Underground Railroad Quilt Blocks

A number of popular quilt blocks were used to make up the underground railway quilts. These quilts were said to impart important instructions and warnings to people traveling the Underground Railway.

Quilt historians and Underground Railroad experts are not all in agreement with the quilt-code theory. Oral 19th-century slave narratives and testimonies of former slaves in the 1930s didn't contain any references to the quilt-code.


Railroad Quilt Block However, since slaves were forbidden to learn to read, this would be a concise, pictorial method of conveying advice and directions, and since quilts were used daily it seems unlikely that these quilts would have survived to tell the tale.



It is said that abolitionists and free blacks along the route of the Underground Railroad would hang these code quilts on wash lines, from windows or porch rails as an inconspicuous way to keep the travelers informed.

It's difficult to separate fiction and lore from fact, but regardless of your take on the theory, these quilt blocks create a charming and heartwarming quilt top that pays tribute to those who struggled to make a free life for themselves and their families.
Jacob's Ladder - The angled path could be used to indicate which way to go by the quilt's position.

Monkey Wrench - It is time to collect and organize for the trip. Tools, food, any money the slaves possessed should be secured.

Wagon Wheel - This symbol's message was to pack up those possessions they had been collecting and get ready for the trip.

Carpenter's Wheel - The carpenter in this case was Jesus. This block, much like the song 'Swing Low Sweet Chariot,' was a signal to follow directions and travel north to Ohio.

Bear Paw - A bear will travel to food and water, so this block advises the slaves to follow literally a bear's trail through the woods to find something to eat and drink.

Basket - Food and provisions were always in short supply, and abolitionists would hang this quilt in view to indicate that food and tools were available to those who were in need.

Crossroads - The crossroads were towns and cities where the travelers could find safety and protection. On the shores of Lake Erie, Cleveland was the main crossroad with a number of overland trails that all came together there. From there water routes to Canada took the slaves to freedom.

Log Cabin - The cabin could mean several things. A red center block represented the hearth of the cabin. A black block meant the house from which it hung was a safe house. Yellow meant to watch for a lantern light.

Shoo-Fly - If this design was seen hanging it indicated that someone would aid and temporarily give shelter to the escaping slaves.

Bow Tie - This indicated that the travelers should dress decently to avoid suspicion. During the journey, what few clothes the slaves had would become tattered and threadbare. Abolitionists and free blacks would provide fresh clothing so they could continue without discovery.

Other pattern blocks like Flying Geese, Birds in the Air, Drunkard's Path and North Star were all used as directional guides, and Sailboat was the quilt block to indicate there were ship owners and free black sailors who would be able to hide them on boats bound for Canada.

Image of all the blocks made into a wall hanging.