| This Country of Ours|
|by H. E. Marshall|
|Stories from the history of the United States beginning with a full account of exploration and settlement and ending with the presidency of Woodrow Wilson. The 99 chapters are grouped under 7 headings: Stories of Explorers and Pioneers, Stories of Virginia, Stories of New England, Stories of the Middle and Southern Colonies, Stories of the French in America, Stories of the Struggle for Liberty, and Stories of the United States under the Constitution. Ages 10-14 |
FILLMORE—THE UNDERGROUND RAILROAD
 THE Vice-President, Millard Fillmore, now became President. He was
the son of very poor parents; he had picked up an education how he
could, and he was nineteen before he saw a history, or a map of his
own country. But he was determined to become a lawyer. And after
a hard struggle he succeeded. Then from step to step he rose, till
he had now reached the highest office in the land.
Under the new President the debate over California still went on.
But at length the matter was settled, and California was admitted
as a free state. This was on the 9th of September, but the
news did not reach California until October. For months the people
had been waiting for an answer to their petition. And as the days
went past they grew more and more impatient. But at last one morning
San Francisco was filled with excitement for the Oregon was seen
coming into harbour gaily decorated with flags.
With shouts of joy the people ran down to the wharf for they knew
the Oregon would never come in with flags flying in such a way if
she were not bringing good news.
And when they heard the news they laughed, and cried, and kissed
each other in joy. Cannon were fired and bells rung, shops were
shut, and every one went holidaying.
Messengers too were sent in every direction. Stage coaches with
six-horse teams ran races to be the first to bring the news to
outlying towns and villages. As the coaches dashed through villages
men on them shouted the news, and the villagers would shout and
laugh in return.
 Then leaping on their horses they would ride off to tell some
neighbour. So throughout the land the news was carried.
By the admission of California to the Union as a free state the
non-slave states were greatly strengthened. But in some degree to
make up for this, a very strict law about the arrest of runaway
slaves was passed. This was called the Fugitive Slave Law and it
was bad and cruel. For, by it, if a negro were caught even by some
one who had no right to him he had no chance of freedom. A negro
was not allowed to speak for himself, and he was not allowed the
benefit of a jury. Also any person who helped a slave to run away,
or protected him when he had run away, might be fined.
The North hated the Bill but it was passed. Many people, however,
made up their minds not to obey it. For conscience told them that
slavery was wrong and conscience was a "higher law." So when men
came to the free states to catch runaway slaves they were received
with anger, and everything was done to hinder them in their man-catching
work. The Underground Railroad, too, became more active than ever.
This Underground Railroad was not a railroad, and it was not
underground. It was simply a chain of houses about twenty miles or
so apart where escaped slaves might be sure of a kindly welcome.
The railroad was managed by men who felt pity for the slaves and
helped them to escape. It went in direct roads across the States
to Canada. The escaping slaves moved so secretly from one house to
another that it almost seemed as if they must have gone underground.
So the system came to be called the Underground Railroad, and the
friendly houses were the stations.
Once a runaway slave reached one of these friendly houses or
stations he would be hidden in the attic or cellar or some safe
place. There he would be fed and cared for
 until night came again.
Then the password would be given to him, and directions how to
reach the next underground station. And, with the pole star for
his guide, he would set out.
Arriving at the house in the dusk of early morning, before any one
was astir he would knock softly at the door.
"Who's there?" would be asked.
Then the runaway would give the password in answer. Perhaps it
would be "William Penn," or "a friend of friends," or sometimes
the signal would be the hoot of an owl. And hearing it the master
of the underground station would rise and let the "passenger" in.
Sometimes the slavers would come alone, sometimes in twos and threes
or even more. As many as seventeen were hidden one day at one of
Thousands of slaves were in this way helped to escape every year.
It was a dangerous employment for the station-masters, and many
were found out and fined. They paid the fines, they did not care
for that; and went on helping the poor slaves.
Most of the people connected with the underground railway were
white, but some were coloured. One of the most daring of these was
Harriet Tubman. She helped so many of her countrymen to escape that
they called her "Moses" because she had led them out of the land
of bondage. She was nearly white, but had been a slave herself. And
having escaped from that fearful bondage she now spent her life in
trying to free others.
Again and again, in spite of the danger in being caught, she
ventured into the Southern States to bring back a band of runaway
slaves. And she was so clever and so full of resource that she
always brought them safely away. More than once when she saw she
was being tracked, she put herself and her little company into
a train, taking tickets for them southwards. For she knew that no
one would suspect
 them to be runaway slaves if they were travelling
south. Then, when their track was covered, and danger of pursuit
over, they all turned north again.
Harriet was both brave and clever, and when the Civil War broke
out, she served as a scout for the Northern Army, earning the praise
of those who employed her. She lived to be very old, and died not
many years ago, happy to know that all her countrymen were free.
But although many slaves tried to run away, all slaves were not
unhappy. When they had a kind master they were well taken care of,
and lived in far greater comfort that if they had been free. In the
more northerly of the slave states, such as Virginia, the slaves
were generally household servants, and were treated in the most
affectionate manner. It was farther south in the cotton growing
districts, where slaves worked in gangs under the whip of the
overseer who was often brutal, that the real misery was.
But even with the kindest of masters a slave could never feel safe.
For that master might die or lose his money, and have to sell his
slaves. Then husband and wife, parents and children might be sold
to different masters, and never see each other again. The one would
never know whether the other was happy or miserable, alive or dead.
Or they might be sold down South to work in the rice swamps or the
cotton fields. It was this that the happy, careless slave from the
North most dreaded.
It was just at this time when the Fugitive Slave Law was being
enforced, and the Underground Railroad was working nightly that
"Uncle Tom's Cabin" was written and published. You all know the
story of poor old Tom, of funny, naughty Topsy and all the other
interesting people of the book. We look upon it now as merely a
story-book. But it was much more than that. It was a great sermon
and did more to make people hate slavery than any other book ever
 It was read by hundreds and thousands of people, and soon the fame
of it spread to every country in Europe, and it was translated
into at least twenty languages. And even to-day when the work it
was meant to do is done, hundreds of boys and girls still laugh at
Topsy and feel very choky indeed over the fate of poor old Uncle
Hundreds of additional titles available for
online reading when you join Gateway to the Classics