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State historical marker for Underground Railroad activity in Harrisburg's Tanner Alley neighborhood, located at Walnut Street near Fourth.

to seek
freedom...

the Underground Railroad
in Central Pennsylvania

 

 

UGRR markings?

 

Possible Underground Railroad
Markings discovered in
Chester County

 

Below are two pictures of markings discovered during the renovation of a circa-1803 farmhouse in Chester County.  The owner, upon the advice of a friend with some knowledge of nineteenth century culture who suggested that they may be in some way related to Underground Railroad activity, sent pictures of the markings to us for help.  We have examined the pictures and are not sure what they represent, but we are intrigued by them, and by certain clues from the words.

Click for a large image 120kbClick for a large image 149kb

Please click the images above for large versions.

 

Some intriguing clues:
"Fila"

 

The sentence written below the design says "Fila bite the people."  There is a small mark between the words "Fila" and "bite," but it does not appear to be either a single letter or a small word.  The writer seems to have taken care not to write over the gutter between the boards, but has spaced the words carefully around the gutter, with the exception of the final letter of the word "people."  From the overall composition, it also appears that the sentence was added after the looping design was drawn.

We believe that the work "Fila" refers to the canine breed Fila Brasileiro (Brazilian Mastiff), a fierce and fearless breed of dog first bred in Brazil. It was used in that country to guard livestock, hunt jaguars, jungle warfare, guard plantations, and to track and capture fugitive slaves. Fila Brasilieiro is a mix of bloodhound and English bulldog, by some accounts, and is a very large and powerful animal.

Filas are not native to the United States and are even today quite rare here because of their temperament. They were only bred in this country recently (within the last twenty years) and even today most breeding stock comes from Brazil. Filas are very loyal to family, but have an intense distrust of strangers, and will bite and attack. Filas are even known to keep farmhands from entering farms in Brazil. For these reasons it is very unlikely that a Fila was a "farm dog" on this Chester County farm.

However it is well documented that slave owners in the United States used dogs to track and capture runaway slaves. The bloodhound was the most frequently used dog, not only because of its excellent tracking ability, but because it would attack and bite the slaves when it captured them. This may seem contrary to common sense, as we would think a slave holder would not want to harm his property, but history shows us that quite the opposite is true. Slaves captured after running away were usually given brutal punishments, including beatings, brandings, maiming, and whippings. It seems that slave holders considered this the cost of making an example of runaway slaves.  The Fila, though, was trained to hold its prey without seriously harming it, thus making it a better choice than bloodhounds for professional slave-trackers-- men who made their living tracking and capturing slaves.

There existed, in the south, agencies that specialized in "negro dogs," or dogs specially trained to hunt fugitive slaves. These dogs were sold to slave holders and slave-trackers.  While we know that these breeders did not breed Filas, it is possible that they imported some of these dogs for sale to their clients. Filas are known to have existed, as imported dogs belonging to the upper class, in Great Britain during this period. Given the close relationship between southern planters and British society, and the business relationship with Brazilian planters, it is not unlikely that the Fila could have made an appearance on southern plantations. Remember that Brazil was the destination of choice for southerners who fled the south with their slaves after the surrender of the Confederacy in 1865.  Could this word, therefore, refer to an encounter with a Fila used as a tracking dog?

Next page

 

some links to Fila Brasileiro
Internet sites

Photographs of Filas and stories from owners

A U.S. site that also mentions the use of Filas to hunt slaves

Was the "Hound of the Baskervilles" a Fila?
Interesting essay that examines the possibility that this fictional hound was a Fila or mastiff/bloodhound/bulldog cross.  It also looks at the use of such dogs for slave-hunting.

 

Your comments

We would like to obtain additional information regarding these markings, to prove or disprove their significance to Underground Railroad history.

If you have information, comments or observations that you think are useful in helping to identify the markings, please email your comments to .

 

Documentation of "Negro-Dogs"
and the breeding of dogs for 
slave-hunting in the U.S.

Blassingame, John W., editor.  Slave Testimony.  Baton Rouge:  Louisiana State University Press, 1977, p. 222.  (On slave catchers:  "This young man had obtained the honourable epithet of the 'Niggerhunter,' from his success in tracking the poor runaways, and was often requested to undertake the recapture by neighbouring planters, for which purpose he frequently employed blood-hounds."  The text elsewhere makes numerous references to bloodhounds and bulldogs used in tracking slaves.)

Chesson, F. W.  Secret Wires, Grounded Connections.  Internet document.  http://pages.cthome.net/fwc/POW.HTM  Accessed December 8, 2002.  (Mentions the use of "Negro Dogs" to track Blacks attached to a Union telegraph "wiretapping" party during the Civil War.)

Franklin, John Hope and Loren Schweninger.  Runaway Slaves: Rebels on the Plantation.  New York:  Oxford University Press, 1999. p. 160-164. (Franklin does not mention Filas by name, but notes "presidential candidate Zachary Taylor imported dogs from the Caribbean trained to chase slaves.  the dogs were fierce hunters."  In South Carolina, Franklin documents a man named Simpson who owned "an uncommon and extraordinary dog for trailing."

Frederick Douglass Paper.  Rochester, N.Y., March 11, 1853. ("NEGRO DOGS. - The undersigned would respectfully inform the citizens of Ouachita and adjacent parishes, that he has located about 2 1-2 miles east of John White's, on the road leading from Monroe to Bastrop, and that he has a fine pack of dogs for catching negroes. Persons wishing negroes caught will do well to give him a call. He can always be found at his stand when not engaged in hunting, and even then information of his whereabouts can always be had of some one on the premises. TERMS - Five dollars per day and found, when there is no track pointed out. When the track is shown, twenty-five dollars will be charged for catching the negro. M.C. GOFF.
MONROE, La., Feb. 17, 1852.") From Accessible Archives, at www.accessible.com. There are several similar advertisements in the archives.

Library of Congress.  A. Harry Williams Interview.  Internet document.  http://memory.loc.gov/mss/wpalh3/37/3706/37060203.htm (link no longer active), Accessed December 8, 2002.  ("One of his neighbors, Henry Williams owned a few negroes. Cox and Williams trained the dogs by having them run one of these negroes.")  The Slave Narratives are accessible by clicking here.

San Jose State University.  The Diary of Bennet H. Barrow, Louisiana Slaveowner.  Internet document.  http://www.sjsu.edu/faculty/watkins/barrow.htm Accessed December 8, 2002.  (Numerous references to "Negro Hunters" arriving with "Negro Dogs" to trail two runaway slaves.)

Born in Slavery: Slave Narratives from the Federal Writers' Project, 1936-1938  Library of Congress, Manuscript Division.
Maryland Narratives, Volume VIII
Page Harris, ex-slave, typewritten narrative recalls the breeding and training of Negro-tracking dogs in Maryland--two images:
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