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 Haunted by Waters 

Seeking Freedom Through Maritime Means

Gulf Stream

Haunted by Waters: Seeking Freedom Through Maritime Means focuses on enslaved persons who sought to free themselves through rivers, across oceans, or into swamps. Too often, the learning and teaching of the Underground Railroad during the Antebellum South focuses on land. The term, “Underground Railroad,” does not suit this project because it implies unintentionally the terra firma side of the UGRR. This project emphasizes the maritime side of the Underground Railroad. Most enslaved persons that were successful in arriving in free territory did so by maritime means or as Frederick Douglass expressed,

“I will take to the water. This very bay shall yet bear me into freedom.”  

This website is for teachers and students to learn, teach about those who sought freedom through maritime means.


The Inspiration

Dismal Freedom.png

As “eventually, all things merge into one, and a river runs through it,” the Haunted by Waters: Seeking Freedom Through Maritime Means project’s foundation flows from recent scholarship on the nautical paths used by freedom seekers who sought deliverance from slavery. Two recent books, Timothy Walker’s Sailing to Freedom: Maritime Dimensions of the Underground Railroad and J. Brent Morris’ Dismal Freedom: A History of the Maroons of the Great Dismal Swamp are the inspiration of this project. In November of 2021, David Blight and Michelle Zacks of Yale’s Gilder Lehrman Center for the Study of Slavery, Resistance, and Abolition hosted GLC@Lunch podcast where they interviewed Timothy Walker on his recently published book, Sailing to Freedom: Maritime Dimensions of the Underground Railroad. His book explores the intersection of “two distinct historical spheres—American slavery and maritime experience... that enslaved people frequently used waterborne means to escape to freedom."


In the summer of 2022, J. Brent Morris published Dismal Freedom: A History of the Maroons of the Great Dismal Swamp which explored “people who had emancipated themselves from enslavement and settled beyond the reach of enslavers—established new lives of freedom in a landscape deemed worthless and inaccessible by whites.” Morris honors the courage of the people  that escaped into the wet and dangerous environment of the swamp noting, “the worst day of Dismal freedom was better than the best day in chains.”

Other Books Used in This Website

Winslow Homer

Most of the art pieces within the Haunted by Waters: Seeking Freedom Through Maritime Means project are in the public domain and are painted by Winslow Homer including his painting to the left, Taking Sunflower to the Teacher. The piece of art that anchors this project is Winslow Homer’s The Gulf Stream. This painting hangs in the American Wing of the Metropolitan Museum of Art and is only twenty-eight inches by forty-nine inches. The first time the painting went on display in 1900 it, “aroused anxious and conflicting emotions. Indeed, despite the prominence of its creator, the work went unsold for more than six years.” Stephen Crane penned an untitled poem on the painting’s theme of universal indifference to mankind’s precarious condition:

A man said to the universe:

“Sir, I exist!”

“However,” replied the universe, “The fact has not created in me

A sense of obligation.”

Homer Taking Sunflower to Teacher.jpeg
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