A Chapter In U.S. History Often Ignored: The Flight Of Runaway Slaves To México

Roseann Bacha-Garza (left), a borderlands historian, stands with Olga Webber-Vasques at the grave of the latter’s great-great-grandfather, the abolitionist John Ferdinand Webber, in the family cemetery.


In a forgotten cemetery on the edge of Texas in the Río Grande delta, Olga Webber-Vasques says she’s proud of her family’s legacy — even if she only just learned the full story.

Turns out her great-great-grandparents, who are buried there, were agents in the little-known underground railroad that led through South Texas to México during the 1800s. Thousands of enslaved people fled plantations to make their way to the Río Grande, which became a river of deliverance.

“I don’t know why there wasn’t anything that we would’ve known as we were growing up. It amazes me to learn the underground deal — I had no idea at all,” says Webber-Vasques, 70, who recently learned the story of her forebear John Ferdinand Webber from her daughter-in-law who has researched family history.

“I’m very proud to be a Webber,” she says.

The flight of runaway slaves to México is a chapter of history that is often overlooked or ignored. As the U.S. Treasury ponders putting Harriet Tubman on the $20 bill to commemorate her role in the northbound underground railroad, new attention is being paid to this southbound route.

Alice Baumgartner, a historian at the University of Southern California, is at the forefront of a burst of recent scholarship. A number of researchers are expanding knowledge of the important role that México played in providing a refuge for enslaved people.

Alice Baumgartner, a historian at the University of Southern California, is the author of a groundbreaking new book, South to Freedom: Runaway Slaves to México and the Road to the Civil War.  Paul Luke

México represented liberty

Baumgartner’s groundbreaking new book, South to Freedom: Runaway Slaves to México and the Road to the Civil War, was published late last year. She says México in the 19th century is often regarded as “a place defined by poverty and political instability and violence” — and is rarely given credit for its role in providing a safe haven for runaway slaves.

“This history is to me most surprising because it shows us the side of México as a place that actually was contributing to global debates about slavery and freedom,” Baumgartner says.

From the 1830s up to emancipation, she estimates 3,000 to 5,000 enslaved people fled south and crossed over to free Mexican soil. That is far fewer than the estimated 30,000 to 100,000 enslaved people who crossed the Mason-Dixon line to reach free northern states and Canada.

But from the vantage of an East Texas plantation, liberty was a lot closer in México.

Enslaved sailors and stowaways from New Orleans and Galveston, Texas, jumped ship in Mexican ports. Slaves drove wagons of cotton to market in Brownsville, Texas, and then slipped across the muddy river to Matamoros, México. But their main mode of transportation was on horseback traversing the vast, feral stretches of South Texas down to the border.

“Sometimes someone would come ‘long and try to get us to run up north and be free. We used to laugh at that,” said former slave Felix Haywood, interviewed in 1937 for the federal Slave Narrative Project.

Haywood was 92 at the time, blind, white-haired and weather-beaten. He was born into slavery and as a young man tended cattle and sheep for ranchers around San Antonio.

Former slave Felix Haywood, 92 years old when he was photographed in San Antonio in 1937, told an interviewer, “All we had to do was to walk, but walk south, and we’d be free as soon as we crossed the Río Grande.”  Library of Congress

“There wasn’t no reason to run up north,” he continued in the interview. “All we had to do was to walk, but walk south, and we’d be free as soon as we crossed the Río Grande. In México, you could be free. They didn’t care what color you was — black, white, yellow or blue. Hundreds of slaves did go to México and got on all right.”

Pathways to get to the Río Grande

While the northbound underground railroad depended on a network of people who sheltered and aided fugitive slaves, the southern route was more informal.

“We didn’t have a conductor like a Harriet Tubman, and we didn’t have a certain station like they did in Philadelphia where they could live and make some money,” says Roseann Bacha-Garza, a borderlands historian at the University of Texas Río Grande Valley and one of the few experts on the southern route to freedom.

“What we did have down here were pathways that people could follow to get to the Río Grande.”

There were, however, abolitionists on the border who could be counted on to help Black people escape the southwestern extreme of the slave South.

In the Webber Cemetery lie the remains of John Webber and his wife, Silvia Hector Webber. The cemetery is situated just north of the twisting Río Grande, near the town of Donna, Texas.

Webber was a white settler new to Texas who fell in love with Hector, an enslaved woman. They had three children together, and he bought their freedom from his business partner. They homesteaded in the hamlet that now bears his name — Webberville, east of Austin.

But Texas was still a slave state. And the suffocating racial codes of antebellum Texas eventually drove the family away. They moved to the Río Grande Valley, where they bought a ranch just downstream from another interracial abolitionist family — Nathaniel Jackson and his African American wife, Matilda Hicks Jackson.

Both the Webbers and the Jacksons were well-known in the clandestine grapevine of runaways.

“They knew they were sympathetic to their cause,” Bacha-Garza says. “The families had their own licensed ferry landings on their properties, which made it very easy for them to shepherd these runaway slaves across the river into free México.”

The breakneck flight from an East Texas cotton plantation to the border was a perilous journey. Runaway slaves had to survive the Nueces Strip, the 160-mile expanse between the Nueces River and the Río Grande. It’s the same treacherous ranchland where today immigration agents find the scattered bones of unauthorized migrants who perished on the trek north.

“It’s a dry, parched landscape. There’s not many trees. No matter what time of year, it is hot, hot, hot,” Bacha-Garza says. “No running streams, snakes, scorpions. It was not an easy trip, but it was a doable trip.”

