The Little Known Underground Railroad to Mexico

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Lucy McIntire

When most people hear “underground railroad,” they assume the topic is enslaved people escaping the South, heading to Northern states where slavery had been abolished or all the way to Canada. However, there was also a lesser-known and oftentimes ignored underground railroad through Southern Texas to Mexico.

While there were only about 3,000 to 5,000 enslaved people that fled to Mexico for safety compared to the estimated 30,000 to 100,000 that escaped via the route north, this underground railroad is still very important and significant. The reality of enslaved people in the deep South trying to escape by running north, especially in parts of Texas, was unrealistic due to the distance, enlarging the odds of getting caught fleeing.

Mexico had abolished slavery while Texas was part of the country in 1829. This was one factor that led to people fighting in the Texas Revolution, and when the Republic of Texas was formed in 1836, slavery was made legal once more and continued to be so when Texas became a US state in 1845.

For the brief period in which slavery was outlawed when Texas was part of Mexico, many wanted land for “colonies” for refugees including escaped enslaved people. However, when Mexico became independent, the hopes of this happening vanished. Then, in 1852, the Mexican government gave land to Seminole groups, which included runaway enslaved people.

Enslaved people from southern states escaped to Mexico, and slaveholders were aware; they attempted to get Mexico to sign a treaty much like that of the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850, which required slaves who had escaped to free states to be returned to slaveholders. However, Mexico refused this, and some slaveholders hired slave catchers to illegally kidnap and return escapees. Many Mexicans would aid escapees, being sympathetic to them.

Many enslaved people escaped to Mexico on their own, without aid from others. It is difficult to discern how organized the underground railroad to the South was, and how many would help escapees or if they were all on their own. There is evidence that tejanos, or people from Mexico living in Texas, helped as did some Northern abolitionists who travelled to Mexico.