The Underground Railroad Quilt Code

Did escaping slaves fleeing from the South in the pre-Civil War era use secret codes woven into quilts to communicate with each other and guide them on their journey? That is the premise of the quilt-code theory, first popularized in a 1998 book written by Jacqueline Tobin and Raymond Dobard, Hidden in Plain View: A Secret Story of Quilts and the Underground Railroad. A National Geographic article from 2004 elaborates on the theory:
A plantation seamstress would sew a sampler quilt containing different quilt patterns. Slaves would use the sampler to memorize the code. The seamstress then sewed ten quilts, each composed of one of the code's patterns. The seamstress would hang the quilts in full view one at a time, allowing the slaves to reinforce their memory of the pattern and its associated meaning. When slaves made their escape, they used their memory of the quilts as a mnemonic device to guide them safely along their journey.
Apparently a wrench pattern meant "gather your tools and get physically and mentally prepared to escape the plantation." A bear's paw meant "head north over the Appalachian Mountains." A tumbling blocks pattern meant "pack up and go." A bow tie pattern meant "to dress up or disguise themselves."

However, many historians dispute the existence of such a code, arguing that there's little evidence it ever existed or was used. The principal evidence for it comes from oral tradition, such as the testimony of a woman named Ozella McDaniel, who was a descendant of slaves, and told the story to Tobin and Dodard. She claimed the secret had been passed down from one generation to the next, without ever being written down.

A recent article in the Omaha World-Herald summarizes some of the arguments of quilt-code skeptics:
Quilt historians believe that the quilt connection to the Underground Railroad is a myth or folktale, and may even be a hoax concocted by a woman who sold quilts.
"So many people are buying into it because it's such a great story," said Sheila Green, chairwoman of education for the Nebraska State Quilt Guild. "It is just a story."
Green said quilt historians note that some of the quilt patterns said to have been part of the "code" to guide fleeing slaves did not even exist in the 1800s. For example, the pattern known as the "bow tie" - which some say told escaping slaves to dress up or disguise themselves - was not found in print until 1956. Kathy Moore, a quilt historian who lives in Lincoln, said it is possible that someone quilted that design before 1956 but that it did not have a name.
"It's the names that tell the story," she said. "This story is a myth that borders on a hoax."
Moore also said one must consider that fugitive slaves traveled at night and wouldn't have gotten close enough to a house to see the pattern of a quilt hanging on a clothesline or porch rail.
I don't know enough about the issue to form an opinion about whether or not the quilt code was real. I've never even read Tobin and Dodard's book. However, it does remind me of a few other secret-code theories covered on the MoH, such as the hanky code (which apparently is real), and powerline codes (which probably aren't real).


Posted on Sat May 12, 2007


Wonderful story. I doubt the quilt code idea also. There isn't enough evidence to call it a theory. Not only would runaway slaves not get near a house, but I doubt that slaves were able to contact each other enough to formulate such a code. Especially one over hundreds of miles. I think someone is too used to our modern communications and didn't realize how limited long-distance communications were back then, especially for slaves.
Posted by Christopher Cole  on  Sat May 12, 2007  at  05:07 PM
Don't underestimate the ability of people to come up with and make use of a code, Christopher; it's happened many times throughout history under much more primitive conditions and tighter supervision than in the antebellum South.

Of course, just because it could be possible doesn't mean that it would be practical in this case, or that it was done. Since everybody from that time period is dead, and very few of the people who would have had anything to do with that sort of a code would have left any records about it, this is probably one of those stories that will go on forever.
Posted by Accipiter  on  Sat May 12, 2007  at  10:43 PM
Accipiter, I'm not saying they couldn't make a code. I'm saying it would have been nigh on impossible to spread the code over the distances required. When I said "formulate a code" I meant a code that was the same everywhere. I should have wrote "formulate a universal code" instead, I'm pretty sure I thought it, just didn't write it. Slaves didn't have the freedom of movement needed to get a code spread everywhere it needed to be. More likely would be that at each station they were told exactly who to see at the next station and how to get there.
Posted by Christopher Cole  on  Sat May 12, 2007  at  11:46 PM
I like the idea of using quilts in this way, although I think another problem with it is how useful such a code would have been, at least as described. I mean, if one is a runaway slave, is there a point in being told to dress up or disguise oneself? If I know enough to understand the code, I probably already have enough basic understanding to disguise myself in order to escape capture. Why would someone spend the hours necessary to quilt the bowtie pattern just to convey this?

It is easy to believe that in isolated instances all sorts of signals were used within a specific plantation or among a number of plantations that were networked among slave families. The notion of a universal quilt code does seem a stretch.