Kyle Ainsworth, project director of the Texas Runaway Slave Project, searches for notices about fugitive slaves in 19th-century Texas newspapers. His project is housed at the East Texas Research Center at Stephen F. Austin State University.  John Burnett/NPR

Back then, the borderlands were different from the rest of slave-holding Texas. A white man, his Black wife and their children could live in peace.

“Along the river, you don’t see the deeply ingrained racism because the river has been home to a mixture of people — mestizos, mulattoes,” says Francisco Guajardo, CEO of the Museum of South Texas History in Edinburg. “The river is a place of tolerance, believe it or not. The racial codes were not enforced down here because there was nobody to enforce them.”

Most fugitive slaves in Texas did run south — a fact known, in part, through the painstaking work being done by the Texas Runaway Slave Project, housed at Stephen F. Austin State University in Nacogdoches. Researchers looked through nearly 19,000 editions of Texas newspapers from the 1840s through the 1860s.

“And it’s from this research that we’ve been able to find so much about runaway slaves escaping to México,” says project director Kyle Ainsworth.

On his computer, he reads an item in the Galveston Weekly News from May 11, 1858. “$25 Reward. Ran away on the 19th of April, from W.T. Stevens’ plantation … a Mulatto Boy, named Tom, about 28 years old. … Was raised in Milam county, Texas … and he is supposed to be there or on his way to México.”

Researchers are learning about the flight of enslaved people to México by unearthing notices like this one that appeared in the Galveston Weekly News in 1858.  East Texas Digital Archives/Stephen F. Austin State University

México began to gradually abolish slavery soon after it declared independence from Spain in 1821. The Mexican Congress fully outlawed slavery in 1837, well before the United States did so with the 13th Amendment in 1865.

Texas won its independence from México in 1836 and eventually joined the U.S. as a slave state. México lost again in the Mexican-American War, and the Río Grande became the southern boundary of the United States.

Baumgartner says México’s abolition of slavery exerted a gravitational pull on enslaved people in Texas, Louisiana and Mississippi as King Cotton was expanding.

So while México lost huge expanses of its territory in the wars, she says its anti-slavery position gave it a sort of “moral capital.

“México was much less powerful than the United States, but anti-slavery gave it a way to find victory in defeat. The United States being this aggressive, slave-holding conquering nation and México as this country that could actually stand upright before the civilized world for its anti-slavery positions.”

México did have a system of forced labor even after it abolished slavery. Hacienda owners depended on debt peonage to keep their workers in bondage, and some considered that a form of slavery.

But many Mexicans were sympathetic to fugitive slaves from Texas and the United States, according to María Hammack, a doctoral candidate at the University of Texas at Austin.

In fact, Mexicans would often put up a fight against vigilantes and bounty hunters from Texas looking for escaped slaves who had crossed over the river to free Mexican soil.

“Mexican authorities at times would help the now-free men and women in México from being taken and returned back to the United States,” says Hammack, who is writing her dissertation on the Webber family and how fugitive slaves gained freedom in México.

Moreover, Mexican laborers working in Texas befriended slaves and acted as guides to help them escape south. This happened so often that enslavers came to distrust any Mexican.

“Under Texas law, Mexicans and enslaved persons were not allowed to be found together or to collaborate or even speak to each other,” Hammack says.

She says that when she was growing up in Los Mochis in the state of Sinaloa, México, she never learned about the outsize role that her country played in Texas slavery.

María Hammack, a doctoral candidate at the University of Texas at Austin, has unearthed the story of Silvia Hector Webber, an enslaved woman who became an abolitionist in the Texas-México borderlands.  John Burnett/NPR

“I didn’t know that México was a safe haven for individuals to find freedom in the 19th century.”

It wasn’t until a couple of years ago that Texas changed the way students learn about the Civil War. They’re now taught that slavery did play a central role in the war.

But slave-holding was also a driving force in the Texas Revolution, and historians note that this is still downplayed in celebrations of Texas Independence Day. On Tuesday, the state marks 185 years since declaring independence from México.

Historians point out that some enslaved people saw Mexican troops as their liberators and that slaves fled to the ranks of the retreating Mexican army, hoping to make it to free México, after the decisive Battle of San Jacinto, near present-day Houston.

Educators in Texas may be eager to include the southbound underground railroad into their classrooms, if Alaine Hutson is a barometer. She’s a history professor at Huston-Tillotson University, a historically Black college in Austin.

While Hutson says she knew México had outlawed slavery before the U.S. did, she did not know the full history of the southbound route to freedom.

She says this new material fits into a theme she always emphasizes with her students — that African Americans throughout history have been architects of their own liberation, like the former slave turned abolitionist Silvia Hector Webber.

“African Americans during slavery, after slavery, during Reconstruction, during Jim Crow and after Jim Crow, and some would say into the new Jim Crow, have always tried to decide as much about our fate as possible,” Hutson says.

Instead Of Relying On Abolitionist Networks Of The North, Many Slaves Escaped To México Along Different Paths

After México first attempted to abolish slavery in 1829, a growing number of enslaved people fled across the Río Grande. This map shows approximate routes of escape in the Texas-México borderlands and via the Gulf of México between 1836 – after Texas gained independence from México – and 1861.
Source: Thomas Mareite, PhD   Credit: Zach Levitt/NPR

“And so it was nice to see that African Americans in Texas had the opportunity to help people get away to México. And so Silvia and her family were doing that here in Texas.”

Hutson began teaching this history to her African American studies class at Huston-Tillotson this year. During a recent Zoom class, she asked her students to reflect on it.

“The thing that really caught my eye was that African Americans were going to another country and actually treated better, knowing we had freedoms in México that we didn’t have in the United States,” says Duntavian Thomas, a 24-year-old kinesiology major from Nacogdoches. “As soon as African Americans touched down on Mexican soil, we were free.”

Leave a Reply