Quilt Pattern Glossary – Codes to Freedom

Black and White Quilt Codes

Discover the background of some of these quilt codes.

wagon_wheel  Wagon Wheel/Carpenter’s Wheel

This was a signal to the slaves to pack the items that were needed for travel by wagon or that could be used while traveling. It could also mean to pack the provisions necessary for survival, as if packing a wagon for a long journey, or to actually load the wagon in preparation for escape. Some records indicate that this symbol meant a wagon with compartments in which slaves could hide.

crossroad  Crossroads

This was a symbol referring to Cleveland, Ohio, which was the main crossroads, with several routes to freedom. On a less literal level, the term “crossroads” also means reaching a turning point in one’s life, where one must make a choice and then carry on.

bear_paw  Bear’s Paw

This code meant to follow a mountain trail, out of view, and then follow an actual bear’s trail, which would lead to water and food.

bowtie  Bowtie

This was a symbol indicating that it was necessary to travel in disguise or to change from the clothing of a slave to that of a person of higher status.

shoofly  Shoofly

This was a symbol that identified a person who could guide slaves and help them escape along the Underground Railroad.

blocks_boxes  Tumbling Blocks or Boxes

This was a symbol indicating that it was time for slaves to pack up and go because a conductor was in the area.

broken_dishes  Broken Dishes

This symbol indicated broken crockery at some future landmark.

britches  Britches

This symbol indicated that the escaping slave should dress as a free person.

log_cabin  Log Cabin

This symbol was used in a quilt or drawn on the ground to indicate that it was necessary to seek shelter. It also meant that a person was safe to speak with. Some sources even say it indicated a safe house along the Underground Railroad.

rose_wreath  Rose Wreath

This symbol indicated that someone had died on the journey. It was an African tradition to leave floral wreaths on graves.

double ring  Double Wedding Ring

This pattern did not exist until after the American Civil War. However, the Double Irish Chain pattern did exist and symbolized the chains of slavery. When a slave saw this quilt pattern displayed, it meant that the shackles of slavery could be removed. When marrying, slaves did not exchange wedding rings; they “jumped the broom.”

flyinggeese_sm  Flying Geese

This was a signal to follow the direction of the flying geese as they migrated north in the spring. Most slaves escaped during the spring, and the flying geese could be used as a guide to find water, food and places to rest. The quilt maker had flexibility with this pattern as it could be used in any quilt. It could also be used as a compass where several patterns are used together.

north_star_sm  North Star

This was a signal with two messages: one to prepare to escape and the other to follow the North Star to freedom in Canada. North was the direction of traffic on the Underground Railroad. This signal was often used in conjunction with the song “Follow the Drinking Gourd,” which contains a reference to the Big Dipper constellation. Two of the stars in the Big Dipper line up with the North Star.

monkey_wrench_sm  Monkey Wrench

This was a signal to fleeing slaves to gather all the tools required for their journey: physical, mental and spiritual.

sail_boat_sm  Sailboat

This was a signal that either a body of water was nearby or boats were available.

drunkardpath_sm  Drunkard’s Path

This was a warning signal to take a zigzag route to elude pursuing slave hunters and their hounds. A slave travelling south, for example, would not be suspected of escaping.

dresden_wheel_sm  Dresden Wheel

Records indicate that the Dresden Wheel quilt pattern did not emerge until the 1920s.


Learn about the Underground Railway