Bound For Canaan, The Underground Railroad and the War for the Soul of America

By Fergus M. Bordewich

Amistad, 2005

Hardcover, 560 pp, $18.45

“Bound For Canaan, The Underground Railroad and the War for the Soul of America,” by Fergus Bordewich, is a magnificently written and wonderful gem of historic knowledge.

A real page-turner, the book tells about the courageous rebels of the Underground Railroad.

Like an exciting action novel, the protagonists are real Americans, white and Black, but especially African Americans struggling against titanic obstacles, fighting for their people’s freedom.

While opposition to slavery came ashore with the first enslaved Americans in 1607 at Jamestown, the Underground Railroad was born among the colony of Quakers in western North Carolina, in the early 1830’s.

Levi and Vestal Coffin first began establishing networks of Quaker friends to safely hide and transport African Americans attempting to escape enslavement.

A decade later the Coffin family, with armed slaveholders close behind, fled to Cincinnati, but not before helping to rescue Josiah Henson, one of the first great African American leaders.

Bordewich ties the movement together and it’s stages from the early days of Quaker moral suasion through the building of a solid organization, such as the Vigilance Committees formed in Boston, Cincinnati, Cleveland, Detroit, Boston, New York and most major northern cities.

The expansion of its ranks included folks of all colors. The growth of militancy and fighting back became a majority movement that resulted in the Civil War and ended slavery.

There is much about William Lloyd Garrison, Harrriet Tubman and Frederick Douglass, well-known leaders, but the reader also learns about William Still, Henry Bibb, William Lambert, Jonathon Walker and others.

Still Bibb and Lambert were unschooled, self-taught former slaves and leaders of the Underground Railroad.

Still was the Pennsylvania Vigilance Committee chairman in charge of anti-slavery forces in surrounding areas that fought and defended escaping slaves or railroad conductors threatened by slave-catchers.

Henry Bibb was founder and editor of Detroit’s abolitionist newspaper, “Voice.” In 1851, Bibb organized the North American Convention of Colored People.

Lambert was the first person of color to address the Michigan legislature, calling for abolishing slavery. He helped fund John Brown’s expedition to Harper’s Ferry.

Jonathon Walker was a white working seaman who abhorred slavery and throughout his life helped slaves win freedom. He was captured and branded with SS (slave stealer) by Carolina authorities, inspiring songs, praise and a campaign that eventually rescued him. “Then lift that manly right hand, bold. Oh Ploughman of the wave, its branded palm shall prophecy Salvation to the slave!”

Lucretia Mott, Elizabeth Cady Stanton and other women leaders who built and “manned” the Underground Railroad are also highlighted. Taking inspiration from the abolitionist struggle, they also became leaders of the women’s suffrage movement.

Passage of the Fugitive Slave Law was a compromise by legislators who attempted to preserve the union. However, that law denied the rights of free speech to abolitionists, to churches, to whites as well as Blacks and circumvented rules of Habeas Corpus. Rather than being cowed, the escaped slaves and their allies fought, this time with arms, to protect their freedom.

In Boston, a huge crowd stormed the jail where a recaptured slave was being held. They freed him, killing and wounding numerous slavecatchers. In Oberlin, Ohio, hundreds mobilized to chase slavecatchers 20 miles south, to Wellington, where they beat up the slavecatchers and freed their captive.

Christiana, Pa., was the scene of a bloody, pitched battle where armed abolitionists beat off attempts to capture an escapee, killing the slave owner and a number of his thugs.

The freedom movement became a majority movement in the north, and finally the federal government was forced to stand up to the arrogance of southern slaveholding power.

The reader learns about Blacks and whites, working men and women, who dedicated their lives to a multi-racial movement for freedom in our nation.

George DeBaptiste, an underground leader in Detroit, put the following message on his store window in 1870, the day of the passage of the Fifteenth Amendment: “Notice to stockholders of the Underground Railroad. This office is closed. Hereafter all stockholders will receive dividends according to their merits!”

This book tells a history that is an inspiration to all who continue to struggle and realize the sentiments of the U.S. freedom movement.