Codes & Hiding places


Fugitives hid in wagons under hay or produce.

To keep secrecy within the Underground Network, slaves and conductors used codes for communication.  The postal service served as a manageable, reliable method to converse about the delivery of “packages” or fugitives.  Activists wrote letters to Northern friends to prepare them for the arrival of fugitives.  John C. Long of Chillicothe, Ohio received letters from his brother who asked for forged freedom papers.[1]  Many fugitives wrote to loved ones and told them of their safety or passed along messages.  In August 1841, a fugitive wrote to his wife still enslaved, that black boatmen would lead her and her friends to the abolitionists.[2]


rankin house 20th c. OHS.jpg

John Rankin home, Ripley, Ohio.

When fugitive and conductors met prearranged signals allowed for easy recognition.  Bird calls, ribbons tied to trees, and lanterns in windows were common signals.[3]  To signal the arrival of a fugitive, conductors announced, “friend of a friend”, taken from the Quaker religion Friends of Society.[4]  The most famous signal belonged to Reverend John Rankin of Ripley, Ohio.  Rankin’s house sat atop a hill and a lantern guided thousands of fugitives who crossed into Ohio.  Arnold Gragston piloted fugitive slaves across the Ohio River to the Rankin house for many years.  When Gragston met the fugitive in the dark, he asked, “What you say?”  The fugitive replied, “Menare.”[5]


hiding place 408 e. 6th street cincy OHS owner.jpg

Hiding place at 408 E. 6th Street, Cincinnatti

Hiding places for fugitives offered short term shelter before they continued their journey north.  Floor boards, secret rooms, behind cupboards, and barns hid fugitives as they awaited transportation to the next town.  Wagons with hidden compartments underneath hay or produce transported slaves.  Several examples exist of slaves shipping themselves in boxes through the railroad.  In 1862 an Indiana Army Regiment hid a fugitive in a box of clothing and shipped him across river.  Once the box was unloaded the fugitive kicked his way out.[6]

[1] Blaine Hudson, "Crossign the Dark Line," Filson Club Quarterly 75, no. 1 (2001) 33.

[2] Joe William Trotter, River Jordan: African AMerican Urban Life in the Ohio Valley, (Lexington: The University Press of Kentucky, 1998), 45.

[3] Blaine Hudson, Fugitive Slaves and The Underground Railroad in the Kentucky Borderland, (Jefferson: McFarland & Co., 2002), 64.

[4] "From Slavery to Freedom," The National Underground Railroad Freedom Center, 50 East Freedom Way
Cincinnati, Ohio 45202.

[5] Arnold Gragston Interview. Federal Writers Projects. (accessed November 17, 2012.)

[6] Peters, Pamela. The Underground Railroad in Floyd County, Indiana. Jefferson : McFarland & Co., 2001 97.

Codes & Hiding places