One route of the Underground Railroad ran through Texas to Mexico
- A new book tells the stories of enslaved people who headed across the Rio Grande.
- Mexico’s wavering policies on slavery encouraged both slave owners and the enslaved.
- The admission of Texas to the union as a slave state ultimately tipped the balance in favor of the free states.
A few years ago, I visited the National Underground Railroad Freedom Center on the high banks of the Ohio River in Cincinnati. Not only is this large, modern and well-curated museum a highly recommended tourist stop, but it also symbolically faces the other side of the river and the former slave state of Kentucky — a physical fact impossible to forget as one imagines the horrors and hopes experienced by those who fled from bondage in the South.
To my knowledge, no such thematic museum exists in Texas, although several have exhibits dedicated to the Underground Railroad, the imaginative name given to the route by which enslaved people escaped to free territories. Almost all of those Texas displays have stuck to tales of slaves moving north toward freedom.
This state of affairs might change someday, especially in light of new studies such as the recently published “South to Freedom: Runaway Slaves to Mexico and the Road to the Civil War” by Alice L. Baumgartner.
From the early 1800s until after the civil wars in the U.S. (1865) and Mexico (1867), enslaved people from Texas and farther away in the Deep South headed to relative safety beyond the Rio Grande, despite the shifting policies of local, provincial and national governments in Mexico. Baumgartner tells heartrending personal stories of runaway slaves who tried to cross the southern border, but she also aims to adjust pre-Civil War history to include the effect of these Underground Railroad routes on national policies in both countries.
In the end, the admission of Texas as a slave state in 1845, which led to the Mexican War, actually meant that the balance of power shifted to the free states, Baumgartner argues, because other conquered Mexican territories, such as the land that became California, were tipping the scales toward freedom when they entered the Union.
“The pages in between take us from the floor of the U.S. Senate in Washington, D.C., to the stage of the National Theatre in Mexico City, from the barricaded doors of the Alamo to the military outposts of northern Mexico,” Baumgartner writes. “In the process, this book makes the case that enslaved people who escaped to Mexico and the antislavery laws that entitled them to freedom contributed to the outbreak of major sectional controversy over the future of human bondage in the United States.”
The author points out that slave owners repeatedly invoked “property rights” to defend slavery in territories that were not yet states. The U.S. Supreme Court backed them up. So slave owners, marching west from the eastern seaboard, transported enslaved people to successive territories in order to establish slavery as a precedent there that would allow them to keep enslaved people if the territory became a state.
Even before Mexican independence in 1821, enslaved people in New Spain, no matter how ill-treated, had some legal protections, because Spanish law recognized people of African descent as humans, not just property.
“As such, they enjoyed protections against cruel and excessive punishments and enslaved people in the United States did not,” the author writes. “In New Spain, slaves were also members of the Catholic Church, which entitled them to receive sacraments, including the rite of marriage. By law, their owners could neither forbid enslaved people from marrying nor separate husbands from their wives, both common occurrences in the slaveholding United States.”
Even as early as 1806, enslaved people presented themselves at the Spanish garrison in Nacogdoches with a forged passport from a judge in Kentucky in hopes of obtaining freedom. More followed their path to Texas the next year. The Spanish refused to return them.
As the years passed, Spanish and Mexican officials quarreled over the merits of protecting the increasing number of runaways, in part for fear of inciting American reprisals. After all, before he became president, Andrew Jackson had invaded Spanish Florida, partly because of runaways who had slipped away from Georgia and the Carolinas. Some of those escaped slaves joined the Seminoles — Native Americans who had previously fled Georgia and the Carolinas in the 18th century.
Later, Black Seminoles settled in Mexico, and some runaways rushed to join them.
Given the history of slavery in New Spain, it is not surprising to learn that independent Mexico wavered on the subject. Leaders threw open the doors to Anglo Americans specifically to erect a buffer zone against the hostile Comanches and Apaches, but also to plant cotton, knowing that the colonists would bring along enslaved people to do so. (An excellent book on this subject is “Seeds of Empire: Cotton, Slavery and the Transformation of the Texas Borderlands, 1800-1850" by Andrew J. Torget.)
Baumgartner has produced the best record I have read so far on the mixed signals sent by Mexican authorities, even after slavery was definitively outlawed there in 1837. After all, Mexico did not outlaw debt peonage, next door to slavery, until 1867. It did outlaw the slave trade and insisted on the ultimate freedom of African Americans in bondage, but it enforced those laws weakly.
Distressingly, Mexican officials periodically returned enslaved people to American enslavers. At the same time, Texas Rangers and other militia members crossed the border to recover “property” for their owners.
In Mexico’s dealings with the U.S. government, one of the cards up its sleeve was to threaten to unleash slave revolts. A successful revolt in Haiti had held off the forces of Napoleon. Mexico planned to ally with Haiti against Spanish Cuba and thereby point a dagger at the heart of the South. Some Mexican generals talked of marching through the South to Washington.
Baumgartner reminds us that the precipitating question that ignited the Civil War was the expansion of slavery into the West. Some enslavers dreamed of avoiding that clash by expanding it south, taking Cuba, Nicaragua, Mexico or other places with weaker militaries. Their anxiety over adding more free states in the West, a process that had already upset the balance in the Senate, was intensified by the election of President Abraham Lincoln on a platform of keeping slavery out of the West.
It must be said that Baumgartner spends more time on the broad stage of geopolitical theater than on the particulars of the Underground Railroad as it ran through Texas. The creaking compromises made in the U.S., especially in the Senate, on the subject of slavery are well known, at least in outline. I found myself wanting more of her electrifying stories about enslaved people who escaped and made it to Mexico, or did not, much of which will be completely new material for readers, mined from archives and other sources in Mexico and elsewhere.
Baumgartner is a terrific storyteller, so both narratives remain rewarding.
Maybe someday Baumgartner’s admirable efforts to shift our attentions southward will be featured at a future Texas Underground Railroad Museum, perhaps perched on the banks of the Rio Grande.
Michael Barnes writes about the people, places, culture and history of Austin and Texas. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.