RIO DE JANEIRO, BRAZIL – Between 1821 and 1865, thousands of enslaved African Americans crossed the Rio Grande to seek a different future; however, their stories and of those who aided them, remained buried in obscurity until recently.
Unlike the so-called “Underground Railroad” – the network organized by abolitionists in the 19th century to help slaves escape to northern states and Canada – the history of which is taught to high school students in the US – the route south has remained ignored on both sides of the Rio Grande.
“The concept is the same as the ‘underground railroad’ to the north, the difference is that on the route to Mexico there wasn’t such an organized network and there weren’t as many people available to help the slaves,” says Roseann Bacha-Garza, head of the Community History and Archaeology Program (CHAPS) at the University of Texas Rio Grande Valley.
Nevertheless, what happened on this escape route was not insignificant and historians estimate that between 5,000 and 10,000 slaves managed to cross into Mexico between 1821 and 1865.
“In Mexico you could be free”.
The reconstruction of this chapter in the history between Mexico and the United States has not been easy, largely because of the lack of records.
“Escapes were clandestine and there were squads hired by slaveowners to hunt down people fleeing to Mexico, so they often wanted to remain anonymous when they crossed to the Mexican side,” explains María Camila Díaz Casas, who did her doctoral thesis on this topic at the National School of Anthropology and History of Mexico and is now a professor at the Javeriana University in Colombia.
Despite these limitations, the history of the existence of the southbound route has been reconstructed through scattered records of local communities, newspaper records of the period – in whose pages slaveowners published notices offering rewards for those who helped them recapture the runaways – and testimony collected in the 1930s and 1940s from former American slaves as part of the so-called Federal Writers’ Project.
One such testimony is that of Felix Haywood, who lived in San Antonio (Texas) when he was interviewed in 1941, at the age of 92, and offers a clear picture of the views that former slaves retained of Mexico.
“Occasionally someone would come along and encourage us to escape north for freedom. We would laugh about it. There was no reason to run north, all we had to do was walk, but walk south, where we would be free as soon as we crossed the Rio Grande (Rio Bravo),” Haywood recounts.
“In Mexico you could be free. They didn’t care what color your skin was: black, white, yellow or blue. Hundreds of slaves fled to Mexico and did well. We heard about them and that they became Mexicans. They raised their children to speak only Mexican,” he adds.
Bacha-Garza explains that many slaves knew how to get to Mexico because part of their job was to follow the cotton shipments from Texas plantations to markets in towns like Brownsville or Matamoros.
“Those slaves knew the routes and how to get to the river. They realized how easy it would be to cross and gain freedom in Mexico,” the historian points out.
According to the testimony of Sallie Wroe, who was born as a slave on a plantation near Austin (Texas), this is what her father and 3 of her uncles did when they reached the Rio Grande River driving wagons loaded with cotton, which the owner of the hacienda was going to sell in Brownsville.
“Daddy and the others left the wagons on the river bank, hurled a bale of cotton into the river and the four of them rode on it, paddling with poles across the river to Mexico. That was during the war. Daddy came back with us after being free and said he had done well in Mexico. He learned to speak just like they did,” he told Federal Writers Project researchers.
A dangerous route
Although most of the enslaved African Americans who fled to Mexico came from Texas, the idea of finding freedom across the southern border traveled much farther.
US historian Maria Hammack has found accounts of individuals who crossed the Rio Grande from nearby states such as Louisiana and farther afield such as Mississippi, Alabama and North Carolina. Bacha-Garza explains that the border was not nearly as heavily guarded as it is today and that the river could even be crossed on horseback at a few points.
Still, it was a difficult journey due to the extremely hot weather for much of the year, the abundant presence of dangerous animals such as snakes and scorpions, and the lack of water and shade to escape the harsh sun. In addition, they had to avoid the main roads and watch out for bounty hunters who roamed the area in search of runaway slaves.
“It was very difficult for them, but they were driven by the freedom they could achieve in Mexico and the fact that Mexico wasn’t going to send them back to the United States. That was the main issue,” Bacha-Garza notes.
Allies on the southern route
The slaves found several allies on their way to freedom. Among these, historians mention German immigrants who were very sensitive to the fugitives. In the 1830s and 1840s, Germanic settlers became one of the most significant migrant communities in Texas.
Another important support group were Texan-Mexicans (those who had lived in Texas from the time that territory was part of Mexico), as well as other Mexicans who migrated to the US later to work on ranches as laborers.
“Many of these Mexican laborers, particularly after the signing of the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo in 1848, migrated to Texas and began to work on the ranches, often coexisting with the enslaved,” says Díaz Casas.
“Then, a number of associations between Mexicans and enslaved people began to be created there, which the Texas press denounced with great alarm and one can see, for example, many ads offering rewards to recapture fugitives who say that they escaped with a Mexican or that they were guided by Mexicans, or that Mexicans instigated them to escape,” she adds.
The expert points out that this association between enslaved people and Mexican laborers led to the stigmatization of the latter. She considers that this could be a factor that helped the birth of an anti-Mexican sentiment in Texas.
