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The escaped slave who put Camden, DE on the Underground Railroad map

1857 drawing "The road to liberty; a station on the Underground Railroad" / Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, Photographs and Prints Division

Solomon Bayley, newly on the run, woke in terror to see two slave hunters walking straight toward the thicket where he’d spent the night. “I was struck with dread,” he wrote in his autobiography, “afraid to move hand or foot. I sat there and looked right at them; and thought I, here they come right towards me…Am I going to sit here until they come and lay hands on me?”

Between him and the men lay a large fallen tree that provided Bayley a hiding place. He threw himself face down, but peeked up to see that one of the slave hunters had a ‘conjuror’s stick’ that looked like a surveyor rod. The hunter followed it along, past the fallen tree and off to one side. He suddenly stopped and said “He h’ant gone this way.” Then he pointed the stick this way and that over his shoulder, till it pointed towards Bayley. “Come, let us go this way,” said the man.

As the two men advanced, the older clutching his conjuror’s stick like a divining rod and the younger carrying a large club, Bayley crouched and prayed. “What shall I do? What shall I do?”

He remembered that in the evening when he, an exhausted fugitive, lay down in the thicket to sleep, he had seen a flock of birds settle in a circle around him and had taken it to be a sign from the Lord that in this place he was protected. Now, as the slave hunters approached so close  that he looked right into their eyes, the words “Stand still and see the salvation of the Lord” rang through his mind.

Just beyond the circle the birds had made, the older man veered off and passed by Bayley. The younger man stopped, seemed to be looking at the fugitive. Then, he ran off after the older man. Solomon Bayley breathed free at last; they had not seen him.

Interior of Camden Friends Meeting House, built 1804
Interior of Camden Friends Meeting House, built 1804

Solomon Bayley was born in Kent County, DE in about 1772. Quakers set up a Meeting Society in that county’s town of Camden in 1788, and young Solomon became familiar with their newly forming abolitionist views. It makes sense that in the 1799 escape described above, he would’ve aimed to get back to Camden, a known safe haven.

“A narrative of some remarkable incidents in the life of Solomon Bayley,” one of the earliest slave narratives, published in London in 1825. The English author who shepherded the book into print, Robert Hurnard, further saw to it that Bayley’s book got wide distribution among the American abolitionist community. 

Solomon Bayley died in 1837, 12 years before a young woman by the name of Harriet Tubman made her own escape from slavery. Tubman never mentions Bayley in her ghostwritten autobiography “Harriet Tubman, the Moses of her People.” However, ghostwriter Sarah Bradford also doesn’t include any discussion of Camden. Yet in an 1897 interview, Tubman cited free black agents William and Nat Brinkley and Abraham Gibbs as her underground railroad conductors in Camden. 

Harriet Tubman was born into slavery in Dorchester County, MD, 75 miles or so from Camden, DE. Plantation owners actively suppressed slaves from learning news from the outside world. It’s entirely possible, then, that Tubman was not aware of Camden as a safe stop for escaping slaves until she encountered the Philadelphia abolitionists who helped her construct her specific underground railroad path along Delmarva.

But whether she knew it or not, Harriet Tubman is indebted to Solomon Bayley. His 1799 escape from slavery, and more importantly his widely read autobiography about how he accomplished it, firmly put one stop on the map of Delmarva’s Underground Railroad route.

"Underground Railroad," 1945 by William H. Johnson.  Smithsonian American Art Museum
“Underground Railroad,” 1945 by William H. Johnson. Smithsonian American Art Museum

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