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Follow the
Drinking Gourd
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Follow the Drinking Gourd

The Big Dipper was called The Drinking Gourd Escaping slaves had to find their way north. Northern states such as New York and Massachusetts had strong abolitionist societies and benevolent groups — both black and white — that would help escaping slaves. The slaves' final goal was Canada, north of the U.S. border. Slavery was not permitted there, and American laws that allowed people to capture runaway slaves had no effect.

People trying to escape slavery had many clues they could rely on to find out where "north" actually was. They knew moss usually grew on the north sides of trees. They also observed that migrating birds flew north in the summer.

What are some other ways escaping slaves could determine where “north” was?

One of the best clues they could use to find north was to locate the North Star. The North Star is also called Polaris. Unlike other stars, it never changes position. It always points to the north.

People have always used a group of stars to help them find the North Star. They have called this group of stars many names, depending on how they saw the “picture” created by the stars. Sometimes people thought the group looked like a Big Bear. In fact, the Latin name for this star group was Ursa Major, or Big Bear.

At other times, people thought the group of stars looked like a dipper — with a cup that had a very long handle. Slaves knew this group of stars as the Drinking Gourd. They sometimes used hollowed-out gourds to dip and drink water. The gourds looked just like long-handled cups. Two stars on the cup’s edge always point to the North Star. By finding the “drinking gourd” in the sky, people traveling at night could always find the North Star.

Many escaping slaves — including Harriet Tubman, James Pennington, and Josiah Henson — may have “followed the Drinking Gourd” to freedom.  Today, many people know of a song called “Follow the Drinking Gourd.” It talks about people escaping slavery by following clues to go north to freedom.  The song is a combination of old ideas and new words by many musicians.

Look at the Words of the Song »

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