Abolition from Below: On the Underground Railroad to México

By María Esther HammackNovember 24, 2020

Abolition from Below: On the Underground Railroad to México

South to Freedom by Alice L. Baumgartner

FRANCISCO DUPUIS, an African American man, fled the United States for Mexico and petitioned the federal government there for citizenship in 1850, arguing that his many years of service and loyalty made him worthy. Witness accounts and evidence that he had fought in the artillery unit of the Mexican army that defended Tampico during the Mexican-American War accompanied his application. He was issued a carta de naturalización (naturalization letter) signed by the president of Mexico shortly thereafter.

Alice L. Baumgartner’s South to Freedom: Runaway Slaves to Mexico and the Road to the Civil War presents little-known, but astounding narratives of Black Americans such as Dupuis who claimed freedom in Mexico in the antebellum period. She argues that fugitives from slavery who fled to Mexico threatened American slavery, igniting the sectional crisis that led to the overturning of the Missouri Compromise and the birth of the Republican Party. “The US drive to extend slavery to the Pacific had cost Mexico half of its territory,” the author adds, and it was this land that had kept the sectional crises at bay — crises later unleashed as the United States seized territory from Mexico where slavery was already abolished.

Mexico abolished slavery more than three decades before the United States and had become the closest “land of the free” for enslaved Americans, even more inviting than the North. Baumgartner’s work centers on Black flight across the Texas borderlands and the Gulf of Mexico, specifically in the period between the Texas Revolution and US emancipation. It traces the ways members of the Mexican government committed themselves to not only “putting the ‘peculiar institution’ on the path to ultimate extinction,” but also passing “laws that entitled enslaved people who escaped” to Mexico to liberty, legal protections, and even pathways to citizenship.

By the 1860s, Mexico was still actively fighting to stop the further expansion of chattel slavery as it had after the Texas Revolution and the Mexican-American War. Mexico openly supported the antislavery Republican Party in the United States and they sent Matias Romero, its chargé d’affaires, to Illinois immediately after Lincoln’s victory to convince him to stand with Mexico against the “egotistical and antihumanitarian” principles that had not only shrunk Mexico’s vast territory, but endangered the Union and both countries’ shared “principles of liberty and progress.” But Lincoln initially did not heed Romero’s request and instead considered the best way to save the Union was to avoid the issue of slavery altogether. Lincoln thought the war would be brief, even when Romero predicted the opposite, but when the Emancipation Proclamation was finally issued, Mexico celebrated it as a victory and as a signal that both countries were “at last fighting for the common ‘glorious cause of liberty and self government.’”

The antislavery cause was not unique to abolitionists in the Northern United States. The Mexican government and ordinary Mexicans sheltered enslaved persons because of moral and religious views, to uphold their constitution, to fill the labor needs, and importantly because fugitives from slavery often became integral members of the communities they reached. When federal authorities failed to protect refugees, chiefly because they did not have the manpower, local Mexicans stepped in and “protected fugitive slaves as they defended any other member of their community.”

In the summer of 1850, Mathilde Hennes fled her Louisiana enslaver, William Cheney, and headed to Mexico, where she knew she could be free. She also found work in the household of a local family in Reynosa, Tamaulipas, a family who in addition to wages, offered her room and board and considered her an essential member of their household. William Cheney, however, pursued his former slave into Mexico and with the help of a slave-hunting party attempted to retrieve her. Manuel Luis del Fierro, Hennes’s employer, and his family confronted the kidnappers at gunpoint when they broke in attempting to retrieve her. Baumgartner demonstrates through Hennes’s narrative how ordinary Mexicans often risked their lives to protect fugitives from American slavery, especially when they had become regarded members of Mexican households.

South to Freedom also includes the stories of people who the Mexican government failed to protect, in spite of the existing laws established to assist escapees. The narrative of Jean Antoine is particularly striking. He fled enslavement and managed to make it to New Orleans and onto a vessel heading to Mexico, but he was caught and prevented from disembarking in the Mexican port of Campeche. Upon his forced return to New Orleans, he chose to take the ultimate act of resistance: suicide.

Readers will appreciate the descriptive prose of the 12 chapters that analyze the processes that positioned Mexico as a safe haven for Black people. This work traces not only how the country gained “moral power through the rejection of slavery,” but also the pathways that enslaved men, women, and children used in Mexico to claim freedom and citizenship. The first step was applying for naturalization through the state or federal government by proving “good conduct” and Catholic faith. The second option was military service or performing “some honest and useful industry” that benefited the nation. 

South to Freedom is a meticulously researched monograph that examines the political and diplomatic relations between Mexico and the United States to explain how Black movement south paved the road to conflicts such as the Texas Revolution, the Mexican-American War, and ultimately the Civil War. Baumgartner shows how American ministers, diplomats, and consuls consistently attempted to deliver “a death blow to Mexico’s emancipatory politics.” Mexican diplomats fought back by insisting chattel slavery be excluded from all ceded Mexican lands during the negotiations of after-conflict treaties.

Through an impressive utilization of primary sources in English, Spanish, and French from archives located in Mexico, the United States, and Great Britain, South to Freedom makes a significant contribution to borderlands history. But this research could have been elevated had it included more engagement with works written by experts on the histories of Black resistance, such as Stephanie Camp’s Closer to Freedom (2004), Jennifer Morgan’s Laboring Women (2004), Erica Armstrong Dunbar’s Never Caught (2017), and Martha Jones’s Birthright Citizens (2018), among other texts. Her work would have richly benefited from Manisha Sinha’s The Slave’s Cause (2017). Nonetheless, the author sagaciously revitalizes our understanding of the forces that led to Civil War through a transnational lens anchored at the intersection of Latin American, Mexican, and US scholarship.

Alice Baumgartner asserts that the collective story of individuals such as Francisco Dupuis, Mathilde Hennes, and Jean Antoine had strategic and political significance to “distinctively ‘American’ events.”


María Esther Hammack is a historian researching Black women freedom fighters in North America.

LARB Contributor

María Esther Hammack is a doctoral candidate at the University of Texas at Austin and a 2020–2021 Mellon/ACLS DC Fellow. She is a Mexican scholar studying US History, Black resistance, and the African Diaspora in North America. She lives in Austin, Texas.


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