The Underground Railroad to Mexico
Slavery of Africans is a uniquely American story in many ways and without exception; there are intriguing tales of escape to accompany this tragic stretch of history. Mexico, now a place known for sunny vacations, was a desired safe harbor for many slaves escaping from far reaches of the United States. Texas was still a part of Mexico when the Mexican government abolished slavery in 1829. Once the Republic of Texas was formed in 1836, separate from Mexico, slavery was made legal again, which stayed consistent beyond the time Texas joined the Union in 1945.
Canada was the destination for many slaves who struck out for chilly northern parts, often thwarted, sent back in miserable conditions, or to save time and money, executed by lynching or other means. Those were destinies facing slaves who attempted escape to the south, as well, but there was very safe refuge in Mexico. There is strong evidence of tejanos (Mexicans in Texas) being the conductors of this southern route of the Underground Railroad. Many historical accounts have been recorded of brave people who were of great assistance to escapees.
Matilda Hicks, herself a former slave, married Nathaniel Jackson, the son of the owner of the plantation of which Matilda was kept. As a family, Matilda and Nathaniel were known to have moved from Alabama and settled near the Rio Grande in Texas, where they helped people cross the border. There’s also evidence of a black woman and two white men who worked diligently to find homes for these southern bound refugees. A famous slave of Sam Houston, who was at the time president of the Republic of Texas, escaped to Mexico and joined the Mexican military to fight against Houston. Tom, as this slave was known, was one of the few escaped slaves where records exist of his journey, whereas few accounts were ever written down. Due to the high risk of being caught, sent back, or killed, secrecy was the order of the times. Studies verify support of slaves coming to Mexico not only from Texas, but also North Carolina, Mississippi, Louisiana, Alabama.
It’s clear that anywhere from 5,000 to 10,000 people were freed from bondage by taking the route to Mexico; due to the lack of written statistics, the true figure is likely much higher. It is certainly an indication how censuses can result in incorrect statistics.
When the Fugitive Slave Act of 1950 was enacted to return slaves from northern states to their owners, the U.S. wanted Mexico to sign a similar treaty. Mexico, with their insistence that enslaved people were free once they crossed the border, refused to agree or sign any such document.