Code Words

Underground Railroad | FIND Iowa
Apr 14, 2024 | 2:22

Give examples of code words and phrases used to keep the Underground Railroad a secret.

Code words and phrases were used to keep the activities of the Underground Railroad a secret.


[Abby Brown] Today we're at the Lewelling House in Salem, Iowa, with Kathy and Dave, and they are in costume as Henderson Lewelling and Elizabeth Lewelling.

(The Lewelling House is a two-story, brown, limestone house with a full front porch. It has two solid green front doors, one on each side of the gray wooden steps leading up to the porch. On the second floor, there are four windows with green shutters equally spaced across the front of the house. There are two windows with green shutters on the ground floor, one beside each of the front doors. The sign hanging from the porch roof over the steps reads “Lewelling Quaker Museum.”)

(Dave Helman is dressed in black pants and a long-sleeved white shirt with large buttons. He has on a black vest and is holding a beige hat with a short rounded top with a wide brim.)

(Cathy Helman is dressed in a long-sleeved black dress with a high collar. She has tied a yellow and white striped apron at her waist.)

In the times of the Underground Railroad, everything was a secret.

[Cathy Helman] The Quakers were able to communicate to one another, sometimes talking in code. They might be talking about freedom seekers coming out in the public, but not saying that directly. They might be talking about the wind.

[Abby] And how would that sound? They might say…

[Cathy] Has thee noticed the strong wind from the south today?

[Dave Helman] Also, everyone had dogs. And this is a small village, a pioneer village. They knew each other. The dogs all bark when there is a stranger coming into town. That stranger might be a freedom seeker. It might be a bounty hunter. But the dogs helped.

[Abby] Was the Underground Railroad actually underground?

[Cathy] No, it's not. Now the hiding place is under the kitchen floor. That's under. But the main reason for calling it underground is that it was a secret.

[Abby] Was it a railroad? Were there trains?

[Dave] It sounded like a railroad because there were routes from one house to another. Buildings such as this were stations. Henderson and Elizabeth are station masters. And there weren't really tunnels in rural Iowa, but there were thick growth, underbrush, routes along creeks and over streams and over hills that sort of became the tunnels. Also, at that time, a great new invention came to America called the steam locomotive. Big railroad engine, pile of iron snorting and making all this noise. People were fascinated by that. So the idea of calling it an underground railroad just seemed to stick. We don't know who did it first, but that's how it got its name.

[Abby] But it certainly is not underground, and it is not a train.

[Dave] That is correct.

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(Text on screen - The Coons Foundation, Pella, Gilchrist Foundation)

(Text on screen - Iowa PBS Education)