For what it is worth, the complexities of tracking some of this information down is demonstrated by the fact that, although Omaha World Herald article says that the bowtie pattern doesn't appear in print until the 1950s, a bowtie quilt supposedly dating from the 1920s was reported stolen in 2002 at the International Quilt Festival in Houston. (Cf.
Posted by Michael  on  Sun May 13, 2007  at  09:08 AM
If you've ever made a would know this would not freaking happen in a million years.
Posted by Maegan  in  Tampa, FL - USA  on  Sun May 13, 2007  at  10:28 PM
I thought the whole point of quilts is that the pattern was passed down verbally from generation to generation, and many of those who made quilts were illiterate, so it's hardly surprising that many of them didn't make it into print until the 50's. It doesn't prove they didn't exist before that time. Maybe it was a code that was used in one or two places, just not all over the network.
Posted by Nona  on  Mon May 14, 2007  at  06:20 AM
I'm skeptical, not so much because some of the quilt patterns were not published at the time as because the "quilt code" story itself doesn't seem to have been written until the 1990s. After slavery was abolished (circa 1865), there were millions of former slaves, and thousands of former escaped slaves who had been through the Undeground Railroad, still living in the U.S. for decades to come. Many of these survivors were interviewed and had their stories published as "slave narratives," and several of them eventually wrote their own stories. As late as the 1930s, a New Deal project interviewed (and made sound recordings of) a number of former slaves. If there had been a secret code sewn into quilts, somebody most likely would have mentioned it before the 1990s. There was no reason to keep the secret after slavery was abolished and the Underground Railroad ceased to exist.

The National Geographic version seems especially ludicrous, because it assumes that the slaves who wanted to escape (1) were incredibly slow learners, and (2) had lots of time and materials to make a lot of extra quilts. The first premise is clearly false, and the second probably is.
Posted by Big Gary  on  Mon May 14, 2007  at  04:39 PM
When I heard this story originally one thought struck the most practical of long is a quilt hung outside?

From after it's washed 'til it's dry or 'til it's aired out...most definately NOT overnight, or even from one day to the next.

It's not a practical form of communication.

Tramps used to leave signs for each other carved in trees and on fences to tell each other where the mean sheriff was to stay away from, or the nice house where they could get some food or work. That makes sense, permanent, semi-hidden signs.

Bedding is not a reliable or practical form of communication.
Posted by Gee...  on  Mon May 14, 2007  at  05:19 PM
Big Gary, I had forgotten about the "slave narritives" and I agree with you, the story would have gotten out long before the 1990s. I have never been around when a quilt was made, so I have no idea how long it takes but wouldn't there be spares? I believe that washing would have been an all-day job and I also believe quilts take a long time to dry. So, if there were spaes, quilts could have been hung out to dry overnight. I do remember how dark it gets away from the city lights and I wonder how someone could "read" a quilt especially if they didn't dare stay around for long.
Posted by Christopher Cole  on  Mon May 14, 2007  at  06:26 PM
No one would leave a quilt out over night...especially in the south...unless they LIKED mildew.
Posted by Gee...  on  Tue May 15, 2007  at  03:58 PM
I've researched the Code in depth for the past five years. There is not only no evidence such a system existed; several of the Code's quilt patterns are known to have originated in the 1930s, and the ancestor claimed by the Code family to have brought it from Africa "in the early 1800s" and as a married woman with children taught it to slaves was in fact born in Georgia in the mid-1850s.

With each passing year this family's claims get wackier; most recently they assert (to the surprise of Holocaust Museum historians) that European Jews used coded quilts to signal that Nazis were approaching. Clarice Boswell, who claims to have learned a "quilt code" from her grandmother (born in 1870), says that to signal they were a safe haven for fugitives, churches would hang a quilt (in a 1930s pattern) from their steeples while the bells rung at noon. The coauthor of Hidden in Plain View has suggested that one pattern told fugitives to find shelter in a bear's den. In springtime.

At last count there were 17 different "Code" variations circulating (almost excluslvely promoted by whites), all of which imply that African-American slaves were so witless that they needed to be told to, e.g. "head north".

See my website,, for more details.
Posted by Leigh Fellner  on  Sun May 27, 2007  at  09:41 AM
Leigh Fellner is absolutely right. There is not a scrap of evidence that the quilt code is real, and a great deal that it was made up by Ozella Williams to sell quilts to a gullible women's studies professor.
Posted by Lisa Evans  on  Mon Oct 15, 2007  at  08:41 PM
what does the aarow mean for the quilt?
plz let me know before the 19!! email it to me
Posted by Jordan  on  Sun Nov 18, 2007  at  08:17 PM
Neither the arrow nor any other quilt pattern "means" anything other than the quilter thought it was an attractive design. Please see my site for a full discussion of the "Quilt Code" hoax.

In October 2007 I made contact with a woman who sold quilts in the same tourist mall as did the original "Quilt Code" woman, Ozella McDaniel. She said McDaniel used to tell her "quilt code" stories to tourists, then laugh about it to the other sellers, to whom she was very open about the story being a complete fabrication.

I also learned that the "Quilt Code Museum" (really a quilt store) run by Ozella's niece in the "Underground Atlanta" shopping district has closed for lack of business. Notable is that she complained to one blogger that few of her visitors were African-American. In other words, it's white folk who have bought into this infantalizing myth (and indeed, most of the people trying to make a buck off it are also white).
Posted by Leigh Fellner  on  Mon Nov 19, 2007  at  06:48 AM
The essential requirement of track construction is a proper model design. The build is the most essenrial and so are the materials used. It is this which can avoid several rail derailment and prevent accidents.
Posted by Railroad Construction  on  Sun Jan 23, 2011  at  06:22 AM
Commenting is not available in this channel entry.