In addition to this support, Roseann Bacha-Garza’s research over the last decade has helped identify individuals who helped slaves in the US flee to Mexico.
These are two mixed-race families: the Jacksons and the Webbers, headed by a white husband and a black wife – a freed slave – who settled on the US side of the Rio Grande River in the 1850s, after the end of the Mexican-American War, which turned the waterway into the new border between the two countries.
“They moved to the border and decided to stay on the US side and bought land. They integrated in society – which was not very populated – changing their names and learning the customs and language. So, for example, John Ferdinand Webber became Juan Fernando Webber and his daughter Sarah Jane became Juanita Webber. They were very happy to blend in with the community,” she says.
Webber began a relationship with a neighbor’s slave, Sylvia Hector, with whom he had 3 children before he was able to buy his freedom in 1834.
“In total, they had 11 children and for years they lived comfortably in Austin (Texas), but when the population grew in the area, animosity towards them also increased because they were an interracial couple with mixed-race children. In 1851, things got really bad for them and they decided to move down to Mexico and settled on the border,” says Bacha-Garza.
Nathaniel Jackson and his partner, Matilda Hicks, traveled in 1857 with their children from Alabama to Hidalgo County, Texas, trying to escape intolerance of interracial relationships. The couple had 10 children. The journey, more than 1,600 kilometers long, was made in covered wagons and in the company of 11 free African Americans. Like the Webbers, the Jacksons bought land and established a ranch along the river.
Bacha-Garza points out that both families moved toward the border fleeing racial intolerance and that both ranches had docks with boats that could be used to cross the Rio Grande at any time, something that not only allowed them to help the slaves escape, but also provided them with the assurance of being able to flee themselves if necessary.
“Between 1851 and 1865, these families gave shelter and food to the fleeing slaves, accepted them into their community and helped them cross the river to reach their freedom, although some of these people decided not to go all the way to Mexico because they felt welcome in these small communities along the river and decided to stay on the US side of the border, knowing that if any bounty hunters came they could always cross and stay hidden on the Mexican side,” Bacha-Garza points out.
Across the Rio Bravo
But what happened to the enslaved people once they crossed the border?
As far as historians know, some of the former slaves were able to join the military posts in the north of the country, which at that time were trying to bolster their forces. “Joining the Mexican army was a way for the former slaves to stay safe and rely on a way to survive, because they had food and a roof over their heads. They may not have paid much, but it was a way to find some comfort,” says Bacha-Garza.
María Camila Díaz Casas points out that there are known cases of former US slaves who went on to become officers in the Mexican army, although she notes that there were very different experiences.
“There were people who settled in Tamaulipas and became landowners or dons, which is a designation of political, economic and social importance. They managed to be accepted by society, live well and have economic and social capital that would have been impossible for them in the United States, even if they had been free,” she says. “At the same time, there were people who ended up working as laborers, which in Mexico was virtually a form of slavery,” she adds.
Both among those who were luckier and those who were not, many eventually returned to the United States when the Civil War ended and slavery was abolished.
Slavery and political calculation
Mexico’s reputation as a land of freedom among African-American slaves had its origins in the days when Mexico was a Spanish colony. This was not entirely unrelated to political calculation.
As Díaz Casas explains, from the 18th century on, the Spanish Crown began to give refuge to runaway slaves from enemy powers and to declare them free in its territories. At that time, slaves from Louisiana tried to escape to Texas to obtain their freedom.
When Mexico became independent in 1821, slavery had not been abolished, but it began to wane.
Díaz Casas notes that between 1824 and 1829, Independence Day began to be commemorated with ceremonies in which enslaved people who were bought from their owners or donated by them were freed, arguing that it was a matter of patriotic values, because of the freedom that independence had brought to the country.
But while in the south of Mexico slavery was losing steam, in the north of the country it was growing, as the Mexican government – interested in populating and protecting the northern border – granted authorization for US settlers to establish themselves in Texas and set up an economy based on slave labor.
This led to tensions when President Vicente Guerrero declared the abolition of slavery in Mexico in 1829, but under pressure from the settlers he was forced to make an exception for Texas a few months later.
Guerrero’s government fell shortly thereafter and the abolition of slavery was declared unconstitutional in 1831. However, differences on this issue between settlers and the central government would mark the beginning of the process leading to the loss of Texas as part of the Mexican territory. It was not until 1837, after the separation of Texas, that Mexico would permanently eliminate slavery.
Díaz Casas points out that Mexican authorities never accepted returning or extraditing former slaves to the United States and that, on many occasions, they gave protection to fugitives and did not allow bounty hunters crossing the border to take them back.
However, she considers that these policies were part of a specific political context of border definition and the construction of the Mexican nation and state in a context of US territorial expansion.
In any case, according to the expert, the flight of slaves from the US to Mexico is a critical chapter in the history between the two countries.
“We would not be able to understand how the border was built if we do not know what happened to these populations and if we do not understand that enslaved people of African origin were also involved in shaping the border. These escapes were linked to all these important moments in the history of Mexico and the United States,” she adds.
Source: BBC Esp