiar institution,” and William Swaim was not the only person who fell in love with someone whose circumstances differed dramatically from his or her own.

My research also included many hours researching the Greensboro Public Library’s rare books room. There and from many other sources, I learned much about the operation of the underground railroad. Nails were sometimes hammered into the bottom of fence rails as a sign that a farmhouse was a safehouse for runaways – a “station” on the underground railroad. “Station masters” sometimes hid runaways in cellars, not in a typical cellar, but one with a niche dug adjacent to an open square, with barrels or other objects employed to conceal the niche.

New Garden includes one chapter (pages 12-14) dedicated to Tom and Sara Grier’s operation of a station on the underground railroad. I open the chapter with a newspaper advertisement similar to one a subscriber might read in an 1843 edition of the Greensborough Patriot:


Ran away from the subscriber on Sunday the 5th of September, instant, a negro man, named JOE, about 5 feet, 9 inches high, black complection, a cook by trade. It is suspected that he is attempting to get to a free State in company with some free negroes. The last account of him he was in Asheboro; had on a white hat, and in his shirtsleeves. The above reward will be given for his apprehension and confinement, or delivery to me in Wentworth. JAS. W. WOODLEY Oct. 21st.

The story then goes on to find Joe near the Grier farmhouse:

The sun’s last rays finally dropped below the western tree line. Joe rubbed his left hand along the bottom rail of the split-rail fence, just as the blacksmith at the last station had instructed. This had to be the right house. ****

The story continues, as Joe, with some trepidation, knocks on the door and is admitted into the farmhouse. Tom leads Joe into the cellar to change into different clothes.

Tom led Joe down the ladder. At first glance the cellar appeared to be a twenty-by-twenty-foot square. When Tom removed some barrels, however, there was an additional four-by-eight-foot space off to one side with a cot in the middle.

The next day, Tom transports Joe in a false-bottom wagon to the next station. A runaway would not spend his entire journey in such a wagon, but he would do so when traveling through areas where he might be seen.

Joe crawled into the false bottom. He could barely move. Stories about the slave ships sailing the Middle Passage from Africa’s Gold Coast had passed through generations of American slaves. The slave trade had been so profitable that the ship captains had crammed Africans into every available crevice. As Joe thought of those horrible stories, his mouth opened into a wide grin. This was a different vessel, one that would carry him to freedom. He would escape the land of the Pharaohs while walking this earth, unlike the millions of his brethren who listened to the slave preachers and would do so only after drawing their last breath.

In just a few paragraphs or pages, the reader learns about an evening on the Underground Railroad. The historical details, gathered in many hours of research, are told in the context of a story, not sometimes mind-numbing text.

New Garden is available on line from Amazon, Apple, and Barnes & Noble. Each website includes a “look-in” feature with the first few chapters of the novel. In Greensboro, NC, the novel is available at Scuppernong Books and the Greensboro Historical Museum Bookshop.


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Filed under Civil War, slavery, Underground Railroad

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