The Texas Underground Railroad is a secretive network designed to provide aid and shelter to escaped enslaved people. These networks ran north and south and were developed with the convergence of several clandestine efforts.
For enslaved people in Texas, finding a safe route to Canada was out of the question. Fortunately, slavery was already illegal in Mexico, which is where many Texans found refuge.
Read on for the full tour of the history of the Texas Underground Railroad.
When these networks were first established is yet to be known for certain. However, it’s believed to have operated from the mid-18th century to the Civil War.
According to researchers, approximately 5,000 to 10,000 people escaped from slavery into Mexico. Yet no one knows the exact number for sure because there are very few surviving records of the Texas Underground Railroad surviving compared to that bound for Canada.
Despite how horrific slavery was, fleeing wasn’t an easy decision to make for many enslaved people. It could mean leaving a family behind and heading into an unfamiliar place where food and shelter weren’t guaranteed.
On top of that, there was also the constant threat of capture. With slave patrols roaming the borders, getting caught meant being transported back to the plantation, where they could be beaten, whipped, or killed.
For those who were brave enough to take the risk, the Texas Underground Railroad served as their support system. With a vast and loosely organized network, they had a constantly-changing route that helped blacks attain their freedom.
Most underground railroads were operated by ordinary people, farmers, and business owners. There are also the so-called “conductors” who helped the runaways make it safely down to Mexico.
Mexico abolished slavery in 1829, back when Texas was still very much steeped in it.
Yet, even though slavery was illegal in Mexico, indentured debt servitude was still widely practiced. Indentured debt servitude was a type of barter system in which the worker would perform certain kinds of labor for a set period. Meanwhile, landowners would provide food and shelter for indentured servants instead of wages.
Nevertheless, to enslaved Texans, this was still the better option compared to the chattel slavery system in Texas, where people were considered to be legal property that could be bought, sold, and owned. for all of their lives.
For these fugitive enslaved people to make it to Mexico, they had to navigate many different routes. Most went on foot, while others stole horses on their way. Some were even brave enough to sneak aboard ferries bound for Mexico.
In July 1863, numerous local newspapers reported that three enslaved people crossed the Rio Grande river that divides Texas from Mexico by using bales of cotton as flotation devices.
There were also many escapees who forged passes to give the impression they were traveling with their master’s consent. Some even disguised themselves as white men, wearing wigs from horsehair and pitch. They also stole firearms, horses, fur hats, and anything else they could use to help with their disguise.
Some runaways were also helped by other slaves. There were also some isolated examples, like when there was once a slave who escaped with the help of mail carriers.
It’s important to note that although some consider Mexico’s indentured debt servitude as a form of slavery, Mexicans were sympathetic to refugees from Texas as well as other parts of the US.
Mexicans often fought against bounty hunters and vigilantes from Texas who were out searching for the escaped slaves. Mexican laborers working in Texas also befriended the slaves and guided them during various parts of their escape.
Unfortunately, this occurred one too many times that slave owners and traders began distrusting Mexicans.
There were several routes that the enslaved people took to get to Mexico.
For enslaved people from Louisiana and Arkansas, most of them tend to take the route to Nacogdoches. This is the route that starts from either Houston or Austin.
Those who took the route to Houston either continued south to Galveston snuck on ferries bound for Matamoros. Others continued south to Brazoria where they hid on ferries headed to Mexico or crossed the land borders via the northern city of Matamoros.
On the other hand, those who took the route to Austin continued southbound to San Antonio where they crossed the border into either Laredo or Piedras Negras.
Refugees coming from the Indian Territory went south to Dallas. They typically made their way by heading south to Austin, then to San Antonio, before finally crossing the border into Piedras Negras or Laredo.
Even with the Underground Railroad’s established routes, escapees still had to be vigilant not to get captured along the way. Some of the things they did to ensure their safety include:
- Made it a point not to take established roads
- Rode horses to cover long distances and neutralize pursuers
- Carried guns to fight against slave hunters and vigilantes
Texan Slaves FAQs
Why Did Enslaved Texans Decide to Flee to Mexico?
The biggest reason is that Mexico had banned slavery and had decided against returning any runaway slaves back to the US. Moreover, Mexico was the closest escape route since Canada was out of reach.
How Did the Escapees Survive the Path to Mexico?
By using coded messages to communicate, they were able to make use of the underground railroad. Enslaved people also learned elaborate disguises and fought back when necessary. White people and conductors sympathetic to their cause also played a huge role in their survival.
What Did the Slave Owners and Traders Do About the Slaves That Escaped?
With hundreds of enslaved people escaping to Mexico, American diplomats kept pressuring the Mexicans into signing extradition treaties. Yet, in the years 1850, 1851, 1853, and 1857, Mexico stood fast against signing any treaty that demanded the country return runaway slaves to their owners.
- Texas Highways: texashighways.com
- History: history.com
- Smithsonian Magazine: smithsonian mag.com
- Fox 26 Houston: youtube.com
Christian Linden is a seasoned writer and contributor at Texas View, specializing in topics that resonate with the Texan community. With over a decade of experience in journalism, Christian brings a wealth of knowledge in local politics, culture, and lifestyle. He holds a Bachelor's degree in Communications from the University of Texas. When he's not writing, Christian enjoys spending weekends traveling across Texas with his family, exploring everything from bustling cities to serene landscapes.