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The Underground Railroad to the North was salvation for many US slaves before the Civil War. But during the same decades, thousands of people in the south-central United States escaped slavery not by heading north but by crossing the southern border into Mexico.

In South to Freedom historian Alice Baumgartner tells the story of Mexico’s rise as an antislavery republic and a promised land for enslaved people in North America. She describes how Mexico’s abolition of slavery challenged US institutions and helped to set the international stage for the US Civil War. In 1837, shortly after Texas rebelled against Mexican rule, Mexico’s Congress formally abolished slavery, and enslaved people began to head south. Some were helped by free blacks, ship captains, Mexicans, Germans, gamblers, preachers, mail riders, and other “lurking scoundrels,” but most escaped by their own ingenuity — with stolen rifles, forged slave passes, and, in one instance, a wig made from horsehair and pitch. As they fled across the Rio Grande, and the US government failed to secure their return, their owners began to suspect an international conspiracy against the “peculiar institution.” Meanwhile, Northern Congressmen balked at reestablishing slavery in the Southwestern territories taken from Mexico after the Mexican-American War. Feeling increasingly embattled, slavers in Texas and Louisiana came to believe that their interests would best be protected outside the union. With the Southern slave regime under pressure from both the north and south, the conditions were in place for the coming of the US Civil War.

Today, our attention is fixed on people seeking opportunity by moving north across our southern border, but South to Freedom reveals what happened when the reverse was true: when American slaves fled “the land of the free” for freedom in Mexico.